Please Note: I was monetarily compensated in exchange for reading and reviewing the book in question. This compensation in no way affected my opinions.
Author Ash Van Otterloo
Pages 288 Pages
Target Audience Middle Grade
Genre & Keywords Contemporary Fantasy
Publication Date August 4th 2020 by Scholastic Press
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The magical story of a hex that goes haywire, and the power of friendship to set things right!
In the town of Howler’s Hollow, conjuring magic is strictly off-limits. Only nothing makes Delpha McGill’s skin crawl more than rules. So when she finds her family’s secret book of hexes, she’s itching to use it to banish her mama’s money troubles. She just has to keep it quieter than a church mouse – not exactly Delpha’s specialty.
Trouble is, Katybird Hearn is hankering to get her hands on the spell book, too. The daughter of a rival witching family, Katy has reasons of her own for wanting to learn forbidden magic, and she’s not going to let an age-old feud or Delpha’s contrary ways stop her. But their quarrel accidentally unleashes a hex so heinous it resurrects a graveyard full of angry Hearn and McGill ancestors bent on total destruction. If Delpha and Katy want to reverse the spell in time to save everyone in the Hollow from rampaging zombies, they’ll need to mend fences and work together.
Fans of A Snicker of Magic and The Witch Boy will love this funny, folksy, fresh debut from Ash Van Otterloo that proves sometimes it takes two witches to make the strongest magic happen.
“You were made for magic. To heck with bein’ normal, whatever that is. Pers’nally, I don’t see how bein’ different makes a flying lick o’ difference. You gotta follow your own lights.”
Each a member of the formerly-feuding magical McGill and Hearn families, Delpha McGill and Katybird Hearn have a heap of witchcraft-related woes. Magic has been strictly forbidden in the McGill household after a spell gone wrong led to the death of her mother’s siblings, but Delpha longs to use her powers, even if it means doing so against her mother’s strict instruction to the contrary. (“Magic had sounded exciting. Forbidden magic had been even more tempting.”) Having been born with a pair of XY chromosomes, Katybird Hearn is intersex and androgen insensitive, and while she’s confident and comfortable with who she is (“She was impeccably, fabulously Katybird.”), Katy secretly worries that an otherwise harmless Y chromosome will prevent her from inheriting her family’s magical powers, which are passed through the matriarchal line. Katy’s concerns deepen when her powers seem to be stymied and malfunction, causing her hands to glow green and begin shooting sparks, an issue which becomes increasingly conspicuous – and painful – as the story progresses. To make matters more complicated, witchcraft is feared in the cozy town of Howler’s Hollow, Appalachia in which the girls reside, and after more than one of their spells goes awry, unlikely allies Delpha and Katy must work together to keep their powers and magical mishaps under wraps.
Ash Van Otterloo’s inclusive, creative, heartwarming middle grade debut is not to be missed under any circumstances. 2020 has been a year of unrelenting challenges and sorrow, so to read a book filled with such hope, compassion and magic (both literal and figurative) feels like the greatest gift, and one that is sure to brighten the lives of readers of all ages. Should your budget and circumstances allow, I would consider Cattywampus to be one of 2020’s must-read books.
My love for Cattywampus begins with (but certainly is not limited to) the novel’s two imperfect, courageous, thoroughly charming characters from whose perspective we experience the events of the story. To the casual observer, Delpha initially appears stern and misanthropic. It quickly becomes clear, however, that this is merely a facade meant to keep those around her at a distance and protect against vulnerability and what she perceives as inevitable heartbreak. (“If there was one thing in the world reliable as rain, it was that everybody left eventually.”) Though Delpha has tried her best to harden her heart, particularly after the recent death of her grandmother and the inexplicable and sudden abandonment of her father when she was a child, Delpha longs for connection. This can seen both in Delpha’s initial antipathy toward Katy, who has the loving familial stability Delpha has always longed for, as well as her desire to practice magic and recapture the “the old witchin’ days” her grandmother used to speak so fondly of.
Popular and charismatic Katybird Hearn is determined to leave the bad blood between the McGill and Hearn families behind, especially because she wants more than anything to ask Delpha if Delpha’s magic is acting as strangely as her own. With her hands shooting sparks and “glowing like lightning bugs”, Katy is comfortable being intersex and confident in who she is, but secretly worries a single Y chromosome will prevent her from following in her family’s magical footsteps. “Katybird was a daughter. Her heart knew that. But as she huddled in a sad ball over the sink, doubt ran circles around her mind. If I ain’t a good witch, Katy thought, does that mean I’m not a girl? Or maybe it was the other way around. Either way, things were knotted up and complicated.” Katy’s feelings are only further complicated by her recently-deceased cousin, Echo, whose own magic was a cause for concern before she died. While Katy’s family are loving and supportive, their well-intentioned attempts to reassure Katy that she might not need to worry about magic at all is anything but comforting for Katybird, who desperately wants to use her magic but worries about disappointing those she loves most should her powers never come to fruition. As the novel progresses, Katy’s story emphasizes that young readers should embrace and celebrate what makes them unique and reminds them that there is a special place in the world made just for them.
While the novel boasts many other wonderful attributes that only add to its brilliance, including swift pacing, winsome secondary characters and a natural, seemingly effortless combination of contemporary and fantasy elements, at its core Cattywampus is a thoughtful character study about two girls who will not be easily forgotten. Both Delpha and Katy are deeply human, with imperfections rooted in prior trauma and unspoken insecurities that feel tangible, relatable and true. Most importantly, Ash Van Otterloo gives young readers hope, demonstrating that asking for help and drawing on the love, support and wisdom of others means that the pain of the past need not be present in the future. What begins as a relationship rooted in animosity and distrust eventually transforms into something else entirely. Delpha is tough and driven while Katybird is sensitive and empathetic, and the girls make a great, unexpected team whose strengths and weaknesses compliment one another beautifully and offer opportunities for mutual learning and growth.
The novel’s setting is vividly rendered and nearly a character in and of itself. Ash Van Otterloo brings Appalachia to life with a cozy, folksy warmth that makes the reader long to visit the quaint, fictional town of Howler’s Hollow. The Hollow is filled with rich, dense forests and rolling hills and populated by colourful inhabitants, including the gentle and loquacious Tyler Nimble, who eventually aids Delpha and Katybird in their quest and has a secret or two of his own to share. Moreover, the author seamlessly blends the novel’s realistic setting and contemporary issues of belonging and change with imaginative creations including Celtic weredogs, resurrected witches, a pet raccoon and an anthropomorphized former outhouse.
If you know of a young reader in your life searching for a creative and inclusive alternative for Harry Potter or the perfect book to get them in the mood for Halloween, I can think of no better place to start than Ash Van Otterloo’s delightful debut, Cattywampus. This enchanting middle grade novel is sure to cast a spell on readers of all ages.
As an extra, exciting bonus, Ash Van Otterloo has been kind enough to offer two lucky winners the opportunity to win one of two copies of Cattywampus! One winner will be chosen from the U.S. and one will be chosen internationally. The winners will be randomly chosen by Rafflecopter at the conclusion of this contest, which will run from September 23 – October 7th.