Cat Girl's Day Off, by Kimberly Pauley (Tu Books, April 2012, 336 pages, middle grade/YA)
Natalie Ng suffers from invisible middle-child syndrome in spades. Sure, she can talk to cats (she lives in fear of her high school peers finding out and tormenting her with meows), but her talent seems a paltry one compared to the lavish gifts her two sisters have, and her parents (both with impressive paranormal talents of their own) barely seem to acknowledge her existence, let alone pay any attention to her science fair projects, etc.
But Natalie's gift is about to force her into the limelight. A movie is being made at her school (a Ferris Bueller's Day Off tribute), and her two best friends are star struck. When they force her to watch a clip of a celebrity blogger in action (with pink cat and little toy dog in tow), Natalie is shocked by what the cat is screaming:
"This is not my person! Save us! Stop barking and bite her, Fergie! Do I have to do everything myself? Stop laughing, you cretins! You there, fat man, drop the camera! Help us! She'll kill us all!" (page 22)
Nat's friends take her translation of the cat's desperate plea for help seriously...and the three of them are off to downtown Chicago! Kidnapping the cat from the swanky hotel where the false blogger is staying goes fairly smoothly (they leave the dog behind--Natalie doesn't, after all, speak dog). But that's just the first step in a wild race to uncover the Dark Truths of stolen identities, kidnapping, and even attempted cat murder! And all the while, the film must go on...and classes must be attended, parents deceived, and cats smuggled to school...and Natalie's glimmer of romance with the cute boy from trig class trig class seems to be doomed. The only hope for a happy ending is for Natalie to reveal her true self--Cat Girl.
The world of the book is very much our world, except that some people have paranormal gifts; this is taken for granted, and no explanations/detailed descriptions are offered. Although I'm curious about that side of things, I think this was a wise choice--it's not the point, and would have slowed things down.
As it is, Cat Girl's Day Off is fast and funny, with the spot-on cat comments that liberally sprinkle the pages being especially entertaining. Though Natalie is a well-developed character with genuine teenager-ish concerns, and people's lives actually are in danger, it's not a book that takes itself too seriously, which makes it a very pleasant break from reality.
Note on diversity: Tu Books publishes diverse sci fi/fantasy for kids and teens, and as is apparent from Natalie's picture on the cover, she's half-Chinese. One of her two buddies is gay, and half Asian himself, and although his character doesn't go much beyond wacky best-gay-guy friend, it's nice to have this additional bit of diversity.
Note on age of reader: Cat Girl's Day Off is ostensibly YA--it's a high school book. But it is one that a middle school kid could read without blushing--no sex, and only a bit of cat-fighty violence. In fact, it's a perfect one for the eleven or twelve year old cat-loving girl whose not quite ready for the steamy romance of most YA paranormal--this, instead, is a light-hearted mystery with a paranormal premise. Then in two more years (give or take) that reader can move on to Holly Black's Curse Workers series...
(disclaimer: review copy received from the publisher)