Catalyst, by Sarah Beth Durst

Happy book birthday to Catalyst, by Sarah Beth Durst (Clarion, June 9, 2020), a must read for young fans of magical animals!

After the unfortunate skunk episode, just turned 12 year old Zoe's been forbidden to bring any more animals home.  But when she finds a little scrap of a kitten, cowering and alone, she can't resist. Pipsqueak is adorable, and Zoe promises to take care of her always and forever, and, with the a few well chosen arguments from her older brother, her parents relent, as long as she proves she's a responsible pet owner.

But then Pipsqueak begins to grow.  In just a few days, she's too big to share Zoe's bed.  In a few more, the shed outside is too small.  Zoe's afraid her now humungous kitten will set off a media firestorm if she's seen, and will be taken away to be "studied."  Not only is she huge, but she's talking (and reading!).  With the help of her friend Harrison, Zoe tries to keep Pipsqueak safe, but when it's clear that's no longer possible, the two kids and the giant kitten hatch a desperate plot.

Zoe's aunt is estranged from her family because of her fringe beliefs in the reality of magical creatures, but clearly these might not be so fringe after all!  Getting her help is hard, since she has no phone number and lives up in the White Mountains of New Hampshire....but Zoe and Harrison convince their parents they want to go to a camp up there (to which the teenage girl who keeps an eye on them will ostensibly drive them).  They won't actually be driving there; instead, they will travel on Pipsqueak's back, bounding from roof to roof till they're out of the city, and then running through the countryside (and up the cables of a ski lift!) and camping out at night.

They are joined on their journey by two other impossible animals--a rainbow hamster with butterfly wings, and a flying green dog with sharks teeth and multiple tails--both very friendly, and able to talk, like Pipsqueak.  It's an uncomfortable, and not always fun, journey, but they make it to Aunt Alecia's house....only to find that she's not home!

She's left instructions about where they should go--further into the wilderness. To keep going means their plot to keep their parents in the dark will crumble, but Zoe and Pipsqueak are willing to risk it if it means they can find a way to be together.

Pipsqueak is absolutely adorable, and the bond between her and Zoe will warm any pet-lovers heart. They were both thinking that she would become a little kitten again, and life would be normal, but that proves impossible (though the ending is happy).   And this leads to the central message of the book, that being different is not a bad thing, and that being your true self is better than trying to squash yourself into the box of being normal, which is something many kids need to hear loud and clear.  If you are a giant cat who reads and talks, is reverting to being an ordinary kitten (even if you are loved and cherished) really the best outcome?  If you are a flying rainbow hamster, find your people and soar!

There's plenty of humor, mixed some tension (mostly anxiety about Pipsqueak being caught and taken away, some about the deception of the camp cover story).  Zoe's parents are present and supportive (even when Zoe comes clean to them in the end), and Harrison is a great companion (though his carefully planned camping supplies are perhaps not the most practical ever...).  It's a totally stand alone story, though once the reason for all the magical animals showing up is revealed, there's plenty of room for more magical menagerie fun... which I would not object to at all!

So, just to reiterate--animal loving, fantasy loving 9-11 year olds need this book!

disclaimer: review copy


  1. New Sarah Beth Durst! Woot! And given how much I loved the monster in The Girl Who Could Not Dream, I feel sure I will enjoy Pipsqueak. (Great name for a giant cat!)

  2. What a fun concept for a book. And it's always good to find humor mixed in. Thanks for your review.


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