Cattywampus, by Ash Van Otterloo

Cattywampus, by Ash Van Otterloo (middle grade, Scholastic August 2020) is the story of two girls, born to two rival magical families in a small Appalachian town, and how they find their own magical gifts. In the process they journey from distrust to hostility to unlikely allies to friends, while struggling to squelch the mob of angry zombie grannies raised from the dead along the way.

Katybird Hearn and Delpha McGill know each other in a general sort of way from school. Though both come from magical families (that have a long history of feuding), their lives are very different. Katy's family is comfortably off; Delpha and her mother are in dire financial straits, and Delpha knows more about home repair than any 6th grader should have to cope with. But both are worried about their magic; Delphia because her mother hates it, and won't pass on the family spell book, and Katybird because she is intersex, and worries she might not be enough of a real girl to inherit the family gifts. The fact that her hands are starting to glow doesn't comfort her, because that doesn't seem like magic enough.

When Delpha finds her family's spell book, and uses it unintentionally to animate an old outhouse, their lives collide. Then Katy borrows/steals the spell book to see if it can help her with her own magic, and it's war between the girls. Delpha takes the war to extraordinary levels by using another spell to animate all the dead women in the cemetery for "wise women" --aka witches. Soon many generations of Hearn and McGill grannies rise from their graves, determined to bring down the living descendants of their old enemies (which would be Katy and Delpha and their mothers....)

In order to get the feuding grannies back in the ground, the girls have to work together. Neither wants to ask for their mothers' help, so things don't go well. Fortunately, an unlikely ally, a boy both girls had previously thought of somewhat dismissively, even disparagingly, proves to have hidden powers of his own. And in the meantime, Katy's beloved pet racoon is missing, the outhouse is still alive, and the town is trying to hold a festival...Much mayhem ensues and it's touch and go before the girls figure out what they need to do together to set things right (it's a great ending, that doesn't neglect the needs and wants of the outhouse....)

I very much appreciated that one of the main characters is intersex. I can't think of any other intersex kid in a mg fantasy, and thought her character was really well done. Her body doesn't bother her except when she worries about the family magic going to girls (as the book progress, we see that it has passed just fine to Katy), and when societal expectations come into play--at one point other kids start praying for her to heal, and it bothers her tremendously.  "As if making babies was the whole point of me existing, Katy thought, grinding her teeth. Or the point of any girl, for that matter. They meant well. She'd been sweet to all of them, of course, but their unneeded pity had worn Katy's confidence to tatters for months." (p 80).

It got a tad too mayhemy for me when the zombie grannies collided with the town's festival (I prefer a single animated outhouse, and this was a particularly lovely living outhouse, to full on magical blow-ups), but I loved the way the two girls journeyed to friendship.  Recommended to anyone who likes stories of girls discovering their magic, and to fans of Natalie Lloyd, Sheila Turnage, Lisa Graff, and Ingrid Law in particular! (I think of all these as sort of small town, folksy,  kids-with-magic books).

1 comment:

  1. I read this one too and really enjoyed it. Glad you did too.


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