The creators of the Guinea Pig, Pet Shop Private Eye graphic novel series reunite for their first middle grade title. In size and format similar to contemporary graphic novels along the lines of Smile, Awkward, or Real Friends, the opening scene of Katie the Catsitter gives just enough foreshadowing to let readers know this series debut offers a little something extra. As 12-year-old city girl Katie forgets her keys and breaks into her apartment by clumsily climbing through a window, interwoven panels reveal supervillain Mousetress also breaking into a building, using all the catlike skill and grace that Katie lacks. These first few pages also capture the spirit of Katie’s story: it’s refreshing, unique, and full of heart and humor.
The blending of a superhero world and contemporary urban kid life are handled deftly, as news items about the blundering hero Eastern Screech Owl appear in the background while Katie talks to bodega owner Mr. B about wishing she could go to summer camp with her best friend Bethany. Katie’s single mom has never been able to afford camp, but this year Katie is determined to earn enough money herself so she can join Bethany for one week. Unfortunately, she makes a mess of every job she attempts, from watering plants to carrying groceries. Despite her failures, Katie manages to stay positive, and this is where much of the charm of Katie the Catsitter lies: readers can’t help but root for Katie and her cheerful determination. When her upstairs neighbor Madeleine observes this trait and Katie’s gift with cranky cats, she asks her to catsit for all 217 of her cats.
Katie quickly learns these are not ordinary cats: they bring her snacks, order pizzas, and use the toilet instead of a litter box. The minute Madeleine leaves, Katie discovers what the cats are really experts at: creating chaos. Entertaining visual details in each panel show expressive cats hacking computers and playing with hand grenades, in addition to ordinary cat mischief such as destroying a couch. Just as Katie begins to think this is yet another job she’s going to fail at, the cats clean every inch of the apartment, from sewing up torn couch cushions to restocking the pantry with groceries.
Meanwhile, in the city, supervillain Mousetress keeps stealing valuables from the city’s millionaires, but each time she does, she uncovers some horrible form of animal cruelty perpetrated by the so-called victim. As the news anchor swoons over the bumbling Eastern Screech Owl, Katie is the only one smart enough to realize that Mousetress is the real hero of the day. When Mousetress is captured, Katie finally finds her own special talent: harnessing the myriad skills of the cats and organizing a master plan to break out the prisoner.
Katie’s relationships with other characters are rich and well developed. As her summer progresses and her camp savings grows, full-page illustrations of Katie’s postcards to and from Bethany at camp break up the panels, subtly revealing the girls’ interests drifting away from each other. Katie’s interactions with her mother are another strong point: they are close and supportive of each other, sharing the same quirky sense of humor (although her mom has no idea what goes on when Katie cat sits!).
Simple lines and solid, flat colors are used throughout, making it easy to catch the humorous details packed into the many panels, from the goo-goo eyes of a police officer entranced by bunnies to the subplot told mostly in pictures of a cranky neighbor wondering what happened to her couch (the cats took it, of course). Several panels are wordless, and sound effects abound. End pages are filled with individual cat portraits as well as a guide to meowing in several languages.
With enough friendship drama to appeal to fans of Smile and its ilk, Katie also offers adventure, animal activism, and a good dose of humor. This is the first volume in a planned series, and the title of the next installment, Best Friends for Never, hints that Katie’s friendship with Bethany isn’t quite done, while the final panels hint at Katie’s sidekick potential and hero adventures to come. Katie and the Catsitter is highly recommended where contemporary middle-grade graphic novels are popular (and that’s pretty much everywhere, right?).
Katie the Catsitter
By Colleen AF Venable
Art by Stephanie Yue
Penguin Random House, 2021
Publisher Age Rating: 8-12
NFNT Age Recommendation: Middle Grade (7-11)