Review of the Day: Katie the Catsitter by Colleen AF Venable, ill. Stephanie Yue
It must be so comforting to be a comic loving kid these days. I remember just ten years ago when I ran a children’s book club and one of the kids would come in every week, eyes brimming with hope, asking if there were any new comics in that week. Nine times out of ten the answer was always, “Nope.” Of course there weren’t. Though Raina Telgemeier had come to prominence and Diary of a Wimpy Kid was already garnering fans, neither had hit the apex of their popularity quite yet. As a long time comics fan, I would seek out whatever graphic novels I could find for my children’s room, but somehow it just was never enough. The curse of the comic is that it can take an inordinate amount of time to make, and almost no time at all to read. But today? At long last, publishers of children’s books have gotten the message. They try to glut the market with offerings and fail because the market for comics is un-gluttable. Even so, there’s a lot of whey to separate from the curds, and for every 15 comics I see, maybe one will be memorable. Katie the Catsitter? Color that one of the few. Created by the crackerjack team of Venable and Yue, this daring duo introduces the world to small, furry New York City superheroes and the catsitter that gets caught up in the action.
What’s worse than not being able to afford summer camp? Watching your friends go instead. Katie is sad beyond words when her best friend Bethany is heading out for the summer while she’s stuck home in NYC. Determined to do something about it, Katie decides to advertise her skills at odd jobs (for a price) in her apartment complex so as earn money for at least a week of camp. Most of her hires don’t go well until nice Ms. Lang in Apartment 5B hires Katie for $30 an hour to watch her cats. A dream job? Maybe. Until you realize Ms. Lang owns 217 cats and that they all are mad geniuses at something. But Katie’s good with cats, even couch-stealing, jet engine shopping, pizza loving cats. It isn’t until she starts paying attention that Katie begins to suspect that there’s more to Ms. Lang than initially meets the eye. And it may explain why she secretly goes out every night . . .
Remember when I was telling you about that kid in my book group that kept asking for new children’s books a decade ago? You know that I was able to hand them? Hamster and Cheese, the first book in an adorable early comic series about a guinea pig in a pet store who becomes a P.I. Who created said adorable early comic series? That would be none other than the highly talented and immoderately modest Colleen AF Venable and Stephanie Yue, of course! Even back in 2010 you knew you were in the presence of some pretty keen talent. I mean, no one makes oblique Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH references in their comics (“The lee of the stone!”) without charming at least a few parents and librarians. From that moment, Venable & Yue realized they made a good team. Venable keeps the jokes coming on a regular basis, but strategizes when and where those jokes should go. Yue, meanwhile, has a gift for sight gags that serves her well. Together, this full-color beauty does a stand up and cheer job of doling out the action and the emotional beats in perfect syncopation.
This book hits its jokes hard and with pinpoint accuracy, which is a treat, but the treatment of the more serious elements is a bit more touch and go. The animal rights aspect to the story is necessary for the plot, but this book isn’t trying to convert anyone. Less effective, to my mind, was Katie’s freakout when her friend writes a late postcard and signs it “Beth” instead of “Bethany”. You get the necessity of the freakout in terms of the emotional arc of the story, but it didn’t feel earned. There was one particular aspect of Katie the Catsitter that worked far better for me. The book has a more honest and open approach to economic injustice that I usually see in titles like this. At one point, Katie and her mom have been saving up money for at least a week of camp, but when they check the price they see that without the early bird discount it carries the hefty price tag of $3,500 a week. That may strike some folks around the country as high, but for a NYC kid in 2021, it’s refreshingly honest. So often, books fudge the costs of things when they say that they’re expensive. Venable prefers to deal in straight numbers. Ms. Lang pays Katie $30 an hour for 6 hours a night, which may inspire some kids to do the math to figure out how often Katie will need to catsit to hit her funding goal. And I didn’t find Katie’s dilemma peculiar at all. In New York City, kids of different economic strata often become friends. But when push comes to shove and summer camp calls, those financial differences are brought glaringly into the light.
A word or two on the art. Yue’s style complements Venable’s tone to a tee. It’s reminiscent of Raina Telgemeier’s or Lucy Knisley’s but distinctive in its own right. Plus, and I cannot stress this enough, Yue appears to go the extra mile. I mean, there are 201 legible cats and their special skills drawn AND named at the end of this book. Considering that Ms. Lang has 217 cats in total, I half wondered as I counted whether or not Venable & Yue would go over the count. Staring at these names and cats yields some nice surprises too. My own personal favorites include Tesla, whose special skill is “giving ideas away” and Mr. Aaron Purr Sir who is good at “duels”. I’m still working out the logistics behind Paw Simon’s talent as “splitting up teams” and whether or not Izzy (“comedy historian”) is an Eddie Izzard reference. I also suspect that there may be some cat cameos from friend and family cats making their way onto those sheets, to say nothing of the occasional agent. I mean, how could you resist? 201 cats don’t write and draw themselves!
Read a lot of comics for kids and you begin to get really picky. You start relying on instincts alone to rustle up the comics that will get kids the most excited. So there’s no exact reason why I like Katie the Catsitter better than a lot of other comics on the market. It just happens to have that combination of humor, humanity, and darn good art that makes magic. For the superhero fans, the Telgemeier fans, the fans of the funny, and the kids that will devour any comic that falls within their grasp. So, y’know. Everyone.
On shelves now.
Source: Final copy sent from publisher for review.
Misc: You’ll see some original art and behind-the-scenes info in the piece Mismatched Shoes & Super Skilled Cats: 5 Fun Facts About Katie the Catsitter.
About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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