Just before her twelfth birthday, Zoe finds an impossibly small, breathtakingly cute kitten hiding behind her parents’ garage. Having been forbidden from bringing home any more animal rescues — and there have been many — the obvious course of action is for Zoe to sneak the kitten into her bedroom, text photos to her best friend Harrison, and go eat cake. The next day, she tells her family about the new arrival (christened Pipsqueak) and, to her great joy, she’s finally allowed to keep this one. After all, Zoe’s beloved brother Alex is making plans for college courses in Paris, her mom is starting a new job with the mayor’s office, and her dad is renovating part of the house.
“You all have something you’re excited about,” Zoe pleaded. “… I think … I need something that’s mine?”
But two days later, Pipsqueak is the size of a full-grown cat, and she keeps growing. And then she starts talking! Soon Zoe has to clean out her family’s shed just so Pipsqueak can have somewhere to hide, but despite her enormous size, Pipsqueak is still very much a cat who loves playing in cardboard boxes, catching bugs, and sunning herself on rooftops. Other strange animal sightings begin cropping up in the local news, including reports of flying poodles, so Zoe can’t possibly keep Pipsqueak’s secret for long, and hits upon the idea of asking her aunt Alecia for help. Alecia and Zoe’s mother have recently become estranged, due to reasons that Zoe has little understanding of, but her aunt’s immediately positive response to Zoe’s request for help kicks off a secretive multi-state trek undertaken by Zoe, Pipsqueak, Harrison, and a few other friends they meet along the way.
Sarah Beth Durst’s latest children’s novel is lovely, comforting, and encouraging (though the idea of two twelve-year-olds haring away on catback from western Massachusetts to the White Mountains of New Hampshire may cause intense anxiety in some adult readers). Catalyst (2020) features realistic family dynamics, a ton of nerdy pop-culture jokes, and a resolution which is both satisfying and heartwarming. I loved the relationship between Zoe and Harrison, who have been best friends and next-door neighbors for practically forever, and who complement each other’s eccentricities in the best ways. They’re clever and inventive kids, but they’re still very much kids, caught in a strange space between childhood and the cusp of adolescence and which leads them to take crazy risks with only the best of intentions.
Harrison is a great foil for Zoe’s impulsiveness, intent on sorting information into easily-digestible categories, playing video games, and taking any opportunity he can get to make s’mores. His older cousin Surita is a hoot, quoting Dune and obsessing over cryptids while she “babysits,” and I really enjoyed the close bond between Zoe and Alex even as Zoe realizes that her whole life is changing right before her eyes. Durst communicates this internal disquiet and frustration well, keeping it in terms that most pre-teens would use to describe their experiences. And the drama of keeping Pipsqueak hidden while searching for a way to return her to normal size is compelling, keeping me glued to Catalyst’s pages until the very last.
Like Durst’s other works written specifically for a middle-grade audience, Catalyst is an excellent choice for any age group, equally enjoyable for young readers as well as readers who are young at heart. Highly recommended, and if you get hungry for s’mores afterward, you’ll be in good company.