“Cattywampus has everything: friendship, enemies, a very charming raccoon, magic, ancient family feuds, and zombies,” said Chelsea Bauer of Union Avenue Books in Knoxville, Tennessee, who served on the panel that selected Van Otterloo’s book for Indies Introduce. “Set in Appalachia, this is the story of Delpha and Katybird, two girls coming of age in very different situations. Both are expecting to inherit the magical powers that the women in their families possess. When they do, it unleashes something on their small town and the two have to team up with a boy from their school to fight it. Informative without being pedantic, and realistic without being overwhelming, I cannot recommend this highly enough.”
Van Otterloo grew up in southern Appalachia and currently lives near the Olympic Peninsula in Washington State with their spouse, four children, a cattle dog, ball python, and two cats. Recently, Bauer had the opportunity to ask Van Otterloo about the inspiration for their book.
Chelsea Bauer: Cattywampus has such a rich and vivid setting and you do a remarkable job of showing the good, the bad, and the diversity of the region in a thoughtful and evocative way. Why did you set your story in southern Appalachia and what impression of the area do you hope readers will have after finishing your book?
Ash Van Otterloo: I was born in North Carolina and grew up in north Alabama, north Georgia, and Tennessee. Writing about mountains comes as naturally as breathing! In a lot of ways, the characters of Howler’s Hollow are love letters to the people and places that were dear to me when I was young.
It’s important to me that readers both inside and outside the region see a version of Appalachia that’s nuanced, diverse, and complex...because Appalachia is nuanced, diverse, and complex! Kids are perceptive, and they generally appreciate honesty in the narratives around them. So I think it’s important to be accurate, even when building fantastic worlds. All humans are capable of great compassion or great harm, and embracing compassion takes bravery. Hearing tales of that kind of bravery makes us bold in our dreaming.
CB: An ancient family feud drives much of the plot in this book. Did you pull inspiration from any real-life family feuds from history?
AVO: There are so many historical clan feuds from Scotland and Ireland, as well as some really famous ones that happened in places like Kentucky or the Ozarks! And they’re all fascinating (and usually sad) stories.
But my biggest inspiration was this: Throughout history, skilled people who are considered outsiders — in Cattywampus, it’s witches — have been pitted against one another because there’s an artificial lack of leadership positions available to them. Often, this forces infighting and competition, which only weakens both sides! Which is a real shame, because joining forces makes us a much more formidable force for good.
CB: Scared spitless is a common feeling from various characters in the book. Can you explain why fear and the need to act anyway is such a crucial part of your story?
AVO: I think it’s impossible to talk about magic without discussing fear! Magic is a good way to understand our own unique creativity — the things we do naturally that look miraculous to others. And by definition, that’s going to make us stand out a little. It’s normal to feel a little terrified when you’re taking risks and trying new things! There’s always a chance that certain people won’t like what makes you different, and it’s only human to be afraid of that.
It’s such a very human experience to feel afraid of danger, rejection, or pain. I was a very anxious kid, even though I hid it pretty well. So I like to write characters who are fearful about the risks they’re taking, but choose to move forward anyway.
CB: You write in a very clear and edifying way about androgen insensitivity syndrome. I learned so much through your characters. What was your inspiration for having a character with AIS? What do you hope your audience gains from reading about Katybird and her experience with AIS?
AVO: I first heard an explanation of androgen insensitivity from Emily Quinn, a creator who’s worked on projects like Teen Wolf and Adventure Time, in her excellent AI educational videos on YouTube! (Emily herself mentions not loving the term ‘syndrome’ because it suggests androgen insensitivity is a problem, when it isn’t. I’m paraphrasing!)
Most people have something about them that makes them unique in the world. And while many of us love and celebrate what makes ourselves different, I think it’s normal to wonder whether the world will embrace us, or to worry whether all our unique traits will work harmoniously together as we attempt our goals. I think wondering this is really normal, and I hope readers will witness Katybird’s confidence and come away with an understanding that their unique, whole selves are powerful and needed in the grand scheme of things.
CB: I fell in love with all the residents of Howler’s Hollow. Do you plan to return to the holler for another book?
AVO: I do! In fact, my next book is a ghost story set in Howler’s Hollow, but with different main characters. I’m very, very excited for readers to meet them. (And you can even look forward to a few surprise cameos from characters from Cattywampus!)
Cattywampus by Ash Van Otterloo (Scholastic Press, 9781338561593, Hardcover Middle Grade, $17.99) On Sale Date: 8/4/2020.
Find out more about the author at ashvanotterloo.com.
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