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Review: Cat Burglar Black

K.was raised in an orphanage by a woman who abused the children and forced them into a life of crime as thieves and pickpockets. Now that the orphanage has been freed from her clutches, K. is starting over. She’s been invited to the Bellsong Academy for Girls by an aunt she never knew she had. But all is not right at Bellsong and K. soon finds that her thieving days are not yet behind her.

Cat Burglar Black
Richard Sala
First Second, September 2009, ISBN: 978-1-59643-144-7
128 pages, $16.99

Sala’s middle school noir title has an outlandishly fun plot that is almost too big for his book. In a mere 128 pages, Sala packs in an orphan girl, a mysterious academy, a secret society of criminals, a town populated by privacy fanatics, a serial killer, a mystery hidden in a series of paintings, a buried treasure, a family secret, assistance from an unknown source, burglaries, trapdoors, a quicksand pit, and, of course, murder. It’s a lot to keep up with and it means that there are a lot of scenes of characters talking at length. On the one hand, all of the elements do start to fit together nicely by the end–which is hopefully not the end of the series as the ending leaves much unresolved. But on the other hand, reading a graphic novel that is made up of a lot of panels filled with dialogue is not as exciting as readers might expect a noir title to be.

The characters are more archetypes rather than flesh-and-blood people. K. is a good girl at heart, trying to pull herself up from the depths to which she has been thrown. Her fellow students are all girls with mysterious pasts and none of those pasts are addressed much in this volume. The strange Mrs. Turtledove, who appears to run the school, is pinch-faced and evil and her henchmen are deranged and disfigured. Sala’s colorful art perfectly sets the scene, nicely mixing realism with a hint of old-fashioned adventure, just the right mix for noir. His action scenes are particularly exciting, especially since readers are never quite sure just who might come to a nasty end.

Lemony Snicket gives a blurb on the back of Cat Burglar Black and he’s an appropriate choice. Sala’s mystery has a hint of the same reserved and resigned attitude towards misfortune that Snicket’s series had and much of the same type of action. Unfortunately the lengthy paragraphs of dialogue keep this from being a slam dunk choice for reluctant readers. It is, though, an intelligent choice for readers who want strong female characters in their graphic novels, but who aren’t interested in the usual fantasy options.

This review is based on a complimentary copy supplied by the publisher. All images copyright © First Second.

Snow Wildsmith About Snow Wildsmith

Snow Wildsmith is a writer and former teen librarian. She has served on several committees for the American Library Association/Young Adult Library Services Association, including the 2010 Michael L. Printz Award Committee. She reviews graphic novels for Booklist, ICv2's Guide, No Flying No Tights, and Good Comics for Kids and also writes booktalks and creates recommended reading lists for Ebsco's NoveList database. Currently she is working on her first books, a nonfiction series for teens.

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