Wednesday and Woof #1: Catastrophe (HarperChapters)
“This book is beautifully structured for young readers. The chapters are quick and loaded with colorful illustrations. The vocabulary—book title aside—is simple and the sentences are short. Winston sprinkles in just enough challenging words to make learning them manageable and rewarding.”
A great detective story is peopled with memorable characters, intriguing twists and turns, and deliciously surprising endings. The best detective stories drop just enough clues and drag just enough red herrings across the trail that diligent readers can figure out the ending and not feel cheated along the way with deceptive or missing information. Yup. It’s a tall order for an early chapter book, one that Catastrophe works hard at, but doesn’t exactly nail.
Still the book is a fun one.
Wednesday Walia Nadir—Walia to her family but Wednesday when she’s on the job—and her sidekick, Woof the service dog, are the best detectives in the whole world (or at least their neighborhood), and they’re on the hunt for a missing cat who has possibly been cat-napped. Thanks to Wednesday’s methodical list and map making, she’s able to organize the clues and round up suspects.
For some unexplained reason the cat keeps losing a breadcrumb trail of diamonds (yes, real diamonds!) from its collar. Ah, an intriguing twist? Check that box. This leads Wednesday and Woof around the neighborhood and back to where they started. Along the way Wednesday encounters both a bully and a real friend, the latter wearing bunny ears, which no doubt makes her a memorable character (check that box). Wednesday and Woof sniff out the trail of some suspicious looking older kids who turn out to be likeable and innocent. Red herring? Got that box, too.
Unfortunately, the plot is a bit odd with some confusion about whose cat it is: Is it Mrs. Winters’ cat or Wednesday’s grandfather’s cat? And has the cat really never gone missing before given that the cat ends up where it always ends up? It’s the weakest of all detective story endings. Don’t check the satisfying ending box.
It’s a good-enough early chapter book detective story, one that kids will still probably enjoy in spite of the ho-hum ending. Still, there’s lots to truly like about this book.
First, the illustrations are plentiful and lively. Illustrator Gladys Rose checks a box here that wasn’t even on the list. Early readers will be thrilled that there’s less text and more to guide them through the story with all the colorful pictures. Plus there’s no overwhelming page or back-to-back pages of text. Wednesday’s lists also make for easy reading and some teachable moments. Case in point, “Detective Tip #1: Try not to jump to conclusions.” It’s a wonderful life lesson regardless of whether you’re a detective.
Second, Wednesday and Woof are no ordinary team. From the first chapter, the reader learns that Woof is a service dog. It takes a few more pages to discover what this means for Wednesday. In this case, Woof watches out for Wednesday and her symptoms of juvenile arthritis (JA). The JA details are woven into the story and have a twofold impact. Readers learn about what it’s like to live with JA, and they appreciate that Wednesday is like every other kid: she wants to be free to do whatever she can and not always be thinking about her health or being treated differently because of it. It’s a helpful message for every child, especially those who don’t have exposure to children with medical challenges. As an added bonus, the cast of characters in the book is nicely diverse. Wednesday could be any child; she just happens to be Black like author/creator Sherri Winston. It makes for a nice addition to every library.
And third, this book is beautifully structured for young readers. The chapters are quick and loaded with colorful illustrations. The vocabulary—book title aside—is simple and the sentences are short. Winston sprinkles in just enough challenging words to make learning them manageable and rewarding. Plus, several chapters end with little hurrahs and predictive reading pushes: “You’ve read one chapter! That’ over 700 words!” Ah, the satisfaction! Another says, “You’ve already read four chapters. Where do you think the clues will lead?” At the very end, a page summarizes the number of chapters, pages, and words. Finally, somebody recognizes what a big deal all this is for an early reader. And just to add a little more entertainment, the last page has fun and games that train readers to think, feel, and act like budding detectives.
The Wednesday and Woof series will never wow the likes of Agatha Christie fans, but that’s okay. Catastrophe is loaded with lots of gems, and not just the real diamond kind.