Monthly Archives: November 2015

A little rant about marketing books like cornflakes

Everything has its value and anything can be commodified, and marketised, even books. But selling books in the same way as cornflakes or cat food is disturbing. It’s a sign of some serious problems in the business of book production.

215 Bogof 2Have you seen books promoted with a BOGOF offer? Buy one get one free. It makes me mutter out loud in the aisles of the supermarket.

The Net Book Agreement

It all started with the abolition of the Net Book Agreement. The NBA allowed the price of books to be agreed between publishers and book sellers, and required the sellers to abide by the agreed price. It lasted 90 years. They still have such an agreement in France and Germany.

In 1991 the NBA was challenged by Dillons which wanted to sell books at a discount and other sellers joined in. Eventually in 1997 the NBA was judged a restrictive practice. The Office of Fair Trading claims that book sales have risen 30% since then. The abolition of the NBA has resulted in the slow reduction on the number of independent bookshops, and the concentration of most sales in the hands of a few big stores, notably Waterstone’s and Amazon.

Sales of books may be up but writers’ incomes are down. Mean income for writers surveyed in 2013 was £11,000, a drop of 29% since 2005 when it had been £12,370 according to ALCS (Authors Licensing and Collecting Society). Writers get their income from royalties, a percentage of the price at sale not the cover price. Books are rarely sold at the cover price. My own income from writing is much, much less than £11,000. Few writers are able to devote all their working time to writing.

The margins for the publisher have reduced, some appear to have economised by letting the editors go. They play safe with the books they publish, taking fewer risks and promoting books they are sure will sell. The shelf life of books have been reduced, so have current lists and back catalogues. Even so several smaller publishers have been swallowed by the bigger houses. Thank goodness that independent publishers are holding their own and giving us books of quality rather than just backing sure-sellers.

It’s the quantity Stupid

Of course it’s a good thing that more books are being sold, but what matters more than the quantity is the quality. We have come to expect to buy books very cheaply. Like our food and milk. But if we value low cost above everything then we will get poor quality, adulteration, very angry farmers and very disappointed writers and readers.

Hay-on-Wye Bookshop July 2009 by Jonathan Billinger via Wiki Commons

Hay-on-Wye Bookshop July 2009 by Jonathan Billinger via Wiki Commons

All books are not the same

This is the ranty bit. Books are not the same. One cornflake is pretty much like another cornflake. One book is not like another. Book marketeers love the idea of a series because it suggests that if you read one book by Percy Smith you will want the next book by Percy Smith or one with a very similar cover indicating the same genre.

And we need experimental, innovative, imaginative books. The market today discourages risk-taking and innovation by publishers. They no longer have the margins to cover losses on a book they think is worth publishing but may not be a commercial success. Commercial success indicates popularity and is not a measure of literary quality.

Buying books

215 obama-at-prairie-lights

We want, we need people to buy books. I remember being in Stoke Newington Bookshop in 1995, browsing away as you do. Two young women were in there with me (this was in the old premises which was more like a corridor than a room) and so we were constantly squeezing past each other. One young woman announced, ‘I’ve never bought a book in my life’. I was so struck by this statement that I made a note of it. I hope she isn’t still able to make that claim.

Paris Bookshop September 2008 by THOR via Wiki Commons

Paris Bookshop September 2008 by THOR via Wiki Commons

And then, a couple of years later, I overheard a student at the University of London saying, no doubt in relation to her studies, perhaps an essay she was writing, ‘You read a book and that changes everything.’ I would have liked to introduce these two young women.

215 BOGOFPerhaps the increase in the number of literary prizes is the publishers’ way of supporting initiatives to promote the sale of good books.

Euston Road, London

Euston Road, London

I am surprised but pleased when I see a book advertised on billboards, on the bus stands or on the underground in London.

And then rather shocked when novels, usually thrillers, are promoted with something very much like a film trailer on tv.

And now I am expecting to find a free book in my packet of cornflakes.

Related posts

Sam Jordison in the Guardian in 2010 laid out the damage done to publishers and booksellers by the ending of the NBA.

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Prayers for the Stolen by Jennifer Clement

What did I know of Mexico? To begin with it was Speedy Gonzales. The lyrics of Pat Boone’s 1962 hit song Speedy Gonzales are frankly racist. The cartoon mouse had a comic squeaky voice, wore a sombrero and represented Mexicans for Warner Brothers. This stereotyped image of primitive and stupidity was confirmed by the villagers in The Magnificent Seven. As part of my history degree I studied the Aztecs who had a dramatic but disappeared civilization. I never thought much about Mexico.

214 Prayers coverTwo things happened to change this for me: 43 trainee teachers disappeared on 26th September 2014 and have probably died in Guerrero State. Both drug gangs and the police are implicated. I read Prayers for the Stolen for our Book Group meeting in November. I begin to have a more vivid understanding of the dark side of Mexico.

The Novel

Prayers for the Stolen is fiction, but Jennifer Clement, a Mexican-American, has done her research, and what we are presented with is an authentic account of what happens to young girls in Guerrero State. It’s fiction but it’s real life. Ladydi lives on the mountain an hour from Acapulco. The men leave for the drugs gangs or to cross the border to the US. The girls wait to escape or be captured by the narcos. Here is the opening paragraph.

Now we make you ugly, my mother said. She whistled. Her mouth was so close she sprayed my neck with her whistle-spit. I could smell beer. In the mirror I watched her move the piece of charcoal across my face. It’s a nasty life, she whispered. (3)

There are more dangers, scorpions, the fast road to Acapulco, the pesticide dropped by the police to spoil the poppy crops. They get some education, but mostly it is from their mothers.

The story

The cover in the US

The cover in the US

The story is narrated by Ladydi. Her mother named her as a reference to a famous betrayal by a man. The main thing in Ladydi’s life is not to be caught by the narcos, a task that becomes harder as she and her friends become older. The men have all left to work illegally in the US or to join the narcos or they are dead, killed by border guards or the gangs.

The first section follows the girls as they complete an irregular schooling on the mountain. Ladydi’s father leaves to cross to America. Women and girls are stolen. They must always take care, even have holes dug in the mountain in which to hide if the gangs come in their SUVs to find the girls. Ladydi’s friend Paula is the most beautiful girl in Mexico, and she disappears. From all the dangers Ladydi’s fierce and vindictive mother tries to protect her.

After graduating from primary school Mike a neighbour finds Ladydi a job as a nanny in Acapulco. She is going to be a nanny, but it turns out that the family have been killed. In the middle section the housekeeper, Ladydi and the gardener/lover live in luxury in the abandoned house for some months. Then Ladydi is arrested for a murder committed by Mike.

The third section takes place in the women’s prison outside Mexico City. The inmates are victims of the corrupt world in which they have tried to live. Many have killed men, sometimes because they were stolen and abused themselves. And here Ladydi experiences the strength that women give to each other, the tips, the advice, loans, and the knowledge of the prison rules.

The novel ends as the cycle begins again, with hope for a new life, and fears that it will be a girl.

The writing

214 J ClementLadydi’s voice is very strong, and her closeness to her mother allows us to hear the older woman’s voice as well. This is a strong story, themes of endurance, mother’s love, women who look out for each other. Jennifer Clements knows what she writes about as she is an American-Mexican writer.

I especially enjoyed her descriptive writing with its wry notes and vivid pictures. This is how the third section begins.

The Santa Maria Jail in the south of Mexico City was the biggest beauty parlour in the world. The bitter and citric scent of hair dyes, hair sprays and nail polish permeated the rooms and passageways of the building. (157)

And in prison Ladydi thinks about her world and how it has been destroyed by heroin production.

I thought of the hills and valleys around my house planted with red and white poppies. I thought of the towns on our mountain like Kilometer Thirty, or Eden. These were the towns along the old road to Acapulco and not the new highway that tore our lives in two pieces. These were the towns that you could enter only by invitation. If you accidentally went there no one would ask you your name or ask you what time it was, they’d just kill you Mike once told me that there were huge mansions in those towns and incredible laboratories that were built underground to turn the poppies into heroin. He said that a miracle occurred at Kilometer Thirty a few years ago. The Virgin Mary appeared in a piece of marble. (171)

This novel is about the corruption, destructiveness and violence caused by the trade in drugs to ordinary lives, and to women’s lives in particular. It is a terrible indictment of what damage is done, here by the drugs trade, by the inability of governments to protect the weakest. The women of Guerrero State are given a voice in this novel.

And the book group said …

Prayers for the Stolen opened out eyes to the situation in Mexico. We would recommend the book because it read as an authentic story. It avoided violence, explicit sex and sentimentality. We often laughed. We liked its focus on women.

Prayers for the stolen by Jennifer Clement, published in 2014 by Vintage. 222pp

Related posts

The novel was adapted for BBC Radio 4 in September 2015 but sadly the play is no longer available. Perhaps it will be repeated.

Kirsty Gunn’s review in The Guardian on 13th February 2014 places the novel within an American tradition of writing about reality.

And here’s another blog review that also picks up on reality in the novel on Whimsies & Words

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Banning Books

Why do people in authority ban a book? They fear the power of the book. They fear the ideas or knowledge within the covers. As so often happens when you ban something it draws attention to it. Remember Mrs Thatcher banning the voices of the IRA on the news. In the recent Banned Books Week some surprising titles were revealed to have appeared on banned lists, especially in US in school districts where they take a different line about things and have different processes.

Banning books to protect children

213 Jenny_Lives_with_Eric_and_MartinFrequently a ban on a book is intended to prevent the corruption of the minds of the young. Or to protect them from ideas that adults believe might be too difficult. Behind the idea of banning books for children is a distrust of their ability to explore their world. I remember schools being banned from using books about living with gay parents. Jenny Lives with Eric and Martin by Susanne Bosche (1983) was notorious. Local Governments were also banned in 1988 from promoting a homosexual lifestyle and ‘the acceptability of homosexual relationships as a pretended family relationship’ (the notorious section 28). The world had gone mad.

The Scottish Book Trust noted that these books about or for children had been banned somewhere: 213 1940 AnneFrankSchoolPhoto

  • Alice in Wonderland and Alice Through the Looking Glass by Lewis Carroll.
  • Lord of the Flies by William Golding
  • The Diaries of Anne Franks
  • Forever Judy Bloom
  • Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain

Judy Bloom writes about themes that interest young adults, their relationships with their parents, with people of their own age, fractured families, sexuality, strong emotions. She was one of the first to do so and earned a loyal readership as a result. The idea that childhood is a time of innocence is also challenged in different ways by Alice and by Huckleberry Finn.

Young girls with spirit are notoriously dangerous to those with absolutist beliefs. That must be why The Diaries of Anne Frank appears on the list.

Books that challenge social (sexual) norms

Then there are books that shock a little, intended to push the boundaries of what is discussed, what is known.

213 LolitaThe list begins with Lolita, by Vladimir Nabokov. It would be hard to read Lolita without noticing that Herbert Humbold is a self-serving monster. It is a tough read because he sounds so plausible. People behave in bad ways and appear plausible. Those who wanted to ban Lolita mistook the messenger for the message. I suspect that many of them had not read Lolita.

Lady Chatterley’s Lover by DH Lawrence was completed in 1928. Penguin published it in the UK in 1960 and a court case tested both the book and the obscenity laws. Lady Chatterley was notoriously ‘not the kind of book you want your wife or servants to read’, according to chief prosecutor Mervyn Griffith-Jones. Lawrence’s particular joyfulness at sex challenged assumptions and made explicit the shocking idea that women enjoyed sex, had sexual desires. And it also offended class sensibilities. It was acquitted under obscenity laws in 1960.

Radclyffe Hall’s The Well of Loneliness also from 1928 provoked extreme reactions: ‘I’d rather give a healthy boy or a healthy girl a phial of prussic acid than this book’ fulminated James Douglas, editor of the Sunday Express. Its subject, lesbians, were seen to challenge the family values that the Express stood for. The Well also suffered under obscenity laws, although the legal battles over the book increased the visibility of lesbians in both British and American society.

Not about sexual norms but more about decency and a fear that it ‘wallowed in repulsiveness’ Barbara Comyns’s 1958 novel Who was Changed and Who was Dead was also banned. There is an interesting article about it on the PEN America website by Matt Bell. He argues that we should rejoice in its lack of moralising which promotes change ‘including an increase in moral complexity, intellectual range and truest empathy’.

And the political ideas

Banning the books with political themes is mystifying to our modern sensibilities, with exception of the Rushdie. Banned titles have included

  • 1984 by George Orwell
  • Animal Farm by George Orwell
  • Catch-22 by Joseph Heller
  • Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi
  • Ulysses by James Joyce
  • Frankenstein by Mark Shelley
  • Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie

213 PerseoplisBut again, the powerful do not like challenges to the status quo. Or do not like readers’ minds being exposed to ideas that might challenge their certainties, even if the challenge is itself a critique of the opposing ideas, as is Animal Farm. And they don’t like books that promote girls and women as active and brave and determining their own futures as Persepolis does. It is graphic novel about a young Iranian girl during the period of the fall of the Shah and after. The challenges to the book’s place in schools and on the curriculum in the US is considered on the Banned Books Week website, Case Study: Persepolis by Maggie Jacoby, September 2015.

Books are good for healthy debate and challenge some questionable assumptions. In the forefront of reminding us about banned books are librarians, fighters for freedom of speech. That’s another reason to support libraries and librarians. And so too is the writer’s organisation PEN, and you can find the English PEN website here. Support them too!

What banned books have most grated with you? Is there ever a case for banning a book? What do you think?

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On the tricky topic of titles

Titles – they are very difficult to get right – for a short story, a blog post, our book, the chapters in our book, my draft novel, the writing group’s anthology. The title has to do so much work that it requires hours of discussion, days of rumination and much experimentation.

101 RWA coverEileen and I rejected many, many titles for our book on retirement: The Golden Hours, How to Retire with Dignity, Retiring Now, Not your usual Retirement Guide. Our working title up to the point where we were about to hand over the manuscript was The New Retiring Book. It was our editor and publisher that found the right title: Retiring with Attitude. It says exactly what’s in the tin.

So what is the work of the title?

  1. Announcing the genre and subject

212 Fl B coverThe title is assisted by the cover design in indicating the book’s genre to the purchaser/reader as well as what the book is about and whether it’s the kind of book they want to buy/read. It helps if it is memorable for recommendations, word of mouth and requests in bookstores. You know, that book about the butterflies: Flight Behavior by Barbara Kingsolver. There is a whole book about this: Weird Things Customers say in Bookshops by Jen Campbell. Check out Jen Campbell’s website here for more stories (such as ‘Have you got a signed copy of Shakespeare’s plays?’)

2. Invitation

The title can also entice or invite the reader. It might imply a question: The Aftermath (by Rhidian Brook) of what? The Secret of the Gorge (Malcolm Saville). So what is the secret? asks the title.

Or it might be intriguing like these examples: If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things by Jon McGregor, The Twin by Gerbrand Bakker.

3. Directing the reader’s attention

Pride and Prejudice might have been called The Bennet Sisters or How to get your Husband. But that would have been to misdirect attention. Jane Austen knew a thing or two about what impedes good relationships. She originally had First Impressions in mind but when she revised the book the title went further.

Catch-22 (by Joseph Heller) is such a good title it has become a figure of speech. It directs the reader to the madness and illogicality of war that binds everyone.

4. Snagging the blog reader’s attention

There is particular art to getting the right title for a blog post. Like in a bookshop it needs to capture attention, but in a very brief time. Apparently 8 out of 10 users will read the title, only 2 out of 10 will read the content. Guidance for bloggers abounds and I will add to the advice in a post next month, but here’s a teaser: it’s about questions and numbers and dire warnings!

It’s hard getting the right title

Every book I have ever been involved in publishing (all non-fiction) has involved much agony and hours of discussion about the title, jokey titles, working titles, disparaging titles and anti-titles until the point where the right one arrives. Or perhaps that’s just one right one among several.

I recall a very creative lunch when Eileen and I brain stormed the most silly and excellent ideas for the chapter titles in Retiring with Attitude. We quickly found Retirement ain’t what it used to be and went on to This is your rainy day. It felt very creative in a way that endless chapter revisions did not.

Until a month ago the book I am currently involved in writing (there are three authors) was called Ageing Now. We persuaded the publisher that this was a working title when we negotiated the contract, and we have become increasingly aware of its limitations as we have engaged with the writing: it doesn’t say much about the book; it’s too vague about content, readership, and purpose. We have a better one now. WATCH THIS SPACE!

And not having a title says something too, gives the reader more work to do. One of the writers in my writing group recently read a poem with no title and we had a lively discussion about that: what it did to the listener to have no title, did it need one, what the title might be, why she had not given it one. Thanks to the group for the discussion.

And some that got away

212 1984 coverTrimalchio in West Egg by F. Scott Fitzgerald became The Great Gatsby.

Strangers from within by William Golding became Lord of the Flies.

The Mute by Carson McCullers became The Heart is a lonely Hunter.

The Last Man in Europe by George Orwell became 1984.

At This Point in Time by Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward became All the president’s Men.

These come from a blog by Anne R. Allen in a post called 10 Tips for Choosing the Right Title in the E-Age.

Can you spot the Alternate Titles in the quiz on The Reading Room blog?

 

How do you go about finding or creating the titles for your writings?

 

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Books for all Seasons

Here is a little indulgence: a challenge to find four books I’d read, with each of the seasons in the titles. A kind of structured serendipity. Nothing significant emerged from the combination, but I do get to recommend the four books.

Les 4 saisons par ou d’apres Rosalba Carriera (1675-1757) via Wikimedia

Les 4 saisons par ou d’apres Rosalba Carriera (1675-1757) via Wikimedia

If on a Winter’s Night a traveller by Italo Calvino

Translated by William Weaver

211 If on coverThis is the ultimate meta-novel. Calvino addressed the reader in alternate chapters. Every interpolated chapter begins and explores some aspect of novels. The reader chapters considers reading and writing, culminating in a discussion between readers in a library, who all read in different ways and to different purposes.

As well as a serious exploration of books and reading this novel is full of playfulness – such a good quality in writing. Playing with the reader, as reader. I think it’s great and I need to read If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller again soon.

If on a Winter’s Night a traveller … by Italo Calvino (1998) published by Vintage Classics

The Beginning of Spring by Penelope Fitzgerald

211 Begin of Sp coverI enjoyed this story of an expatriate in Moscow in March 1913 for 12 months, whose wife mysteriously disappears and leaves him with his three children. The place is beautifully evoked, with believable detail. It is a very enigmatic.

The beginning of spring comes as Nellie reappears. We have only just found out where she went and why. The relationships of all these quirky characters are not cold, but spring returns with hope. However we know that within a few months Europe will be at war and Russia convulsed.

The Beginning of Spring by Penelope Fitzgerald (1988) published by 4th Estate

In a Summer Season by Elizabeth Taylor

65 Winifred coverElizabeth Taylor’s eighth novel is about love of many different kinds. It is also about love’s tendency to appear and disappear as the title suggests. The summer changes their experience of love for all the characters. Elizabeth Taylor knew what she was doing in this, her eighth novel.

Kate Heron is around forty and has recently married for the second time. Her husband Dermot fails to find suitable employment. Lou, Kate’s sixteen year old daughter falls for and hangs around the chaplain, Father Blizzard. Kate’s son Tom is used to having girls at his beck and call, has become practised in letting them down gently when he moves on to the next one. But he is smitten with Araminta, the daughter of a neighbour.

It is Dermot’s lack of fibre (as they would say) that pushes the story to its conclusion. While there is tragedy, sudden and brutal, all does not end badly for Kate in a conclusion that does will satisfy all readers as we are unsure what kind of future Kate will have. The final short chapter allows us to see how where love leaves her and the other characters, a year on from that summer season.

In a Summer Season by Elizabeth Taylor re-published in 1973 by Virago Modern Classics.

Quartet in Autumn by Barbara Pym

204 4tet in Autumn coverFour people work together in an office, doing unspecified work. The two men and two women are all single. Their lives have little in them, although each has made a small effort to do something, whether it is to engage with the church, admire her surgeon, collect milk bottles, be bitter or plan for retirement in the country.

The women retire, and the death of one of them brings the others together in a strange way. ‘But at least it made one realise that life still held infinite possibilities for change’, the novel concludes. On the way to this conclusion, every tiny action or event is squeezed by the quartet for its meaning and engagement.

Quartet in Autumn by Barbara Pym (1977) published by Pan/Picador Books

Related posts

Offshore by Penelope Fitzgerald reviewed on Bookword January 2014

I could have included The Beginning of Spring by Penelope Fitzgerald in the posts about Books in Moscow a few weeks ago.

I reviewed In a Summer Season in my series on the novels of Elizabeth Taylor in the winter of 2013.

I reviewed Quartet in Autumn by Barbara Pym for the older women in fiction series recently.

Have you any recommendations of books for a season?

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The Samuel Johnson Prize 2015

Neurotribes: the Legacy of Autism and the Future of Neurodiversity by Steve Siberman is the 2015 winner of The Samuel Johnson Prize for 2015.The book is an exploration of autism.210b Neurotribes

The Samuel Johnson Prize has drawn attention to some of the best non-fiction since it was established in 1999.

In 2104 the prize was won by H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald which many people enjoyed and I reviewed enthusiastically on Bookword.

The rest of the 2015 Shortlist

210b LandmarksLandmarks by Robert Macfarlane

Ted Hughes: the Unauthorised Life by Jonathan Bate

The Unravelling: High Hopes and Missed Opportunities in Iraq by Emma Sky

The Four-Dimensional Human by Laurence Scott

The Divided Island: Stories from the Sri Lankan War by Samanth Subramanian

Also on the Longlist

210b Guantanamo-DiaryNothing is True and Everything is Possible by Peter Pomerantsev

They all love Jack the Ripper by Bruce Robinson

Black Earth by Timothy Snyder

The Planet Remade by Oliver Moon

Guantanamo Diary by Mohamedou Oud Siahi

Fighters in the Shadows by Robert Gidea.

 

The Samuel Johnson Prize website is here.

 

I haven’t read any of the 2015 longlist yet, but one or two are already on my tbr list. Can you recommend any?

 

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Revisiting Katy

In the spring I reread a children’s novel that had strongly influenced me as a child: What Katy Did by Susan M. Coolidge. I reacted strongly against its tone and the guidance it provided for young girls. I wrote a post called What Katy did to me.

What Katy did for me was underline the sexist messages that abounded in my youth. Katy’s story would not have worked if the main character had been a boy. This was growing up for girls.

172 What KD coverWhat Katy did to me

It was not only the overall sexism – at least my copy wasn’t pink, but printed on war-time utilitarian yellowing paper. It was also the particular message of endurance and service as a path to every girl’s dream to be ‘beautiful and beloved’.

And What Katy Did said that girls should learn patience, cheerfulness and making the best of things. And that suffering endured will ensure that a girl will be ‘beautiful and beloved’. Indeed, as Samantha Ellis says, the pernicious idea that suffering has value is common. What Katy Did is a fiercely moral book that appealed to the fiercely moral child that I was. I have since had to unlearn that lesson.

In that blog post I credited How to be a Heroine by Samantha Ellis for debunking the Katy myth. Now there is a new Katy by the former Children’s Laureate Jacqueline Wilson called simply Katy.

A new Katy

Jacqueline Wilson’s reworking of What Katy Did is set in present-day England. This Katy narrates her own story, making it more immediate and authentic to today’s readers. The new Katy is much longer (470 pages) in order to accommodate the complexity of her difficulties. The original was not even 200 pages. The earlier book opened with a rather winsome poem To Five, which conjures a rather dewy eyed version of the swift passing of childhood, and a short chapter in which the adult narrator recalls children arguing about whether Katy did or didn’t.

210 Katy Cover

As suits modern readers Jacqueline Wilson has updated some aspects of the story. Her Katy also lives in a large family, this one with step- and half-sisters and brothers. Both Katys are very tall – ‘the longest girl that ever was seen’ – and get into scrapes having an imaginative approach to situations and daring. They are sparky and feisty until the accident. Both suffer terrible injuries and are confined to a wheelchair and must learn how to deal with immobility, pity, a new relationship with the world and those closest too them.

The modern Katy’s story begins to differ from the original’s in significant ways following the accident. The Katys learn different things about themselves. In the original Katy learns patience, endurance and how to be a little mother to her brothers and sisters.

Jacqueline Wilson from her website jacquelinewilson.co.uk

Jacqueline Wilson from her website jacquelinewilson.co.uk

Jacqueline Wilson’s Katy remains full of spirit, fights injustices, loves strongly and is fiercely intolerant of meanness. The original Katy was encouraged to see her situation as an opportunity and to learn the lessons of The School of Pain. Jacqueline Wilson’s Katy does indeed learn some hard lessons by attending mainstream secondary school. There are physical difficulties – stairs, toilets, kerbs – and social challenges – the other students, having missed school, not being able to join in all the activities. And she is greatly assisted by the librarian, the PE teacher and even the headteacher’s no-nonsense approach. Not the school of pain of the original Katy then.

Following their accidents both Katys are comforted by the blessed Helen, a friend of their father’s. Samantha Ellis writing about Coolidge’s original expressed this view.

There should be a special place in hell for Cousin Helen, a saintly invalid who wafts about in ruffled lace nightgowns, and thinks illness is an opportunity. Yes, an opportunity. (131)

The modern Katy’s Helen is still rather saintly, but being confined to a wheelchair has not held her back from an academic career and from developing an understanding of Katy’s predicament. She acknowledges Katy’s response to her accident.

You go through all these stages when you have had a serious life change like your accident. You’re sad, you’re angry, you’re resentful, you’re depressed. Oh, it’s a right bore for you, and for everyone else!’ (344)

And then Helen helps Katy see that she will one day be able to appreciate all the things she can do rather than dwell on the things she can’t. And she helps her find ways to do this.

Of the original I wrote

Now I want to say, especially to those reviewers who say Katy was their childhood heroine, ‘Look at Katy and what those adults did to her, forcing her into becoming better in their terms and ultimately the best homemaker.’ If Katy was my heroine, it was before the accident, not after.

Perhaps the most triumphant aspect of the reworking of Katy is that far from the sugary ending of the original, which rewards Katy transformation into a patient housekeeper, Jacqueline Wilson’s Katy remains herself with her spirit intact. She will always need a wheelchair, albeit she gets a rather snazzy red one to match her Doc Martens. But she has found strengths, resolve and a future. She has made new friends, deepened some earlier friendships, found new skills and new possibilities as a result of being in the wheelchair.

I was Katy Carr. My life wasn’t over. A new life was just beginning. (471)

This Katy is more like the one I would have wanted to read back in the 1950s. To Jacqueline Wilson I say, ‘Proper job!’

The books

Katy by Jacqueline Wilson (2015) published by Penguin Random House 470pp Illustrations by Nick Sharratt.

What Katy Did by Susan M Coolidge. First published in 1982. Version used for this post was published ?1945 by the Children’s Press (London and Glasgow). 175pp

How to be a Heroine or What I’ve learned from reading too much by Samantha Ellis published in 2014 by Vintage 246pp

Related posts

What Katy did to me

Here is a link to Samantha Ellis’s review of Jacqueline Wilson’s Katy from The Pool in August 2015.

And …

Do you have any views on What Katy Did or Katy? What about rewriting children’s classics?

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