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

Jacqueline Wilson from her website

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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Filed under Books, Books for children, Feminism, Reading, Reviews

8 Responses to Revisiting Katy

  1. Eileen

    Yes, ‘proper job’ – glad to see you are picking up some nice Devonshire phrases.
    I like Jacqueline Wilson’s cat x

  2. Anne

    I have just had the same experience while listening on Saturday to the Radio 4’s classic serial dramatisation of “I capture the Castle” by Dodi Smith. As a teenager I simply adored the book- it was so romantic! What a wonderful life those girls lived- in a crumbling castle, wearing wonderful frocks, penniless-yet somehow getting by- until the arrival of two rich American men set their hearts aflutter and to her amazement it is Cassandra – the narrator of the book who captures the heart of Simon the brother whom her sister has decided she will marry- for his money.
    On Saturday however I listened with annoyance….I discovered that I had no sympathy whatsoever for these two aimless girls, flopping around, dressing up, being very fey and as for the romance! Oh dear the fact that Cassandra is only 17 and that Simon refers to her throughout as a “kid” made me feel a bit squeamish.
    I should have let well alone and retained my fond memory of the book I had so loved as a teenager.

    • Caroline

      Hi Anne,
      you wont be surprised that I think we should examine these influences. We often find they contain pernicious messages. I might do a hatchet job on Heidi next. (Only joking).
      I never read I captured the Castle, but I have a memory of seeing a truly dreadful film of it recently on TV.
      Perhaps it was the material that was so dreadful.
      C xx

  3. Interesting post. I’m not that intrigued by the reworking of Katy because, for me, the original series reflect an interesting socio-cultural phenomenon; the way Victorians viewed illness and disability.

    Katy’s accident was used to ‘reprogramme’ her, removing her ‘tomboy’ ways and turning her into the naice Victorian chatelaine of a large motherless house. As a child I was profoundly irritated by Cousin Helen and her pious, pompous submission to her lot in life and the way in which she quelled her cousin’s rational and understandable reaction to possible paralysis. I know I was probably not typical in my interpretation aged eleven or so, but I liked and admired pre accident Katy and I respected her unselfishness for trying to subjugate herself to the Victorian ideal although she retained elements of her innate nature. I felt sad for her at the end of the book because what she sacrificed in order to regain mobility (which was very much the moral lesson) seemed, to me, scarcely worth it at the time. It’s all too easy for anything women do ‘for themselves’ to be portrayed as selfishness. I could see that in even then.

    I’ve written about it in the link above if you are interested. Not least my imagining Cousin Helen wheeling about in a dominatrix wheelchair as mistress of her ‘School of Pain!’

    • Caroline

      You were a very perceptive child. I think I was unhappy because I could not imagine becoming the good child or woman that Katy was forced to become. It’s clear now. That’s why I like Jacqueline Wilson’s new version. Katy finds her own way without giving in the the Saintly cousin Helen.
      Thanks for this comment. (I removed the duplicate)

  4. PS-

    Heidi is so similar to What Katy Did with its themes of martyred disability, punishment and redemption through lessons learned whilst ill and Heidi as a religious figure. She is almost Christ like in her innocence and sacrifice to those adults who seem determined to break her will.

    • Caroline

      Yes Heidi, like Katy, is also squeaky good and that’s why I threatened to do a job on her too. But I wont bother. Other people can scrutinize her model


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