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.
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.
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’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!’
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
Here is a link to Samantha Ellis’s review of Jacqueline Wilson’s Katy from The Pool in August 2015.
Do you have any views on What Katy Did or Katy? What about rewriting children’s classics?
To receive emails about future posts please subscribe by entering your email address in the box.