Tag Archives: How to be a Heroine

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

What Katy did to me

Yuk! I read What Katy Did as a little girl, as many little girls did. My copy is old and battered, printed on war-time yellowing paper and has 1945 written in my childish hand in red pen on the title page. It was first published in 1892, written by Sarah Chauncey Woolsey under the pen name Susan M. Coolidge.

172 What KD coverWhat 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.

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.

Katy and me

They say that good fiction allows the reader to identify with the main character. I certainly identified with Katy although I allowed myself to pick and chose the things I identified with. Like me she came from a large family of six children and Katy was the eldest. (I was the oldest girl of six siblings which wasn’t that different). Unlike the Carr children my mamma was not dead and we were not cared for by Aunt Lizzie. Like me, Katy was very tall – ‘the longest girl that ever was seen … up above Papa’s ear, and half a head taller than Aunty Izzie.’ (16) And Katy had wild imagination and was always getting into scrapes, although she knew she should be being good and taking care of the children, when she wasn’t learning her lessons or lacing her boots.172 What K didf cover

The story

Katy is 12 years old and blessed with imagination, spirit but no patience. She gets into scrapes at school and at home and cares little about the effects of her behaviour. Refusing to accept Aunt Izzie’s injunction not to use the swing Katy falls from it as it breaks and in falling damages her back so that she is more or less bedridden for four years.

Aunt Izzie did not warn the children that the swing was unusable. The narrator comments:

This was unwise of Aunt Izzie. It would have been better to explain further. The truth was … that the swing really was not safe. If she had told this to the children all would have been right; but Aunt Izzie’s theory was that young people must obey their elders without explanation. (97)

The second half of the book follows Katy’s slow progress through ‘The School of Pain’. The insufferable Cousin Helen explains this concept to Katy. She will learn to become patient and cheerful, become the woman at the heart of the house and to make the best of things.

“Sometimes there isn’t anything to make the best of,” remarked Katy, dolefully.

“Yes there is, always! Everything in the world has two handles. Didn’t you know that? One is smooth handle. If you take hold of it the thing comes up lightly and easily, but if you seize the rough handle it hurts your hand and the thing is hard to lift. Some people always manage to get hold of the wrong handle.” (114)

Still looking for the smooth handle to life myself. Cousin Helen has some good ideas about learning, if not about handles.

“For you know we never do people good by lecturing; only by living their lives with them, and helping a little here and a little there to make them better.” (120)

And Katy learns her lessons and becomes thoughtful, patient and grateful. She does this by taking over the running of the household. Yes really. And to conclude the book demonstrates her newly acquired modesty.

“Oh, Cousin Helen, don’t!” said Katy, her eyes filling with sudden tears. “I haven’t been brave. You can’t think how badly I sometimes have behaved – how cross and ungrateful I am, how stupid, how slow. Every day I see things that ought to be done, and I don’t do them. It’s too delightful to have you praise me – But you mustn’t. I don’t deserve it.”

But although she said she didn’t deserve it, I think that Katy did. (175)

Why I hate this book now

I certainly absorbed the idea that suffering led to virtue. I am glad to say this idea has more or less disappeared, otherwise hospitals and doctors’ surgeries would be less caring and comforting.

And I absorbed the pernicious idea that my job as a child was to lose my impatience, my bossy exuberance, my imaginative games and my quick temper. I should be more meek, pretty, tidy and patient. Girls were constantly told this and Katy’s story underlined the message. By the way, although I didn’t want such a bad injury as Katy’s, I did believe that if life dealt me such a blow I was sure I would respond, and without Cousin Helen’s interfering and angelic prompting.

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.

Yuk! It was the first in series of What Katy Dids. I probably read them all. Enthusiastically.

172 How tb heroineI am indebted to How to be a Heroine by Samantha Ellis for some of the criticism and inspiration for this post. Speaking of her own life, Samantha Ellis observes that pain did not teach or liberate her. I liked this comment:

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)

I am pleased to find that What Katy Did is the name of a retro shop, based near me in Devon.

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

Do you have any views on What Katy Did? Did you ever read it?

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Filed under Books, Feminism, Learning, Reading, Reviews