published 2015, 1872
[Katy is planning her outfit for a disco at school, and goes to her stepmother for help]
I asked Izzie’s advice.
‘How about a nice corduroy pinafore dress with a white frilly blouse?’ she said.
I stared at her, appalled – and she fell about laughing.
‘I’m teasing you, Katy… I think you’ll be fine in your black jeans and that weird skull t-shirt. But maybe we’ll get you new shoes. Those black plimsolls with the sequins are too small for you now.’
‘I hate shoes. I just want trainers’ I said.
‘I’ve got an idea,’ said Izzie. ‘What about Doc Martens?’
‘they’ll be expensive, but they can be an early Christmas present from me,’ she said.
‘Oh Izzie, you’re so great! Can they be really bright ones? Red?’
‘I don’t see why not,’ said Izzie.
She knew my size so she went to the shops and bought them for me.
‘They say I can return them if they don’t fit,’ she said, showing me the wonderful scarlet shiny Docs.
They fitted perfectly and they meant the world to me.
commentary: The corduroy pinafore certainly had me going, I believed it for a moment – though the heroine in this blogpost actually would be wearing that.
There are many books I loved as a child – Little Women, A Little Princess, Wind in the Willows, the works of E Nesbit. But my absolute favourite was What Katy Did by Susan Coolidge, first published in 1872. I got it for Christmas when I was maybe 6 or 7 – a brand-new beautiful hardback. I read it a lot. This is what it looks like now:
Although there are other copies in the house (of course – I had to buy my daughter her own copy) this is still my favourite, and when I pick it up I can remember starting to read it on a dark Christmas morning.
Four years ago, when this blog started up, What Katy Did at School was one of the first books featured, with a picture that became my avatar for a long time:
and What Katy Did followed on soon after. [Different editions group these two stories differently – for me they were both in my once-beautiful hardback and so they were all one story to me, called What Katy Did.] So when I heard that there was an updated, modern version of the book I had to buy and read it immediately.
Jacqueline Wilson is a modern-day author whom I like very much – there’s a blogpost here on another updated classic she wrote, though this gives the impression that that’s all she does. In fact she is a very prolific and very good writer of contemporary and entertaining books. This is an article I wrote about her a while back, in the US online magazine Slate, to introduce her to American readers. One of the points I made is:
Her books' tone is not that of so many young adult books—"I understand you, and this book will help you cope." Wilson's tone is, "This is the way life is, now let's see what happens."-- and this is true of the new book Katy.
Anyone who has read the original will greatly enjoy spotting the parallels and slight twists on the ur-story in this one. Izzy has become a stepmother (rather than an aunt), and Elsie is a stepsister.
The first half of both books contains scenes from family life – rambunctious and very funny. Katy is a lovely heroine because she is full of ideas and a natural, imaginative leader, but can also be clumsy and awkward, and so she keeps getting into scrapes.
Then something terrible happens to her – both books. In the old version, there is a chapter called Dismal Days, and it is the only chapter I used to sometimes miss out in my re-reading. The new book is equally bleak and harrowing and actually made me cry. (The scene with the old lady next door – not paralleled in the 1872 book – was the killer.)
The plots start diverging here, and for a reason that I cannot divulge. I was hoping modern-Katy would go off to a boarding-school like old-Katy, and I feel I can say that that does not happen. But the new book is absolutely tremendous: most unusual and beautifully-done, and I loved it and stayed up late (for the second time in a couple of weeks) to finish it – I couldn’t bear to go to sleep till I found out how it ended for Katy. I read the 460 pages in no time at all. Highly recommended.
I’d be interested to hear from my American friends – is the original What Katy Did still popular there? When I lived in the US my local friends – great book readers all – didn’t remember her from their youth. Was it more of a UK thing, even though the original Katy is of course American? Please let me know your thoughts.