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.
They're still children's classics, though not as well known as LITTLE WOMEN or ANNE OF GREEN GABLES. I hope you finished the series with CLOVER and IN THE HIGH VALLEY?ReplyDelete
Thanks Ann - I did read the others in the series, incl What Katy Did Next, but never liked them as much - my copy of WKDN is pristine compared with the original Katy!Delete
Oh, parallel stories! I always think that's so interesting, Moira, and it shows that some themes and plot points are enduring. To answer your question, What Katy Did isn't really popular among the people I know. I know I never had a copy, and neither did my daughter. Doesn't mean others don't read it though.ReplyDelete
Thanks Margot and that is so interesting - I think if it were general you and your family would certainly know! It must have been one of those cases where it became more popular in the UK than in the country of origin.Delete
So pleased you reviewed this. I'd heard of the Jacqueline Wilson "remake", and heard an interview with her, in which she revealed she was a big fan of the original Katy. I wanted to read it, but have read so many awful rehashings of classics, that I swore never again. This does sound really good though so think I may give it a try. (I used to read through Dismal Days as quickly as possible)ReplyDelete
I have to be really cautious recommending it - it worked like magic for me, but might not for others. Like you, I have been much burned by updated classics. Wilson's afterword, where she explains her thinking, is very interesting.Delete
There's a woman lives down my road, looks the spit of Jacqueline Wilson, the kids always mentioned it on the walk to school as they saw her daily. I don't think it really is her, otherwise I'd knock for an autograph!ReplyDelete
OK, the way you can tell J Wilson is that all her fingers are half-full of thick chunky rings.Delete
Can't help this cheeky boast: my US colleagues once asked me for help with a picture quiz of authors they were all doing in the office. The email said 'who is the woman with all the rings, question 4?' They forgot to add the attachment with the pictures, but even without seeing it I said 'well it must be Jacqueline Wilson.'
So now - have a good peer next time you go past your neighbour!
Did you know, btw, that before turning to children's books she wrote a few adult psychological domestic thrillers - they were really really good.
Moira: I had not heard of the book until I read your blog. Growing up in the 1950's and 1960's I doubt this book was widely read in Western Canada but I expect you would be better to ask the girls of my generation.ReplyDelete
Thanks Bill did you ask Sharon? It's definitely a girls' book. I wonder why it moved across the Atlantic and didn't survive at home...Delete
I'm afraid I never heard of Katy, but I went to Amazon and found her, a series of 3, for $0.99. so I bought it. Then I put Katy on my Wish list.ReplyDelete
Oh good for you Janet, I do hope you enjoy. Let me know how you get on....Delete
I was an omnivorous reader as a child/teenager (born in 1955), reading my way through just about every volume of children's and young adult fiction on the shelves of our local public library, and I never heard of Coolidge's books until I was an adult and started reading 19th century popular fiction. I'm pretty sure she's all but unheard-of today.ReplyDelete
OK that's exactly what I want to know Shay, because you are so obviously someone who would have known it. Someone should reintroduce her to her home country! WE don't give children enough credit for being able to enjoy a story that is 150 years old. Katy is refreshing for being so naughty...Delete
I too loved these books when I was a child (in the UK). Fascinating that the stories have been updated!ReplyDelete
Thanks - nice to find another major fan.Delete
Moira, I liked the books you read as a child, some of which are in my family's collection. I have not read Susan Coolidge but I like reading stories from her era.ReplyDelete
Then you'll like this one! Honestly, I think everyone should give it a try...Delete
A lovely story about the book you loved as a child. I have not heard of either author or the books. However, as I have told you before, I don't remember any of the books I read as a child. My only memories of early reading is some of the mysteries (Erle Stanley Gardner, Rex Stout) I read in my teens.ReplyDelete
I think I went straight from children books to Agatha Christie, so I know what you mean...Delete
Perhaps they'll gain a wider audience now that they're online:ReplyDelete
I'd love to think of a new generation of children having access to the books.Delete
I adored What Katy Did - and I liked What Katy Did at School even better. Isn't it interesting that we were reading these as girls when they weren't being read in the US? I may well try Jacqueline's Wilson's version.ReplyDelete
I know, isn't it weird! You can imagine how mystified I was when I went off to America and people looked at me blankly when I mentioned Katy as a book for young girls.Delete