It’s time for my second pick of books I loved as a child and would want to take with me to a desert island for repeated readings. This month my chosen book is What Katy Did by Susan Coolidge.
Katy has grand plans to be beautiful, graceful and ladylike … one day! But for now she has hair that is always tangled, bootlaces undone, a torn dress and she doesn’t care about being ‘good’.
With a wild imagination and high spirits, she is always up to mischief, but there never has been a heroine as lovable as Katy. Then a terrible accident happens and it takes all her courage – and hard-learned patience – to keep her dreams alive.
Next to Jo March from Little Women, Katy Carr was my favourite heroine growing up. A messy tomboy, she had a vivid imagination which she used to create stories and games for her gaggle of younger siblings, who all run riot over the Carr home and garden, much to the exasperation of prim Aunt Izzie.
I absolutely loved Katy and the Carr children, and was fascinated by their life and games. I wished we had a spiked pole to climb to a hidden den in the loft (although I didn’t think their special drink of ‘weak vinegar and water’ sounded like much of a treat!), and amazing swing that soared to the rafters of the woodshed, and a beautiful, woodland ‘Paradise’ to explore. It all sounded so idyllic.
Of course, Katy then has a terrible accident and is confined to bed which, for an active teenager, is torture and she has to learn hard lessons of patience and forbearance. But, with the guidance of saintly Cousin Helen, she soon becomes good and wise and a confidante and role model for all her siblings. This is the part of the book where it gets a bit preachy, in the same way that Little Women does, with lots of morals about being good and allowing God to guide you and virtue will be rewarded. This is no surprise, as Susan Coolidge wrote What Katy Did only a few years after the success of Little Women and at the request of her publisher, who was hoping to emulate that success. These were themes that were popular in Victorian children’s literature, which would grate with youngsters today, but did not remotely put me off as a child.
Going back to read this now, I can still see why I loved it so much when I was younger. I still enjoyed all the parts that were my favourites as a young girl – the picnics, the games, the Christmas presents (I still covet Elsie’s writing desk), the Valentines cards, the food and drink. All of these things would delight any child. My Macmillan Collector’s Library edition contains an introduction by Jacqueline Wilson, who was also a fan of the book and has written a modern retelling of the story called simply, Katy. I agree with most of what she says about What Katy Did in her opening chapter, except that she lost interest in Katy when she started to grow up. I didn’t. I loved the sequels, What Katy Did At School and What Katy Did Next just as much as the first book.
I haven’t managed to persuade either of my daughters to embrace Katy as I did, even in the modern retelling by Jacqueline Wilson, and even though my eldest daughter is name Katie, a moniker I have loved since first reading these books. I think I can understand why, the world has moved on too far since then, but I love her still and plan on reading the sequels as well some time this year.
You can buy a copy of What Katy Did here.
About the Author
Sarah Chauncey Woolsey (January 29, 1835 – April 9, 1905) was an American children’s author who wrote under the pen name Susan Coolidge.
Woolsey was born on January 29, 1835 into the wealthy, influential New England Dwight family, in Cleveland, Ohio. Her father was John Mumford Woolsey (1796–1870) and her mother Jane Andrews, and author and poet Gamel Woolsey was her niece. She spent much of her childhood in New Haven Connecticut after her family moved there in 1852.
Woolsey worked as a nurse during the American Civil War (1861–1865), after which she started to write. She never married, and resided at her family home in Newport, Rhode Island, until her death. She edited The Autobiography and Correspondence of Mrs. Delaney (1879) and The Diary and Letters of Frances Burney (1880).
She is best known for her classic children’s novel What Katy Did (1872). The fictional Carr family was modelled after her own, with Katy Carr inspired by Woolsey herself. The brothers and sisters were modelled on her four younger siblings