Katy by Jacqueline Wilson

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Jacqueline Wilson’s Katy is a retelling of Susan Coolidge’s 1872 classic What Katy Did, which has been read by a surprisingly small number of people talking about Katy. But I have read it. I first read it when I was much littler. My copy of What Katy Did at School (formerly my mother’s copy) is now missing the first twenty pages or so and the remaining pages are no longer attached to the cover but my copy of What Katy Did Next is in pretty good condition. I’ve even read Clover, although I remember absolutely nothing about it. My point is, I’m familiar with the Katy Carr from 1872.

The big reason for this retelling is to address the story of Katy’s spinal injury, subsequent paralysis and recovery, because there are… problems with it. Katy, unable to walk, attends “The School of Pain”, becomes a saint and is rewarded by being able to walk again at the end. Sorry for spoilers from a book 144 years old. The idea of this book was to retell this story, with a little more realism and a little more 21st century. A big bit more.

In my quest to find out what other people thought of this book, I’ve read quite a few reviews and blogs about it and one thing quite a few people have said is that they think the first half is too slow, filler, pointless – in short, that the story didn’t get going until Katy fell off the swing and the spinal injury storyline starts.

But the injury and the paralysis aren’t the point of What Katy Did. It’s just a plot device. The point of What Katy Did is to make Katy grow from an irresponsible twelve-year-old into a twelve-year-old housekeeper and mother to her five younger siblings. You have to have the story of Katy and her family, you have to see their relationships because that’s the big arc. The paralysis is just there to stop her running around like a child, force her to slow down and take all the responsibility. Which is pretty problematic to me in 2016 – I mean, it’s great for her to stop being so thoughtless and causing so much trouble for Aunt Izzie but I’m uncomfortable with the idea of Katy being groomed at twelve to be the adult in the family.

Fast-forward to 2016’s Katy. Aunt Izzie is now stepmother Izzie, because maiden aunts who come to look after their brothers’ households aren’t a thing anymore. Odd one out Elsie is now a stepsister, which makes a certain amount of sense and the three youngest, Dorry, Jonny and Phil, are now half-siblings. I suppose Katy is about Katy’s relationship with Izzie, the slightly resented stepmother, finding a place for Elsie (I particularly like how beautifully the “post offices” have become text messages) and learning to be the big sister of a large family. Emphasis on “the big sister” rather than “the mother and guiding light”.

Superficially, the two books are surprisingly similar. The same stories are retold – Jonny and her favourite chair, Katy’s bad day at school, even the over-sophisticated new best friend Imogen turns up. The bower is now the half-hidden end of a neighbour’s garden. The daydreams about their futures is pretty similar, give or take adjustments for 144 years. But the focus, the overall arc, is totally different. This isn’t really a story about Katy’s family, this is a story about Katy’s disability.

I feel like I’m too old to be crying over Jacqueline Wilson books but I did, right from Katy being discovered on the ground to well towards the end. I think it had parts where it turned too much into a pamphlet rather than a story but I can see the purpose of it. “Here are three pages about the rights of disabled students” – it needs to be in there but it felt a wee bit clunky and contrived. I liked the way Katy adjusted to her new lifestyle, in fits and starts, with steps back as well as forward. I liked the way, now I come to think of it, that Dr Carr didn’t sit down next to Katy and tell her gently and lovingly that it was all her own fault she was paralysed like he did in What Katy Did. And yes, it’s more satisfying that it ends with Katy watching the Paralympic Games and being amazed and inspired, rather than standing up from her wheelchair and gliding down the stairs like an angel.

(The big trouble with the Paralympics is that I have to spend the best part of two months listening to people calling them the “Para-alympics”)

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