John C Adams Reviews 'What Katy Did'

What Katy Did by Susan M. Coolidge

I thought long and hard about which vintage children’s book to review for my inaugural ‘Memories for Mondays’ post. It was so difficult to narrow down the task and choose between the many wonderful books I remember from my childhood. In the end, I chose ‘What Katy Did’ because of its longstanding popularity and the joy it has given to generations of readers since its publication. But then that is also true of so many amazing school stories, pony books and other books for children published before 2000. That is where I chose to draw the line for my ‘Memories for Mondays’ posts, which isn’t too restrictive given that I was born in 1970.

Katy Carr is the eldest of six motherless children. She finds the starchy orders of her spinster aunt Izzie, her father’s sister, very hard to bear. Katy is always being told off for losing a schoolbook or her slate, ripping her dresses, leaving her drawers in a messy state or encouraging her siblings and schoolfellows to engage in riotous games. Despite her mother’s dying words, Katy, who is twelve when the book opens, finds it impossible to act as any kind of mother-figure to her brothers and sisters or even to show them a good example. A visit from Cousin Helen, an invalid who embodies sweetness, kindness and patience, makes Katy want to improve.

The infractions Katy commits are of the harmless kind until one day Aunt Izzie forbids the children from using a new swing in the woodshed. One of the staples is cracked, but Izzie’s failing is to deliver a command not an explanation. In a typical fit of pique, Katy uses the swing anyway. She enjoys feeling free as she soars up again and again, until eventually a terrible cracking sound precedes Katy tumbling to the ground.

Katy’s back injury is severe, made worse by the fever that follows. For years after the accident she must lie flat in bed, cut off from playing with her siblings and friends. The narrative is of the School of Pain type, but Coolidge presents it with gentleness and compassion. The reader loves Katy already, for her impetuous and headstrong nature, for her human faults that make her relatable for any child. Her accident and her long, patient road to recovery endear her to us even more.

‘What Katy Did’ has been a favourite with young readers since its publication, spawning numerous imitations and always remaining in print. The vivid descriptions of Katy’s life before her accident are an absolutely faithful glimpse into the life of children, playing in their woodland den or feasting in the hayloft with their cookies. ‘What Katy Did’ captures the essence of childhood absolutely.

The comments section is open. I'll be back on Wednesday. Many thanks for reading my review, and to Gantas Vaičiulėnas for providing the image for this post via Unsplash.

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