Hello! Last week was lost, alas, to the glory of YALC – but this week I’m returning to MG Strikes Back with my Sunday best: Jacqueline Wilson’s ‘Katy’, published by Puffin on the 30th July 2015.
‘Katy’ is a retelling of Susan Coolidge’s What Katy Did; a book I adored as a child, but found problematic on re-reading. Coolidge’s young characters, including eponymous Katy Carr, long, leggy, irrepressible, and always tumbling into trouble with the best of intentions, and her five delightful siblings, have worn pretty well. But the plot, in which Katy falls from a swing and injures her back, but is restored to full mobility after transforming herself into a sweet-natured ‘little mother’ and angel in the home, is less palatable. For disabled readers, their families, and anyone who cares about treating disability as more than a convenient trope to be smoothed away into a happily ever after, What Katy Did tends now to leave a slightly bitter taste in the mouth.
Spoiler alert - Jacqueline Wilson’s ‘Katy’ has no such plot-convenient happy ending. Katy Carr is the eldest of six, a lively, risk-taking teller of tall tales and setter of bad examples, perpetually in trouble at school and with her stepmum, Izzie. One day, sullen at being left out of a family outing, she improvises a makeshift swing and falls, suffering irreversible damage to her spine. Fun-loving, daredevil Katy must now adapt to life as a wheelchair user – and to a very different family dynamic. In her own inimitable, funny, but uncompromising style, Wilson faces and translates Katy’s overwhelming pain and grief, her parents’ sorrow, her friends’ self-conscious discomfort, and her siblings’ blunders as they try to come to terms with a new version of their beloved leader.
This book, a serious contender for JW’s career best, made me heave enormous, headache-inducing sobs, and left me feeling like a kitten put through a spin cycle - but I’m grateful that Wilson has written it. Refusing to temporise or hedge its bets, ‘Katy’ is raw, honest, and ultimately uplifting, carefully balancing grief, acceptance and tentative optimism. In hospital, Katy dreams that she can walk again, and wakes to renewed heartbreak; she also meets the blackly funny Dexter, with whom she can share her sorrow. Her best friend Cecy is, at first, standoffish to Katy-in-a-wheelchair – but they manage to break through the thin, icy strangeness between them, and rediscover their bond. Katy has lost a great deal, but her life is not over – and a rich future still awaits her, although it’s not the one she had expected.
Wilson’s Carrs are a thoroughly blended bunch, the product of two marriages, which feels like a particularly astute authorial decision, helping to make sense of the sheer size of the family, which might otherwise feel hard to believe for contemporary kids. Wilson took a similar approach when she revisited E. Nesbit a few years back, with a splendidly comic Psammead homage, ‘Four Children and It’. What she has done with Coolidge’s dated masterpiece, however, far surpasses her source; and deserves to be read, wept over, and appreciated as a classic in its own right.