Susan Coolidge’s What Katy Did, first published in 1872, remains a best-selling book for children, but it has been criticised for its treatment of disability. Last year, Jacqueline Wilson published Katy, a retelling of Coolidge’s story. Dr Rebecca Butler interviewed Dame Jacqueline for Books for Keeps.
Why, I wondered, did Jacqueline choose What Katy Did as a story to be retold?
Jacqueline explained that as a child she loved the book. Her daughter Emma, now a Cambridge professor, also loved Katy’s Cousin Helen. There is a taste among publishers for the retelling of classic stories for a new generation of readers; Jacqueline had already tackled one such retelling, namely E.Nesbit’s Five Children and It. She also added that I had been nagging her for years to write the story of a credible disabled character – a charge to which I plead guilty! She had considered retelling Louisa M. Alcott’s Little Women, but rejected it on the grounds that it defines too narrowly the roles of girls and women.
Did planning the retelling take detailed research, for example on health and education?
At literary events she attended Jacqueline kept on the lookout for a child in a wheelchair who might share her experiences. At the Cheltenham Literary Festival a young girl offered to introduce Jacqueline to her aunt, Nickie Miles-Wildin, a wheelchair user. Nickie proved to be an invaluable source of information on the education and medical treatment of a young person in a wheelchair, and Katy is dedicated to her.
Jacqueline also gathered information from the medical world, asking several hospitals to help provide information about how spinal injuries are treated. Some declined to help, others failed to reply – this, Jacqueline believes, is because hospitals have become reluctant to welcome visitors, in the light of their experience of abuse. Eventually she found a surgeon who would help her, through a personal contact.
Why did she choose to present Cousin Helen, the ‘invalid’ who teaches Katy patience and cheerfulness, in the way that she did?
In Coolidge’s book Cousin Helen is an angelic character, who no longer rings true to readers. Jacqueline wanted to cast Helen as someone without much physical dexterity but with a capable brain and a strong will. She made her a university lecturer. Jacqueline also gave Helen a strong bond to the Carr family: in her version, Katy’s father is a doctor and had treated Helen when she was a child. A scene I particularly enjoyed is one in which Helen tells stories to the Carr children. I couldn’t imagine Coolidge’s Helen doing this.
There is a lot of black humour in the Katy, what is the source for that?
Answering this question Jacqueline referred to her own medical history. She has experienced heart failure and kidney failure, though she now has a defibrillator and a brand new kidney. She has found that black humour is a way of dealing with her own medical problems. As a frequent patient at hospitals ‘you can either laugh or cry’.
What was the most difficult part of Katy’s story to write and why?
The scenes set in the spinal injury unit were the hardest to write. It would have been easy to make mistakes with the advanced medical technology. It would have been easy to strike a false note in the way patients responded to treatment. Jacqueline expected critics like me – with experience of disability – to be on the lookout for any mistakes. I told her I had found none. I was particularly impressed that she had described the problems of bowel treatment, an important post-operational problem but one most authors avoid on the grounds of supposed delicacy.
The story also features Dexter, a slightly older boy who finds himself in the spinal injury unit as a result of a motor bike accident. His role in Katy’s story results from Jacqueline’s experience with young female readers. ‘Even in unpromising settings like a hospital unit, girls like to find that the possibility of a romantic attachment exists’. I understood the point. The narrative also demanded that Katy should have someone with whom she could speak candidly about her anger and her aspirations. Dexter fits the bill. As a reader I found myself intrigued by the question whether Katy and Dexter could establish a viable relationship, though as a critic I found Dexter too perfect and too contrived to command complete credibility.
What messages would Jacqueline want young readers and adults to take from her retelling and why?
Above all Jacqueline wanted readers of all ages to understand that despite her disability Katy has feelings and needs just like any other young person of her age. The central core of her personality is unchanged. Jacqueline was at school with a girl named Lindsay who had polio. She was often absent from school. She was protected – perhaps over-protected – by a loving family. Had Jackie possibly ostracised Lindsay, I asked? Jackie said she hadn’t, she’d tried to befriend her, but she’d noted how the illness had robbed Lindsay of her self-confidence.
Jacqueline depicts disability in other novels including Queenie, Sleepovers, The Butterfly Club and The Worry Website. In , the eponymous protagonist has a foster brother named Saul. He has a ‘withered leg’ and dies of influenza in the Foundling Hospital. What message do characters like Saul deliver for modern readers?
In Victorian London influenza epidemics took place and it was probably true that physical disabilities made children more vulnerable to the virus. For most of the book Hetty does not like Saul. He is inclined to be a bully. But when he dies she regrets that she did not make more effort to bring out the best in him.
After Katy what’s next for Jacqueline’s fans?
Jacqueline’s new book Rent a Bridesmaid is just out. Two further episodes in the story of Hetty Feather are to be published in October, adding to the five episodes already in print. Whatever the subject, they are sure to be thoughtful, considered, and full of convincing, rounded characters, able-bodied and disabled alike.
Dr Rebecca Butler writes and lectures on children’s literature.
Books by Jacqueline Wilson:
Katy, Puffin, 978-0-1413-5398-2, £6.99
Queenie, Yearling, 978-0-4408-6988-7, £6.99 pbk
Sleepovers, Young Corgi, 978-0-5525-5783-2, £5.99 pbk
The Butterfly Club, Corgi, 978-0-5525-6993-4, £6.99 pbk
The Worry Website, Yearling, 978-0-4408-6826-2, £5.99 pbk
Hetty Feather, Yearling 978-0-4408-7124-8, £6.99
Rent a Bridesmaid, Doubleday, 978-0-8575-3272-5, £12.99 hbk
What Katy Did, Susan Coolidge, Scholastic Press, 978-1-4071-6246-1, £4.99 pbk