Susan Coolidge’s famous story about Katy Carr was published in 1872 and is still widely read today. It is the story of a girl who disobeys an adult, has a serious fall and becomes paralysed as a result. Coolidge tells the story of Katy’s adaptation to being disabled.
Wilson’s latest book is a modern retelling of Katy’s story. In this version Katy is really breathtakingly naughty. Her father, as in the earlier version, is a busy doctor. The Aunt Izzie who in Coolidge’s book tries, largely without success, to control Katy and her five siblings, is in Wilson’s version a stepmother. The modern reader may find certain threads in the Coolidge book disturbing: when Katy becomes disabled, her cousin Helen (who is already disabled) tells her that she is learning important lessons in ‘God’s school of pain’ and they may shy away from the notion of an omnipotent deity who punishes disobedient children by making them disabled, and even more so from the concept that submission to God’s will leads to a ‘cure’.
In books of the Coolidge vintage, there is a tendency for disabled people to live in a bubble, inhabited by them and their impairment and nothing much else. In this updated version of Katy’s story, Wilson has explored in detail, and most convincingly, the context of a disabled person’s life. We see Katy confronted by medical treatment that doesn’t always meet with her approval. We see her gaining enough confidence to apply for admission to the mainstream school which she was going to join before her accident. She finds that the science classes take place in an upstairs classroom: there is, of course, no lift. The school has organised a friend to help her find her way around and the friend is Eva Jenkins, the one girl from her old school that Katy really detested. Her PE teacher devises a ball game that Katy can play in her wheelchair and during a game Katy barges into Eva. Her parents complain, Katy gets a red card, and Health and Safety ban wheelchair users.
Katy often uses the word ‘cripple’ which, in almost any context, is deeply offensive to disabled people. But then I once heard the famous wheelchair athlete Tanni Grey-Thompson say, ‘me and the other crips’ … Perhaps it’s authentic that Katy, being disabled, would use a term that wouldn’t be tolerated from anyone able bodied – but for me it still jars.
I once criticised Jacqueline Wilson for creating a disabled character who was too one-dimensional. This is certainly not a charge that could be levelled at this excellent book.