This book. This booooooook! ghoti found it and gave it to me for chanukah, and it is the most wonderful thing. I love Jacqueline Wilson, and I love Coolidge's What Katy Did in spite of it being problematic in that uniquely 19th century way. And it's a book about a protagonist who suffers a spinal cord injury which is not awful.
When I saw the cover I thought I was going to love Katy, and indeed I did. I took just a peek into it, and then I wanted to take a break by reading just one chapter, and before I knew it I'd read 200 pages at a gulp. I love almost everything about what Wilson has done with reimagining the original story, and it also works as a classic Jacqueline Wilson story, really showing her strengths as the best contemporary YA writer I've ever come across.
The characterization is just amazingly vivid, every person in the book just leaps off the page. Katy is just perfect, she really embodies the original Katy as a 21st century 11-year-old. One of the things I've always loved about Wilson is how excellently she does child viewpoint characters. I really feel that she gets what the world is like for tween girls in a way that almost no other writer does. And she works really well as an unreliable narrator, not to an extent that, I think, would be confusing to a reader in the target age-group, but just she has a limited point of view in the way that a bright, observant but still fairly naive and self-centred 11yo does, and the book is really clever in what it reveals to the astute reader before Katy realizes it herself. The choice to tell the story in the first person really works well. And the other kids are really well done too, particularly Elsie who just as much as in WKD is a really good portrait of the middle child in a big family making the transition from being one of the little ones to being able to run with her older siblings, and the way the older sisters find her unbearably annoying while she's still working on crossing that threshold, but the reader can completely sympathize with her.
A really interesting choice was to make Izzie a step-mother rather than an aunt. That makes sense in the contemporary setting, because generally maiden aunts don't keep house for single fathers these days. Anyway Wilson is really good at blended families. Here she portrays a collection of step and half siblings, which is probably more plausible to a modern reader than a family of six full sibs. So Katy and Clover are children of Katy's father and deceased mother, Elsie is Izzie's daughter from a previous relationship, further complicating her situation of being an awkward age and position in the family. The littles, Johnnie, Dorry and Phil, are children of the new relationship, with Johnnie and Dorry given as twins in this retelling. One sour note for me was the characterization of Dorry; he's a chubby child who loves his food, and I felt Wilson hasn't gone far enough to update the prejudices of the source novel.
The secondary characters are really well adapted, posh, snobby Imogen, best friend Cecy, everybody. And there are some great original characters in the kids in Katy's class and those she meets in the children's ward in hospital. Wilson accepts the trope that social success for an 11yo girl includes Getting A Boyfriend, but that's not what the book is about. I really liked Katy's relationship with Ryan, in fact. It's a really good portrait of the kind of relationship where he's mostly a boy who is a friend, but the two are shown to experience something like the beginnings of attraction. Katy's friendship with fellow spinal injury patient Dexter is also a really nice touch. It would take some fairly unlikely circumstances for an 11yo girl to be friends with a 16yo boy, but given they're on the ward together that does create said unlikely circumstances, and it's really nice to see a clearly platonic cross-gender friendship even while everybody in Katy's social circle is all about practising dating.
The adults are great too, even more than in her other books Wilson here conveys them as real people while sticking closely in the viewpoint of a child who hasn't entirely internalized that grown-ups are people too. I loved the detail of the really quite difficult relationship between Katy and Izzie. Katy thinks her stepmum is a horrible nag and hasn't got over resenting her for replacing her real mother. The book really poignantly shows Izzie doing her absolute best to be a good stepmother to a difficult oldest daughter, and being human enough to be hurt when Katy rebuffs her. Yet both she and the narrative understand that it's an adult's place to suck it up when a child they're parenting is expressing emotional difficulties that affect the relationship. Similarly, you get glimpses of Katy's dad really struggling to come to terms with her accident, and managing the relationship with his second wife, even though Katy still sees him as just her dad, her paragon and protector.
This is going to sound really vain, but the person I most related to was, of all people, Helen (a family friend, not a cousin in this retelling). Partly because Wilson has enough sense not to make her perfect and saintly in that sickly nineteenth century children's book way. In fact, she's the mouthpiece for rants about people who expect disabled children and even adults to be inspiring little angels. But also the way that the entire family absolutely adore her and fight over her affections, which reminds me slightly of my life though I'm closer to my partners' family than Helen to the Carrs (and there are three children, not six!)
And then there is the accident. This is just about the first thing I've read about spinal cord injury, fiction or non-fiction, since 2002 that hasn't either made me cringe at how inaccurate it is, nor upset me because it's too close to home. (My baseline is that I simply don't read stuff that advocates the so-called "mercy" killing, ie murder, of paralysed people, and it's distressing how much stuff doesn't even clear that low bar.) Wilson has clearly done her research about the medical stuff and the realities of the degree of care a paraplegic girl would need, but she also tells everything in a very gentle way and doesn't dwell on upsetting elements. I'd generally be happy to give this book to any child old enough to read it, I mean, you never know what will upset a very sensitive kid, and it does have the death of Katy's mother as background, but it's a really positive, upbeat story even as it's about someone having a pretty devastating accident.
I one hundred percent applaud Wilson's choice to remove the miraculous recovery plot from WKD. To be strictly fair to Coolidge, she never specifies the nature of her Katy's injury, and there are in fact ways to injure your back badly other than severing the spinal cord, and some of them do sometimes have the prospect of recovery. But even if the original plot is at least distantly medically plausible, it's still the most blatant possible example of a disability cure narrative. But Katy is very much a book about Katy recovering emotionally, not physically. She is at first devastated by becoming permanently disabled, which seems pretty realistic for a not very thoughtful 11yo, and she doesn't miraculously transform into the modern day version of the inspiring disabled person, completely unbothered by her impairment. Her happy ending is that she learns, with effort and a lot of set-backs, that her life isn't over, that being disabled might be a nuisance but isn't the end of the world. She comes to terms with her new reality and starts to think about the future again and the person she is still going to grow into.
There's lots of bits of society being disabling, things that should be accessible but aren't, strangers who patronize her, a head mistress who invokes health and safety to try to wriggle out of her obligations to include a disabled pupil in her school. Katy's confrontation with the last is a really brilliant piece of drama. Of course, Katy isn't going around theorizing about The Social Model of Disability, but to me as a non-disabled (but at least vaguely knowledgeable) reader, it seemed like a really good portrayal. The other character drama is not just Katy learning to be "good", but renegotiating her relationship with her family so they can find a way to relate to her both as a normal child, and as someone who has particular care needs.
So yes, Katy is awesome, and if you don't absolutely hate the whole YA genre you should definitely read it.
Currently reading: Theoretically A journey to the end of the millennium by AB Yehoshua, but I'm stalled on it to the extent that I read a whole other book in the middle, so we'll see. I know lots of people read several books at once but it's fairly unusual for me.
Up next: Not sure, I've been given a lot of awesome presents recently and haven't got round to reading them all. I've seen a few very enticing reviews of An interior life by Katherine Blake, which rysmiel gave me a while back and it's not got to the top of my reading pile.
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