What to Read After... Judy Blume 20/01/20
A new reimagining of the original children's classic What Katy Did by Susan Coolidge.
With their widowed father having re-married, 11 year-old Katy and her sisters now share the house with his second wife Izzie, her daughter and three new young additions to the blended family. The first half of the book sets the scene - a lively, chaotic and often factious family environment. Katy herself is adventurous, enthusiastic and eager to try to get things right. However she's also strong-willed, clumsy and impulsive, and has a tendency to get things wrong - frequently coming to blows with Izzie. It's one such quarrel that indirectly leads to the fateful accident which leaves Katy in hospital with a spinal injury. The second half of the book follows Katy, her family and friends as they all slowly adapt to her new life as a wheelchair-user.
As a child, author Jacqueline Wilson had loved Coolidge's 1872 book. However, as an adult she started to notice the flaws - the wildly implausible 'recovery' and the saccharin depiction of the saintly 'invalid' Helen. It was this realisation which led to her to try to share the beauty of the original story but minus the more negative (and less realistic) messages about disability.
The result is indeed a far more convincing picture of life adjusting to permanent spinal injury, with powerful new messages about the accessibility of buses, the legal obligations on schools, independent mobility and the attitudes of society. Readers see Katy starting to find pleasure in inclusive sports and wheelchair dancing. And along the way, we also see other stereotypes subtly challenged - including a delightfully 'cool' young librarian. Perhaps most successful is the absence of traditional extremes all too often associated with disabled characters, such as as being either evil or angelic - and nothing in-between. 'Helen' still makes an appearance in the book, but she's no longer a saint, just a particularly likeable and independent young wheelchair user who befriends the whole family. Katy herself is a very 'real' personality, surrounded by a cast of equally plausible characters, each dealing with their own set of foibles, challenges, weaknesses and strengths. Katy can sometimes be grumpy, angry, cruel, bitter or intimidating but that is not because she is in a wheelchair, but rather because (as a her friend Ryan reminds her), that is the way she has always been.
It's a long read (470 pages) but an absorbing and accessible one. Wilson's much-loved style of writing and distinctive voice (children who endearingly call each other 'wicked' and 'horrid') somehow also manages to seem suitably contemporary whilst also feeling very much 'at home' in this semi-familiar story.
All in all, a fascinating alternative to the original, with just as much emotion and action, but rather more realism where disability is concerned.