Why does What Katy Did do what it does in the UK?

About six years ago I started conversing online with British lovers of children's books (a mailing list called Girlsown). Obviously some differences were to be expected, but I was very taken aback by how highly What Katy Did (Susan Coolidge, 1872) is regarded by many British readers. They love it over there. Just yesterday it was featured Lucy Mangan's Book Corner at The Guardian yesterday, a column where she recommends books that should be included in a "brilliant" children's library.

Fondness for Katy, however, is not a trait shared by all British girls. Here is the reaction of Lucy Mangan's sister: "...she hurled it across the room shouting "Katy did nothing!" before stalking off to build a working model of a nuclear reactor in Meccano behind the sofa."

What Katy Did didn't do much for me either, although I would never throw a book across the room, and I have even gone back and re-read it. Only once, though. Whereas Little Women (which came out just a few years earlier, from the same publishers) I can practically recite. The plot of Katy is just too blah-ly Victorian--spunky, independent girl disobeys, is punished with a bad injury, and after attending "the school of pain" is all gentle niceness.

Here is a random cover from one of the many reprints. Guess what is going to happen to the swing (although it does not appear to be moving, which is odd):

I do not number among my American acquaintances anyone who is particularly fond of Katy. But why is she so beloved over there? (It is everywhere--any used book store in the British Isles will have at least three copies). Here's my theory of the moment (tongue in cheek): Katy, perhaps, is seen as the quintessentially bumptuous American who gradually acquires the culture and dignity of a Brit--at first a source of tolerant amusement, she later becomes a source of self-affirmation by embodying valued National characteristics. Or possibly there was just a really, really good marketing campaign, that spanned centuries. I shall ask, and report back.

(disclosure: Reader, I married one. Someone from England, that is. He has never read "What Katy Did," nor does he want to).


  1. I love What Katy Did (I think I've mentioned it more than once on my blog). It's probably more correct to say that I love the sequels to What Katy Did, though--I've reread What Katy Did at School, What Katy Did Next (go to Europe) and Clover multiple times, but I'm not especially fond of the first one, for all of the reasons you mention. Have you read the sequels yet?

  2. I've never read What Katy Did either, but I see from your disclosure (reader, I married one) that you probably love Jane Eyre (like I do!)

  3. Oy, I've never read this one, but I read Lucy Managan's piece the other day and snickered. I'm not a book flinger, but I feel Lucy's sister's pain!!

    I'd buy your "bumptious American" theory pretty easily, though. There's an idea of "comeuppance" that is alive and well here in Scotland, aka schadenfreude, if you're a Continental...

  4. I don't dislike the sequels, but I've never been tempted to read them more than once. I think Clover is perhaps the most interesting one, from a historical fiction point of view, not so much a family story one. Have you ever read In the High Valley, Anamaria? I think it is available on line.

    I do like Jane Eyre, but mostly I like the aptness of the quote!

    And Tanita, I hope I haven't put the nail in Katy's coffin for you! It is not that bad, and many people do love the books (see Anamaria's comment above).

  5. Yes! I recently discovered In the High Valley and was thrilled to be able to read it online right away. I didn't like it very much. But I do love Clover.

    I wonder if this is one of those books or series about which I have little perspective, having read and loved it as a child. I was particularly fond of the Octopus Books omnibus edition I owned it in (I bought it at a bargain bookstore, with my own money!), too.

  6. It's very popular in Australia too - or at least it's one of those books all old bookshelves and bookshops have. And we don't think Americans are overly bumptious colonials :)

    I loved What Katy Did as a child, not so much as an adult, but love the last two books in the five, the ones where Clover goes off to live in the Colorado mountains.

  7. PS: I forgot to add that I agree that the sequels are probably more interesting from a historical perspective than as children's family books.

  8. I loved What Katy Did as a child, but I think what happened is that I did a lot of projection. I filtered out the way that she mellowed out and became "nice" as a result of her injury, and in my mind, she was always spunky and defiant. I also loved the holiday prep.


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