At my writers’ group, YA author Claire Watts recently ran a workshop on writing for different age groups of children from tiny tots to young adults. We were asked to think about a book which had made an impact on us in our own childhood.
I thought immediately of What Katy Did by Susan Coolidge. I loved that book. I remember once snapping it shut saying, “Thank goodness, I’ve finished it.”
My mother asked if I hadn’t enjoyed it. And when I assured her I had, asked, “So why are you pleased you’ve finished it?”
“So I can read it again,” I said. And I did, many times. The number 23 resonates but I couldn’t have read it 23 times, could I?
I did read many other books throughout my childhood – unlike my young sister who, having read a Hardy Boys novel declared it was the best book she’d ever read and refused to read another book for several years because, she insisted, “It won’t be as good as that one.”
Hearing others in the writing group talk about the book which had most made an impact on them, reminded me of the many other wonderful books I’d read. Like many of my fellow writers I enjoyed Enid Blyton’s The Secret Seven series and The Famous Five. More and more memories of happy reading flooded back: Josephine Pullein-Thompson had allowed me to live in a world of ponies while the Malory Towers series by Enid Blyton (again) or The Chalet School series by Elinor Brent-Dyer let me enter a different world of boarding school, tuck boxes and midnight feasts in the dorm.
I longed to be sent to a boarding school (and/or own my own pony). The nearest I came to a midnight feast was when my friend who was visiting her grandparents next door agreed to meet in my garden shed at midnight. We climbed out of our respective windows – luckily we lived in bungalows – but she cut her finger trying to open a tin of corned beef and ran home, blood dripping down her granny’s nightdress. It was the kind of scrape Katy might have got into.
What was the allure of What Katy Did and, to a lesser extent, what she did at school and after? I decided to find out by re-reading. Rather than searching our freezing cold attic, where hundreds of boxes of books have been temporarily stashed, I took the easy way out and downloaded the trio of books from Amazon.
It’s been like bumping into an old, much-loved friend. As soon as I began reading I remembered the sequence of events and could almost recite parts of it. While there are some things with which my adult self takes issue – the message that disabled people should be good and kind and sweet-natured (a message found in other children’s books – think of Heidi for example) – I understand why as a child I loved Katy so much. She scribbled stories, she and her brothers and sisters played daft games -remember Kikeri? – and wreaked havoc. She was real. She tried to be good but, like most children, she usually failed. It’s full of humour, both in the things that happen and in the narrator’s voice.
And the narrator took Katy’s side most of the time, which I suspect was unusual. When Katy disobeyed Aunt Lizzie and used the swing in the barn the narrator points out that although she was wrong to ignore her aunt, it was also wrong of the aunt to expect unquestioning obedience. Had Aunt Lizzie explained the swing was not safe, Katy would not have swung on it with such disastrous results. As a young girl I must have relished a grown up person (as the narrator surely is) taking the side of the child.
I think I’m going off to join the girls at Malory Towers now. Which book made the most impact on you as a child?