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What Katy Did

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What Katy Did
Cover of the Roberts Brothers edition, 1872
First edition cover
Author(s) Susan Coolidge
Country United States
Language English
Series The Katy Books
Genre(s) Children's literature
Coming of Age
Publisher Roberts Brothers
Publication date 1872
Media type Print ( Hardcover and Paperback)
Pages 277 ( Little, Brown edition, 1925)
Followed by What Katy Did at School

What Katy Did is a children's book written by Susan Coolidge, the pen name of Sarah Chauncey Woolsey. It follows the adventures of Katy Carr and her family, who live in the fictional lakeside Ohio town of Burnet in the 1860s. Katy is a tall untidy tomboy, forever getting into scrapes but wishing to be beautiful and beloved. When a terrible accident makes her an invalid, her illness and recovery gradually teach her to be as good and kind as she has always wanted.

Two sequels follow Katy as she grows up - What Katy Did at School and What Katy Did Next. Two further sequels relating the adventures of Katy's younger siblings were also published - Clover and In the High Valley; although these were long out of print, they have now been reprinted and are available online.

Coolidge modeled Katy on her own childhood self, and the other 'Little Carrs' on her brothers and sisters.

Plot summary

Twelve-year-old Katy Carr lives with her widowed father and her five brothers and sisters in a small midwestern town called Burnet. Her father, a doctor, is very busy and works long hours. The children are therefore mostly cared for by their Aunt Izzie, who is very particular, and something of a scold. Under these circumstances, Katy, a bright, headstrong, hasty girl, can hardly avoid getting into mischief almost daily; however, she is unfailingly remorseful afterward. She dreams of someday doing something "grand" with her life - painting famous pictures, saving the lives of drowning people, or leading a crusade on a white horse. At the same time, she wants to be "beautiful, of course, and good if I can." When her mother died four years before, Katy promised to be a little mother to her siblings; however, although she leads them into all sorts of exciting adventures, she is sometimes impatient and cross with them.

When her Cousin Helen, an invalid, comes to visit, Katy is so enchanted by her beauty and kindness that on the day of her departure she resolves to model herself on Helen ever afterward. The very next day, however, Katy wakes in an ill humour, quarrels with her aunt, and pushes her little sister so hard that she falls down half a dozen steps. Afterwards, sulky and miserable, Katy decides to try out the new swing in the woodshed, even though Aunt Izzie has, for some reason, forbidden it. The swing is unsafe because one of the staples supporting it is cracked. Had Aunt Izzie explained this, "all would have been right," but she believes that children should obey their elders without question. As it is, Katy swings as high as she can and, as she tries to graze the roof with her toes, the staple gives way. Katy falls hard, bruising her spine.

The lively Katy is now bedridden, suffering terrible pain and bitterness. Her room is dark, dreary, and cluttered with medicine bottles; when her brothers and sisters try to comfort her, she usually drives them away. However, a visit from Cousin Helen shows her that she must either learn to make the best of her situation or else lose the love of her family. Helen tells Katy that she is now a student in the "School of Pain" where she will learn lessons in patience, cheerfulness, hopefulness, neatness, and making the best of things.

With Cousin Helen's help she makes her room tidy and nice to visit, and gradually all the children gravitate round it, always coming in to see Katy whenever they can. She becomes the heart of the house, beloved by her family for her unfailing kindness and good cheer. After two years Aunt Izzie dies, and Katy takes over the running of the household herself. At the end of four years, in a chapter called "At Last", she learns to walk again.

The book includes several poems.


Katy Carr: the eldest of the Carr children and the protagonist of the novel. At the beginning of the book she is a twelve-year-old tomboy who much prefers running around outdoors to quiet 'ladylike' pursuits, and so tears her clothes and is always untidy; however, she longs to be good.

Clover Carr: the second eldest sister, Clover adores Katy and follows her in everything she does. Clover is pretty and clever, with a sunny disposition - she is described as loving everyone and loved by everyone in return.

Elsie Carr: the third sister, Elsie at the beginning of the book is the awkward child, too old to play with the 'babies' and too young to be included with Katy, Clover and their games. She tries her hardest to join in, but is usually ignored; so, instead, she whines. After Katy is injured Elsie proves very helpful and considerate, and she and Katy finally grow close.

Dorry Carr Dorry is a rather stolid boy, and a great eater. He is the fourth child and the eldest son, developing a certain mechanical skill over time.

Johnnie Carr (short for Joanna) is the fifth child and a tomboy. She and Dorry are great friends.

Phil Carr: the baby of the family, he is only four years old at the beginning of the book.

Cecy Hall: a pretty and tidy girl, the daughter of a near-by neighbour.

Imogen Clark: a classmate of Katy and Clover; a silly, affected girl. Initially she enthralls Katy with her romantic imagination, but she proves dishonest and self-centered. Katy grows disillusioned with her, just as her father predicted.

Papa (Dr. Philip Carr) is the children's father; he is a doctor and frequently busy. Their mother died when Katy was eight years old. He is a firm but understanding parent.

Aunt Izzie is Papa's sister, an old-fashioned woman who raises the children after their mother dies. She is very particular and scolds a lot because she does not understand the children's ways, although she has a heart of gold.

Cousin Helen is Papa's niece; she cannot walk because of an accident years ago. Despite her suffering, she is amusing, cheerful, and kind; just what Katy wants to be. After Katy's accident, Cousin Helen helps her adjust to her illness.


Susan Coolidge shared a publisher (Roberts Brothers) with Louisa May Alcott, and What Katy Did helped satisfy the demand for naturalistic novels about girlhood that followed the 1868 success of Little Women. Like Alcott, Coolidge heightened the realism of her novel by drawing on her own childhood memories. The result is a lively account of 19th-century American family life, still remarkably fresh and readable more than a century later.

However, What Katy Did also illustrates some profound social shifts. First, the novel offers a glimpse into the treatment of paraplegics in the 19th century. After her accident, young Katy is given ample love and care; however, she is perpetually confined to an upstairs room and, although she has a wheelchair, she never goes further than her bedroom window. The possibility that she leave her room is barely considered, and no-one thinks of moving her to the ground floor. She copes by making herself so pleasant that everyone comes to her. Early on, she goes out in the carriage, but finds the experience so painful that she never tries it again. Thereafter, she lives in her bedroom, makes the best of things, and waits, hoping to outgrow her injury. There is no physical therapy; instead, Katy is warned to avoid too much movement lest she "set herself back". Cousin Helen manages to travel a little, and even goes for a " Water Cure" at one point; however, it is made clear that she has no hope of ever walking again. Also, although she is beautiful, wise, and kind, she considers herself unmarriageable because of her infirmity.

Next, the book reveals much about Victorian expectations for genteel women. Coolidge sets forth an example to help maturing girls like Katy learn the virtues of a valued woman – gentleness, empathy, self-abnegation, humour, efficient housekeeping, and good taste; while books for boys from the same era provide corresponding fictional models of frankness, pluck and initiative. Katy's trials reflect a popular theme in the girls' fiction of the era: a headstrong girl suffers a debilitating accident or illness which proves to be a blessing in disguise, because it helps her forget her selfish desires and live for others instead. What makes Katy's case so provocative is that Coolidge deliberately conflates the code of womanhood and the code of cheerful invalidism.

Katy's misfortunes might also unconsciously reflect the author's mixed feelings about the implications of puberty for a Victorian-era girl – especially since Coolidge, who earned her own living as a writer, based tall, impatient, quick-witted Katy on her own young self. Katy is a dynamic, adventurous girl with big dreams for the future until she falls from a swing at the age of twelve and loses all freedom of movement; after that shattering trauma, she must spend the next four years confined to her bedroom. For months she surrenders to "selfish misery" - she behaves crossly, keeps her blinds drawn, and does little but think about the wretched future that awaits her. When Cousin Helen comes to counsel her, Katy asks her despairingly how she can be "sweet and beautiful and patient, when you're feeling badly all the time, and can't do anything, or walk, or stand?" Helen explains that she learned these virtues in the 'School of Pain', where Katy is now a pupil.

The abrupt, painful changes to which Katy gradually resigns herself may stand in for the potentially mortifying transition from wild girlhood to ladylike womanhood. Eventually, Katy becomes the "Heart of the House", assuming what was then perceived as a woman's (and, according to Cousin Helen, an invalid's) proper place. According to at least one critic, however, the undisciplined Katy of the novel's first half is far more engaging than the chastened graduate of the School of Pain. In the first sequel, What Katy Did at School, one of Katy's classmates – a vivacious girl nicknamed Rose Red – takes over the role of mischief-maker: Katy herself has become such a model citizen that she starts a club called the "Society for the Suppression of Unladylike Conduct".

It can also be argued, however, that maturity inevitably entails the loss of childhood freedom, an acceptance of adult responsibilities and, often, the abandonment of unrealistic dreams. The younger Katy is never exactly sure what she wants to do when she grows up: one minute she wants to be a crusader, the next a sculptor. Whatever her latest ambition, though, she assumes that to become someone worthwhile one has to do the sort of great deeds that get written up in history books. Her illness and the example of Helen teach her that small kindnesses and conscientiousness about day to day responsibilities are in their own way just as important as grand, heroic acts.


Katy's hair was forever in a snarl; her gowns were always catching on nails and 'tearing themselves'; and, in spite of her age and size, she was as heedless and innocent as a child of six. Katy was the longest girl that was ever seen. What she did to make herself grow so, nobody could tell; but there she was - up above Papa's ear, and a half a head taller than poor Aunt Izzie. Whenever she stopped to think about her height she became very awkward, and felt as if she were all legs and elbows, and angles and joints. Happily, her head was so full of other things, of plans and schemes and fancies of all sorts, that she didn't often take time to remember how tall she was. She was a dear, loving child, for all her careless habits, and made bushels of good resolutions every week of her life, only unluckily she never kept any of them. She had fits of responsibility about the other children, and longed to set them a good example, but when the chance came, she generally forgot to do so. Katy's days flew like the wind; for when she wasn't studying lessons, or sewing and darning with Aunt Izzie, which she hated extremely, there were always so many delightful schemes rioting in her brains, that all she wished for was ten pairs of hands to carry them out.

-What Katy Did, Chapter 1.


To date, two TV movies and a brief TV series have been based on What Katy Did. The most recent film (1999) starred Alison Pill as Katy, with Michael Cera as Dorry and Dean Stockwell as "Tramp". A 1972 UK movie adaptation, Katy, starred Clare Walker, and the 1962 8-part TV series – also called Katy, and also made in the UK – featured rising star Susan Hampshire in the title role.


What Katy Did was followed by four sequels: What Katy Did at School, where Katy and Clover attend the fictional Hillsover School (set in Hanover, New Hampshire); What Katy Did Next; Clover and In the High Valley.

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