Forgotten Gems: The Katy Carr series
Are you looking for a lovely classic children’s novel to read? In this post, I’m introducing you to the story of the Carr family, which is told in What Katy Did and its four sequels. When I reread the first two books a few years ago, I was very happy to discover that I liked them just as much as ever. These novels were published in the late nineteenth century, and the series focuses on a large, happy New England family.
The first two books are absolutely wonderful. The initial book is Katy’s coming-of-age story and chronicles how she changes from a rambunctious little girl to a poised young woman throughout many challenges and setbacks. When What Katy Did was first published in 1872, The Boston Globe wrote of the novel: “The story belongs to that class of children’s books in which an attempt is made to represent children as they really are, and at the same time, to introduce such incidents as give, on the whole, a good direction to their impulses and wills.”
I find it interesting that I found the books so readable and rereadable when I was nine or ten years old—because at that time, I was a very slow reader, and it was hard for me to get through books that were written in a more old-fashioned style. But that wasn’t a problem at all with these books!
I actually read them out of order—my first introduction to Katy was in the second volume of the series, What Katy Did at School. I was nine years old and fascinated by the regulated (but terribly sophisticated!) boarding school that Katy and her sister Clover attend. They’re just so much fun—the characters seem so real, and the dialogue is excellently written (and seems much more modern than it is).
The last three books in the series are not my absolute favorite, but they do contain some fun elements as well. The third book follows Katy as she sails to Europe, goes sightseeing, and, naturally, meets a handsome lieutenant. And of course, you’re going to want to read the entire series to know who marries who, and where all the family members end up living. I will not divulge any spoilers, but let me say that the Carrs are a well-traveled family.
Here’s a little something about the author: Susan Coolidge was the pseudonym for Sarah Chauncey Woolsey, who wrote many short stories and poems and also edited a book of Jane Austen’s letters. She grew up in New England, and at the time she wrote the Katy books, she was living in New Jersey. I do a lot of genealogy, so I looked up some records about Susan and discovered a passport for her. The date of this record was 1872, which is fourteen years before she wrote What Katy Did Next. When I read What Katy Did Next, I was struck by the amazing details in the book, and I thought that the author had to be writing from experience to be able to describe everything so well. So now I think that she probably did go to Europe, as the passport would suggest, and possibly referred to letters or diaries from her trip to help write the third Katy book. (I also found her census enumeration in 1900, and her occupation is listed as “authoress!”) 🙂
I was listening to the first two on audio recently (I downloaded the Librivox versions read by Karen Savage). One thing that I found interesting when I was listening to What Katy Did at School for the first time was that the story takes place in 1868. And so I started doing some figuring and I realized that the first volume of the series is supposed to be set in 1863. So What Katy Did is supposed to be taking place about the same time as Little Women. And I don’t get that feeling at all reading it—I would have thought the Katy books were contemporary to the 1870s, which is when the first two novels were published. Perhaps this is because Susan Coolidge set out to write a book based on her family, and she grew up in the 1830s and 40s. And I wonder if the fact that she was reminiscing about an earlier era when she wrote them might have contributed to the sort of timelessness of the books (and consequently, the lack of an authentic 1860s feel).
Speaking of Little Women, I read that Susan Coolidge’s publisher, Roberts Brothers, was also Louisa May Alcott’s publisher. And I believe I read that like Louisa, Susan was inspired to write about a family that was modeled after her own. So while What Katy Did did not end up enjoying the amazing success that Little Women did, it has had a lasting impact on me and—I am sure—many other readers. I invite you to check out the books for yourself—because basically, if you love Little Women and Anne of Green Gables, you do not want to miss out on these! Happy Reading!
 The Boston Globe, December 4, 1872, pg. 1