The book is often criticised for being too sugary-sweet and moralising, but that is an inevitable result of the time, place and audience of writing - it is similar in that respect to Little Women. I always preferred the Carr family to the Marches, however, probably because they were younger. The earlier chapters are quite simply about children playing, quarrelling and getting into trouble - and it's so vivid. Katy had such a vivid imagination, and I could just dream I was there, sitting on the roof of the ice-house, or exploring Paradise with a picnic, playing Kikeri or the river game, playing post-offices... to name but a few. There is no doubt in my mind that the first half of the novel is the most fun.
At the beginning of the novel, Katy is twelve years old, full of mischief, thoughtless, careless, untidy - for a C19th century children's novel bound for reform from the very start - but one does so much wish she wasn't. She's not always very nice, which we see in her treatment of Elsie. Elsie is very much the middle child - wants to join in with her big sisters' games, but always pushed aside and told to run along and play with the children. Yet Katy means well, and that redeems her character.
Halfway through the book, we are introduced to Cousin Helen, and this is a character that I think has changed over the last century or so. Before they meet Cousin Helen, who is an invalid, Katy predicts that she will be "something like 'Lucy' in Mrs Sherwood, I suppose*, with blue eyes, and curls, and a long, straight nose. And she'll keep her hands clasped so all the time, and wear 'frilled wrappers', and lie on the sofa perfectly still, and never smile, but just look patient
Ugh! Doesn't she sound simply ghastly? Though that is what Katy is looking forward to. Thank goodness Cousin Helen is not like that - though she's almost as bad. She is just too perfect. Unlike the imaginary Helen, she does smile, and has fun, and is never too busy for the children. She never gets cross, and when she became an invalid, broke off her engagement to the man she loved, so that he wouldn't have to be always looking after her. "[a]nd now, he and his wife live next door to Cousin Helen, and are her dearest friends. Their little girl is names 'Helen'. All their plans are talked over with her, and there is nobody in the world they think so much of." I don't know about you, but I find that most unhealthy. More than anything, I pity Alex's wife - surely she would never be able to live up to Alex's first love who is "half an angel already."
Don't get me wrong, Helen is lovely, but she is too lovely. I notice as an adult that she is quite a two-dimensional character, a person for Katy to aspire to, and to trigger her improvement.
For improvement is what Katy is doomed to from the beginning. On a day of bad temper, Katy disobeys her Aunt Izzie's orders not to play on the new swing in the wood-shed, and it breaks and injures her spine. She is confined to bed for four years, where she learns patience and consideration for others, and later the responsibility of being the Woman of the House, after Aunt Izzie dies. She emerges from her bed at the age of sixteen, unrecogniseable from the impetuous little girl she was before - and from this point onwards the interest in the series switches from her to the next sister down, Clover.
Although Clover was much more of a good girl than Katy to begin with, she keeps her sense of humour, and her character. Alas, Katy does not. That is not to say that I don't like the series from this point on - because I do. But the focus of the story switches onto what Katy did, rather than the character of Katy herself.
*Research turns up the story "The History of Lucy Clare" by Mary Martha Sherwood, a story that makes the "moralising" in What Katy Did look simply anarchical by comparison.