Review of “Catherine, called Birdy”

Cushman, Karen.  Catherine, called Birdy. Clarion, New York, 1994.  ISBN: 0395681863
Catherine is a “typical” girl living in 1200s England.  Her father wants to marry her off and her mother is teaching her to embroider cloth and act lady-like.  The story is told with a funny tone even though this girl is living in deplorable circumstances.  She is living with fleas, being “cracked” by her father, being sold off to “Shaggy Beard” and told to write an account of her life in order to become more mature.  Instead of hearing about princesses, as Cushman explains, this book is about the real life of a normal girl in medieval England.  Catherine has hopes and dreams to have a better life.  She is smart and talented but she has a kind heart towards animals.  Luckily, Shaggy Beard dies and she only has to marry his son, Stephen.
Vardell writes, “Cushman’s Newberry winning novel, The Midwife’s Apprentice…tells of a dirty, homeless girl in Medieval England who learns self-respect as well as midwifery in this short, excellent read aloud” (180).  This book is a bit more detailed to be a read-aloud I think, but the same premise is there.  By making this book show young readers (especially young female readers) there is an awareness of what kind of life young women had to endure.  I think readers will connect with the epistolary style.  Vardell states, “A well-written historical novel can give children a sense of participation in the past, a sense of continuity, of our place in the sweep of human destiny” (176).  This diary of a 13 year old girl really would give a reader a sense of participation in her world.
This book has won the Newberry Award  and the Golden Kite Award in 1994.  School Library Journal (June 1, 1994) reviews this book by saying, “This unusual book provides an insider’s look at the life of Birdy, 14, the daughter of a minor English nobleman. The year is 1290 and the vehicle for storytelling is the girl’s witty, irreverent diary. She looks with a clear and critical eye upon the world around her, telling of the people she knows and of the daily events in her small manor house. Much of Birdy’s energy is consumed by avoiding the various suitors her father chooses for her to marry. She sends them all packing with assorted ruses until she is almost wed to an older, unattractive man she refers to as Shaggy Beard. In the process of telling the routines of her young life, Birdy lays before readers a feast of details about medieval England. The book is rich with information about the food, dress, religious beliefs, manners, health, medical practices, and sanitary habits (or lack thereof) of the people of her day.”  I would love to see young female readers use one of Cushman’s books for a historical novel book report.  I know the local library keeps the Dear America series on the top shelf because many students come in looking for a required historical fiction novel for a report.  Carolyn Meyer’s books would be of interest to young readers also.  I think most students would like to tell the class all about the ways of life that children of such time periods lived.

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