Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Book Review 1 - Genre 5 - Catherine Called Birdy by Karen Cushman

Bibliography -

Cushman, Karen. 1994. Catherine Called Birdy. New York: HarperCollins Children’s Books. ISBN 0064405842.

Plot Summary –

This historical fiction is Catherine’s diary that she is recording at the request of her older brother. He feels it will make her “less childish and more learned” (p. 2). She records each day from September 12th until September 23rd of the following year. Catherine is an average 13 year old living in the Middle Ages. Her father who is a knight feels she has reached the age to get married, and he seeks to find her a proper suitor. Her abusive father is looking for someone who can increase his wealth and is not concerned how Catherine feels about his choice. Clever Catherine does not agree with her father that she is ready for marriage and finds creative and often hilarious ways to chase off each suitor. Through reading the detailed account of the daily events in Catherine’s life, the medieval times come to life.

Critical Analysis –

Cushman presents an authentic portrayal of life in the Middle Ages through the words of young Catherine in this historical fiction. After reading this fascinating book, the reader has painlessly learned a bit of history. Cushman shares the language, food, holidays, daily life, cures and much more of England in 1290. During this time, a lady’s tasks included sewing, brewing, doctoring, and picking maggots from meat (p. 13). All of which, Catherine hated just as teens today hate doing their chores. The doctoring might be a bit surprising to be a lady’s job, and some of the cures are just as surprising, such as, chamomile and dung for headaches (p. 149) and wallflowers and warm wine for child birth pains (p. 192). The book is full of surprises for today’s young adult reader.

Just like any average 13 year old, Catherine wants her own life and not the one her father decides is best for her. Catherine wants to be a scribe, a crusader, a minstrel, a pig boy, anything but a wife. In this coming of age story, Catherine starts off as a bratty little girl and transforms to a hopeful young lady who says, “The world is full of possibilities” (p. 205). The historical details in the plot are presented in a way that young adult readers can grasp life in the Middle Ages without being overwhelmed or having the facts watered down. As Catherine plots to rid herself of each suitor, the reader is increasingly encouraged that she will succeed in getting out of marriage. The reader learns that fleas are an everyday fact of life and that in the winter a bath is out of the question. Also, the reader learns the harsh reality that young girls whose father’s are knights have no choice in when they will get married or who they will marry.

Besides the unfamiliar events of medieval life, the reader also learns about Catherine’s feelings of being a caged bird as they are creatively woven into the story. First of all, Catherine’s nickname is Birdy because she has a collection of birds hanging in cages in her room. Birdy tells all of her secret thoughts to the birds who “listened quite politely” (p. 8). While at the fair, Catherine’s desire for freedom is expressed when she kicks over a basket of cocks that were used for fighting, and says, “I thought I was Moses leading them to freedom” (p. 18). When the birds returned to their cages, she is so depressed that she is ready to end her adventure and leave the fair. In the end when she accepts her fate, she says, “In any event, I am, if not free, at least less painfully caged” (p. 205). Just like the cocks at the fair, Catherine has no real choice but to stay in her cage, yet it is a cage of her choosing and for a young girl in the Middle Ages that was the best case scenario.

Additionally, Cushman has an interesting way of sharing prejudice of the time period and avoiding stereotypes when a group of Jews come to Catherine’s for a visit. This takes place during the time the Jews were being expelled from England. Catherine is very anxious to see them because she had been told that Jews have horns, tails, and are Hell-born, wicked, and dangerous (p. 14). At first, she is frightened of them and watches from a distance. As she observes them, she discovers that are very much like Christians, so she decides to speak with them. She listens to them tell stories from the Bible and is unhappy to see them leave the next day, so much so, that she decides to dress up like a boy and leave with them for an adventure at the fair. Through this experience, the reader learns to observe, interact, and draw their own conclusions about others instead of merely relying on the conclusions of others. This work of historical fiction accurately captures the time period while connecting the young adult reader through Catherine’s struggles of self-determination. The reader learns just as much about the trials of growing up as he/she does about life in the Middle Ages.

Review Excerpts –

Publisher’s Weekly – "The period has rarely been presented for young people with such

School Library Journal – “A delightful, rebellious heroine, determined not to marry the man of her father's choice.”

Children’s Literature – “Cushman brings the Middle Ages alive with a revealing, humorous and riveting story…”

The Horn Book – “Fascinating and thought-provoking.”


  • A Newbery Honor Book
  • 1995 Notable Children’s Book (ALA)
  • 1995 Best Book for Young Adults (ALA)
  • Quick Picks for Young Adults 1995 (ALA)

Connections –

*Before reading Catherine Called Birdy, use DK Eyewitness Books : Medieval Life ISBN 978-0756607050 to give students an overview of life in the Middle Ages.

* After reading Catherine Called Birdy, have students research medieval life and verify Catherine’s account. Put students in groups and give each group a different aspect to research, such as, foods, holidays, cures, clothing, housing, entertain, etc. When they are finished have the students set up displays depicting what they have learned and share with others.

*Read other similar books:

  • The Midwife’s Apprentice by Karen Cushman – ISBN 9780064406307
  • Matilda Bone by Karen Cushman ISBN 978-0064406307
  • Crispin: Cross of Lead by Avi – ISBN 978-0064406307

*In groups, have students select their favorite part from Catherine Called Birdy and write a reader’s theater script. Then allow them to perform it for others.

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