May 22, 2013

Favorite kids' books: "Catherine, Called Birdy" (Karen Cushman)

An amusing but pensive historical fiction novel set in late 13th century England.

Author: Karen Cushman
Title: Catherine, Called Birdy
First published: 1994
Pages: 176
Age group: 9 and up
Editions: USA and UK (Sandpiper through Amazon - though Cushman asks readers to support their local bookstores rather than order online!)


Catherine, a thirteen-year-old living in medieval England, has begun keeping a diary at the request of her favorite brother, Edward. She relishes the opportunity since it gives her a reprieve from her more detested chores - like spinning. Her days are fairly mundane - on September 20, for instance, she "chased a rat about the hall and set the broom afire, ruined [her] embroidery, threw it in the privy, ate too much for dinner, hid in the barn and sulked, teased the littlest kitchen boy until he cried [...]" She is determined to resist her mother's efforts to make her a lady, "docile and dumb." Yet her father, the minor aristocrat Rollo, is only determined to make a good match of her. And though Catherine succeeds in driving off the majority of her suitors, one remains persistent...

Comments and thoughts

I decided to make this MEDIEVAL WEEK (or even fortnight?) so Catherine, Called Birdy fits in well with my visit to the Cluny museum.

I first read the book in elementary school and enjoyed it, but forgot about it until years later a friend suggested it when I asked her what books I could give one of my little sisters. I've reread it a few times since then, and it remains one of the most entertaining historical fiction novels I know.

The novel's key strength is the character of Catherine - she is funny, vivacious, intelligent, and realistically flawed. Yet it's also effective because it isn't too explicitly didactic about discussing medieval life. While I still have a soft spot for the American Girl books, they are highly formulaic and really more educational than of literary merit - unlike this book.

My only complaint as an adult is that I found the ending a bit too reliant on a deus ex machina - though without this it would be pretty depressing.

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