Brava, Birdy! by Kirby Larson
In 1995, my daughter’s then 6th grade teacher snagged me after school and pressed a book into my hands. “We’re reading this aloud in class,” she said. “And I think you would love it.”
I took the book home and turned to the first page. There I encountered one of my top five favorite openings of all time:
12th Day of September
I am commanded to write an account of my days: I am bit by fleas and plagued by family. That is all there is to say.
There was nothing for it: I read the book straight through. (Dinner was burned that night.) Catherine –with her worries about her mother, her quest for the perfect profanity, and her schemes to avoid being married off to Shaggy Beard – caught my heart and has never let go. Until meeting her, I had never been that interested in medieval history but turning those pages, I couldn’t get enough of the glimpses into this village’s daily life – the marriages, the deaths, the squabbles, the kindnesses, the harvests and the hangings. It was not a pretty time and Catherine was not a prettily perfect character: she was self-centered in many ways including being completely clueless as to her lack of singing ability, though she persisted on creating songs for every occasion. And yet she had a true heart and courage and an imagination. As a reader, I was completely transported by Karen Cushman’s words. As a writer. . .well, more about that later.
I was not the only reader so enchanted by Birdy. Twelve members of the American Library Association deemed this debut novel worthy of the 1995 Newbery Honor award. And listen to the thoughts of librarians Edie Ching, former librarian, St. Albans School for Boys, and Peggy Jackson:
Edie: I loved the fact that the boys really liked this book (despite all those articles about boys only being willing to read books with boy protagonists). The boys of my school could REALLY relate to the expectations of family and to the times, in terms of what you could and couldn’t do. We all appreciated Catherine’s feistiness and independence and the frustration of living with so many cultural and family restraints. Catherine convinced my students that a great character is a great character no matter the sex.
Peggy: I read Catherine Called Birdy as a grownup and I found one passage so moving that I typed it up, put a border around it and hung it on my teenaged daughter’s bedroom wall. It was the part in the story when Catherine is complaining to an old woman about her boredom with sewing and doctoring and how she wishes she could go crusading with Uncle George or live with the goats like Perkin. The old lady responds: “Little Bird, in the world yet to come, you will not be asked ‘Why were you not George?’ Or ‘Why were you not Perkin?’ but ‘Why were you not Catherine?’” I thought this perfect advice for a teenaged girl. Well, that girl is now 24 and I recently asked her if she remembered that passage I put on her wall so many years ago. It was a phone conversation; I had caught with my daughter on moving day. She replied: “Mom, I hung it on my wall in college and on my wall here in Chicago. It’s now packed up with my things.”
Powerful stuff. And now here we are celebrating the 20th anniversary of this tour de force.
Personally, I would be hard pressed to say who had changed me more: Catherine, or Karen. Catherine is powerless in her society. She schemes, and loves, and hates and curses. Yet, despite her limitations, she stays true to her very being. And Karen! As a new writer, I heard her speak at the annual international conference of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators; I even had her sign Birdy to my daughter.
I will never forget her conference keynote: she admonished us to follow your passions. And when Karen Cushman tells you to do something, well, you do it. Of course, it took me a few years to get the gumption, but I eventually heeded her words and launched myself into a career of writing historical fiction. Even though the rest of the world seems to be casting spells with warlocks and vampires and zombies, Karen’s words of advice have never served me ill.
And her words, spoken aloud as well as on paper, have inspired other writers, as well:
Gennifer Choldenko (Al Capone Does My Shirts) : What I love most about Catherine Called Birdy is the voice. Bad historical fiction has a voice as distinctive as already chewed food. But the voice Karen developed for Catherine is fresh and ornery, crunchy and edgy and clearly tethered to her medieval time.
Julie Larios (poet): It wasn’t Catherine’s sassiness that surprised me as much as Karen Cushman’s – I remember reading it and wondering “Can you do that?” about the mix of medieval time period/details with Catherine’s very modern voice. Cushman wasn’t afraid to do it. This was just when I was starting out in my own life as a children’s book writer, and I remember thinking that Cushman was right to be brave and to tell the story her way. That’s a good thing to remember if you’re a writer just starting out.
Barbara O’Connor (On the Road to Mr. Mineo’s):Catherine, Called Birdy is the first and only historical fiction that I laughed all the way through. Birdy is the feistiest, crankiest, most amusing historical character ever brought to life in the pages of a book. I mean, how can you not adore a girl who writes in her journal, “I am bit by fleas and plagued by family”? Or “I am near fourteen and have never yet seen a hanging. My life is barren.” And Cushman is the master of glorious words: clodpole, woolly-witted, nip-cheese. There will never be another book like this. A treasure.
Augusta Scattergood (Glory Be): In 1995 when the book won the Newbery, I was the librarian at an all-girls school in NJ. The fifth grade had a “Newbery Program” as part of their language arts classes. I remember how the girls loved Catherine Called Birdy and were surprised by it. The fleas! The potential horrible husband! How was any of this possible? As we showed our young women the many choices they now have in this world, Birdy made for some terrific discussions.
Caroline Rose Starr (May B): Catherine was the book that inspired me to write historical fiction. It is everything historical fiction should be — relatable, fresh, fascinating, and with an unforgettable protagonist. Thank you, Karen Cushman, for such an incredible book.
Thank you to all who shared their memories and thoughts about Catherine Called Birdy. It’s an honor to shine the spotlight on this book today. As a reader, it remains one of my all-time favorites.
As a writer, this book completely gobsmacked me, and like Caroline Rose Starr, it nudged me onto the path of writing historical fiction. If you want to learn more about that conversion experience –as well as read some additional tributes to Birdy and Karen– visit kirbyslane.blogspot.com on the official anniversary of publication, May 23rd.
Kirby Larson is the author of the 2007 Newbery Honor title, Hattie Big Sky; recent books include Hattie Ever After and Duke. Karen Cushman is her idol.
I love these retro reviews. I’d forgotten about Birdy. I’ll be talking her up in my classes today. Thank you.
I’ve never read this book and now I can’t wait to read it!!! Thanks for this wonderful review! 🙂
I found this book when I was in the 7th grade and adored it. I made a project for it called “outrageous sayings” and listed several quotes from the book that seemed odd. I remember one of them being about how soap was black.
My daughter is three now, but this book will definitely make its way to my shelf before too long.
Oh, I NEED TO read this one again. Just the memory of her hilarious and exasperated journaling makes me smile. I fell in love with Cushman’s historical fiction from this one book.
Read Catherine years ago and found it exciting and informative! Catherine is ahead of her times!
Beautiful and very moving tribute, Kirby! Thank you!
I’m not a fan of historical fiction (or historical ANYTHING), but this post has gotten me intrigued….
I read Catherine Called Birdy for the first time this winter. It is definitely on the list of titles I recommend most often now. The insights into life at that time, and to the impact of gender in those lives, are incredible and fascinating. Wonderful post, Kirby.
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May I say with E.B. White, “It’s not often someone comes along who is a true friend and a good writer.” And look how many I have in my life. Lucky me. Thank you all.