Compiled by: Tom Ruddy and Laurie Ferrone with Kay E. Vandergrift in the Young Adult Literature

God's Thumbs, It's Karen Cushman!

Winner of the 1996 Newbery Medal for Outstanding Children's Literature for her book The Midwife's Apprentice and honored by the Newbery Committee in 1995 for her first book, Catherine, Called Birdy, Karen Cushman has shown herself to be an outstanding author of fiction for young people. Two of her books are set in the 13th and 14th century England and provide fascinating looks at the very different lives of two young teenage girls of the time. The third, is set during the gold rush period in United States history.


Karen Cushman was born in Chicago, Illinois. As a child, she learned about the public library very early. She would go alphabetically down the shelves and try to read every book. In an interview with Alexis O'Neil, she tells of an interest she had at twelve years old in the development of anesthetics. She went through many "big medical books" to find out all about it. Books were always a big part of her life, according to Cushman.
"Everything I know I've learned from books. I once set out to learn how to be a ballerina from a book. I mean, to me it was the way. You don't take a class-you get a library book! So, I'd stand in the driveway with my book and practice." From: Alexis O'Neil, pp. 42-43.
Many years after learning to dance from a book she has started writing her own. She began her first book, Catherine, Called Birdy, at fifty years old, proving it is never to late to start writing. One of her favorite parts about writing is that she can sit around her room reading children's books and call it research.

She received her M.A.'s in Human Behavior and Museum Studies. She is currently the Assistant Director of Museum Studies Department at John F. Kennedy University in San Francisco. She lives in a house in Oakland, California with her husband, daughter Leah, two cats, a dog and a rabbit.


Catherine, Called Birdy. New York: Clarion Books. 1994.
The Midwife's Apprentice. New York: Clarion Books. 1995.
The Ballad of Lucy Whipple. New York: Clarion Books, 1996.


Catherine, Called Birdy

The Midwife's Apprentice

The press release for the 1996 Newbery and Caldecott awards can be found here.


Catherine, Called Birdy


Catherine, Called Birdy was Cushman's first foray into publishing in 1994. Catherine is the 13 year old daughter of a minor nobleman. She lives in the manor house and spends her life doing "endless, mindless embroidery" (which she tries to avoid at all costs) and keeping a journal at the request of her brother, a monk. Her father's position has afforded Catherine a life of relative luxury which her journal entries show she resents, wishing instead to be free to do as she pleases rather than waiting to be married off for her father's gain. The entire book takes the form of Catherine's journal, which is poignant, revealing, and funny. In the course of reading Catherine's story, one also learns much about: and many other interesting aspects of real life in what is often viewed as a romantic era but in reality could be pretty crude and earthy.

"An attractively fractious hero whose thoughts and frustrations may belong to later centuries, Catherine is nevertheless a convincingly earthy character." From: Wilson Library Bulletin (December, 1994): 98.
"A feminist far ahead of her time, she is both believable and lovable. ...Superb historical fiction." From: A review by Bruce Anne Shook. School Library Journal Starred Review (June 1994): 147.
"The vivid picture of medieval life presents a seemingly eye-witness view of a culture remote from contemporary beliefs. Fascinating and thought-provoking." From: The Horn Book. Starred Review. (July/August 1994): 457-458.
A review and activities useful for teachers may be found atCarol Hurst's Children's Literature Site.

The Midwife's Apprentice.


A dung heap is where the animal droppings and the garbage are all piled up. You may think a dung heap is rather gross, but it is warm. That is why Brat slept in the dung heap on that cold night. "Are you alive or dead?" came a woman's voice. Brat opened her eyes and saw the woman standing above her. Her hunger made her ask for something to eat. Only those who work can eat said the woman. Brat worked for some food. She stayed the next night in the dung heap and worked again. The woman was the midwife of the town and took on Brat, or Beetle as she became known for sleeping in the dung heap like a dung beetle, as her apprentice, and taught her about the methods and medicines for birthing babies. Along the way, Beetle meets a friend, Purr the cat, and she gives herself a new name, Alyce. When she finds that she can't deliver a baby on her own, she runs away from the midwife, but she eventually returns to the one person who can help her learn everything she needs to know. Alyce grows from a homeless, hungry waif to "a person with a name and a place in the world."

"With simplicity, wit and humor, Cushman presents another tale of medieval England... Characters are sketched briefly but with telling, witty detail, and the very scents and sounds of the land and people's occupations fill each page as Alyce comes of age and heart. Earthy humor, the foibles of humans both high and low, and a fascinating mix of superstition and genuinely helpful herbal remedies attached to childbirth make this a truly delightful introduction to a world seldom seen in children's literature." From: A review by Sara Miller. School Library Journal. Starred Review. (May 1995): 118.
"Kids will be caught up in this short, fast-paced narrative about a hero who discovers she's not ugly or stupid or alone." From: Booklist. Starred Review. (March 15 1995):


It would be particularly interesting to contrast Cushman's work with that of Furlong.
Marchette Chute. Innocent Wayfaring.
Marguerite De Angeli. The Door in the Wall.
Monica Furlong. The Wise Child. New York: Knopf, 1987.
Monica Furlong. Juniper. New York: Knopf, 1991.
Monica Furlong. Robin's Country. New York: Knopf, 1995.
Elizabeth Janet Gray. Adam of the Road.
E.L. Konigsburg. A Proud Taste for Scarlet and Miniver.
Mary Stolz. Pangur Ban.
Rosemary Sutcliff. Knight's Fee.
Rosemary Sutcliff. The Witch's Brat.
Temple, Frances. Ramsey Scallop. New York: Orchard, 1994.

Look for them in your library!!


Horn Book. Vol 70, no. 4. July/August, 1994. pp. 457-458.
Kirkus Reviews. Vol 64, no. 6. March 15, 1995. p. 380.
Love, Amy Umland. "Flying Starts" Publisher's Weekly. Vol 241, no. 27. July 4, 1994. pp. 39-40.
Miller, Sara. School Library Journal. Vol 41, no. 5. May, 1995. p. 118.
O'Neil, Alexis. "Birdy, Brat and Books." Children's Book Review.
Shook, Bruce Anne. School Library Journal. Vol 40, no. 6. June, 1994. p. 147.

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Created March 17, 1996 and is continuously revised.