Written by Sonia Berlin

Grade 8
John Jay Middle School, Cross River, New York
Lucretia Pannozzo, Teacher


Karen Cushman is a new author who writes historical fiction for young adults. Her first book was published in 1994. Her work is fascinating, if you like to read about the Middle Ages. There are several important events, or milestones, in her life. Karen Cushman was born on October 4, 1941 in Chicago, Illinois. Her parents are Arthur and Loretta Lipski. On September 6, 1969, she married her husband Philip Cushman, who is a professor. She has a daughter named Leah. Karen Cushman currently lives in Oakland, California, which is not too far from her editor. (Hedblad, 89: 43)

As she grew up, she became very creative. She would pretend to travel around the world as she rode around on her brother's scooter. When she got a little older, she would get "wild passions" about a certain subject and read all there was about that topic. At one point she was determined to teach ballet to her friends, so they would stand next to a car as Karen read to them what they had to do. (Hedblad, 89: 44) Later, she became involved in the Middle Ages, and so came her first two books.

Karen Cushman enjoyed learning about the Middle Ages, but when she read summaries for programs about medieval history she was turned off because of the focus on great events, or people, or movements. (Hazel, June 1996: 1700) She liked to learn about how ordinary people lived, not great kings or queens. Karen remembers that she used to have charts of kings and queens on the wall in her room. ("Cushman" AOL) She tried to get a grant to do research on the Middle Ages once, but it did not work. ("Cushman" AOL)

Karen Cushman has several hobbies and interests that occupy part of her time when she is not writing. She enjoys working in the garden, especially growing tomatoes. She also loves to read, and children's books are her favorite. Cushman spends time listening to music of the Middle Ages. (Hedblad, 89: 43)

She started to write in 1990 and is still writing. She is also an adjunct professor at the John F. Kennedy University in the Museum Study's Department, where she got her museum study's degree. This connection helped her with her first two books. She got information about life and different people and places. (Hedblad, 89: 43)

Karen Cushman's writing was influenced by several people. One day she had a really good idea, and she wanted to tell her husband. He would not listen and told her to write it down and then show it to him. And so she did. This turned out to be her first book, Catherine, Called Birdy. Her daughter also influenced her because, when they read books together, Karen really enjoyed the young adult fiction. She thought that she could write it as well, and wanted the readers to learn from it. (Hedblad, 89: 44) As her daughter Leah moved on to read adult books, Cushman stayed reading the young adult books because they fascinated her.

Her interest in the Middle Ages also helped her. Knowing something of the period helped her to learn more. The second book that she wrote was The Midwife's Apprentice. This is also historical fiction about the Middle Ages, but about a different class, the lower class, or the villagers.

Karen Cushman has a message that she wants to convey through her writing in Catherine, Called Birdy. She wants people to know "what a child would do in a situation that she could not control and for what she has no options." (Hedblad, 89: 45)

In the three books that she has written so far, Cushman has placed her personal characteristics in the main characters. Catherine (Catherine, Called Birdy), Alyce (The Midwife's Apprentice), and Lucy (The Ballad of Lucy Whipple) all represent and are similar to their creator. (Holmes, 7: 73) Karen Cushman also believes that she knows herself better, now that she has written books. (Holmes, 7: 73) It helped her to explore her own self and her own personality.

Catherine, Called Birdy has received many awards. They include the Newbery Honor Award, Carl Sandburg Award for Children's Literature, Best Books List of School Library Journal, Golden Kite Award, Bay Area Book Reviewer's Award for Children's Literature, Ten Best Books list of Parent's Choice Foundation, Cuffie Award from Publisher's Weekly and many others. (Hedblad, 89: 43)

The Midwife's Apprentice has also received several awards. They include the Newbery Medal, Best Books Lists for School Library Journal and for the American Library Association. (Hedblad, 89: 43) This was Karen Cushman's second book, published in 1995.

The Ballad of Lucy Whipple was published in 1996. It was started because Karen Cushman stumbled upon a random fact that said that 90% of the people who went to the California Gold Rush were men. (Hedblad, 89: 43) The question that came into her mind was, what about the other 10%? They were of course women and children. So she decided to research the lives of women and children, and found that they were mostly dragged along by their husbands and fathers. (Hedblad, 89: 43) The book is about a girl who has to move out west to California, to help her mother run a boarding house.

Karen Cushman is very involved writing historical fiction, not just about the Middle Ages, but also the mid-nineteenth century. She has written three books already and is working on her fourth.

Karen Cushman is a very educated woman, who started writing at the age of fifty. She says that she is a "late bloomer." She has many degrees which include a Bachelor's degree in English and Greek from Stanford University. She also has a Master's degree in human behavior from the United States International University, and a Master's degree in museum studies from the John F. Kennedy University.


As you read more than one book by the same author, you begin to see similarities between the books and the author's writing style. Several writing conventions were the same in The Midwife's Apprentice and Catherine, Called Birdy. Both books have a great deal of character description where a character is described with great physical detail. The settings are also very similar. Last but not least, the chapter names are alike.

One stylistic device that Karen Cushman uses in the book The Midwife's Apprentice is character description. Characters can be described through their actions, what they say, and what other characters say about them. The author uses a lot of character descriptions through their actions, and also straight forward physical descriptions.

"How old she was was hard to say. She was small and pale, with the frightened air of an ill used child, but her scrawny, underfed body did give off a hint of a woman, so perhaps she was twelve or thirteen." (Cushman, Midwife's Apprentice, 1-2).

This is an example of a character's physical description. It describes what Alyce, the main character looks like. The voice in the passage is of a bystander. It could have been anyone looking at her, but someone who does not know her personally.

A second novel by Karen Cushman is Catherine, Called Birdy. It also has physical descriptions of characters.

"First, I will say more about Perkin. Although he is the goat boy, Perkin is my good friend and heart's brother. He is very thin and goodly looking, with golden hair and blue eyes just like the king although much cleaner than the other villagers." (Cushman, Catherine, Called Birdy. 10)

This passage is what Catherine writes in her journal about her friend Perkin. It gives a physical description of Perkin and also gives commentary from Catherine about what she thinks of Perkin. Catherine likes Perkin a lot, but mostly as a friend although she often thinks about how she could marry him, if it was socially acceptable, which it is not. He is a lot better than all of her other suitors.

Also, Karen Cushman has very similar settings in these two books. Setting is the time and place that a story takes place. In The Midwife's Apprentice the setting is described in the following passage.

"The next morning it was a larger group of villagers who followed the hoof prints to the woods where the broken-toothed Jack and his friends were clearing brush from Roger Mustard's field." (Cushman, The Midwife's Apprentice. 45).

The previous passage described the way the villagers followed the hoof prints through the properties in the village. In Catherine, Called Birdy the setting is very similar to the one in the first book. It is described in this excerpt.

"This chamber is pleasant, large and sunny, with my mother and father's big bed on one side and, on the other, a window that looks out on the world I could be enjoying were I not in here sewing. I can see across the yard, past the stables and privy and cowshed, to the river and gatehouse, over the fields to the village beyond. Cottages line the dusty road leading to the church at the far end." (Cushman, Catherine,Called Birdy. 4).

This passage describes part of the house and part of the village. Both of the stories are set in Medieval England, in the country, not the city. This passage was from Catherine's point of view, a higher class than that of Alyce. Many book reviews write that the two girls could have known each other, but the books do not mention each other. The year is 1290 in Catherine, Called Birdy, and it is not mentioned in The Midwife's Apprentice.

Lastly, chapter titles can give information about what they will be about. For example if the chapter titles are months or seasons, you will know what kind of weather it will be, and it could help you understand some things that are not explained in the story. In The Midwife's Apprentice the chapters have a name and a number.


Chapter 2. The Cat
Chapter 3. The Midwife
Chapter 12. The Inn
Chapter 17. The Midwife's Apprentice

The chapters describe what they are about. For example, the chapter titled "The Cat" is about how Alyce finds the cat and it starts to follow her and they become friends.

In Catherine, Called Birdy the chapters also give information to the reader, in a different way, but they are not dull like just plain numbered chapters.

examples: September, October, December . . . September
also, subtitles: 12th Day of September, 19th Day of June

Catherine, Called Birdy is divided into months. It also has sub-titles which give the day of the entry.



The Midwife's Apprentice.

In The Midwife's Apprentice, Alyce is a poor and homeless girl who finds work with a midwife. This is historical fiction telling about Alyce's life during the Middle Ages in England.

Jane, the midwife is not very kind. But she gives Alyce food and lodging in return for help which includes running errands. Everyone else in the village is also very unkind to Alyce. The boys make fun of her, and the adults think that she is stupid and has no right doing anything in their village.

Alyce plays a trick on the villagers, and after avenging all who had been mean to her, she leaves with her cat to find something else to do. She comes to an inn and decides to stay and work there. She is treated with a lot more respect and also learns to read.

After staying at the inn for a while, Alyce decides that this is really not what she wants. She leaves and goes back to work for Jane, the midwife.

This book would be appropriate for twelve to fourteen year old readers.

Catherine, Called Birdy.

Catherine, Called Birdy is a story in the form of a diary from Catherine's point of view. She writes this diary because her brother Edward, who is a monk, tells her that she should try it.

During the Middle Ages, girls did not have a lot of opportunities. Most of the time, they were almost "sold off" to be married. One of Catherine's conflicts is with her father because she has to scare off the suitors that her father invites to come and meet her and her family. Catherine does not believe in being sold by her father like a sack of grain, but she wants to marry for love.

In her little village in the English country, all she does most of the time is sit inside and hem sheets all day long. Catherine enjoys writing a lot, and for punishment she is locked in her room without her pens and ink.

This book would be appropriate for eleven to fourteen year old readers, and it would probably appeal to girls more then boys. A fantastic book, four stars!


Karen Cushman is a very important author to young adult literature. She is one who dares to go beyond the limits of previous authors. She explores things that have not yet been written about, or the other side or sides of an idea or event, not the common. Her most significant contribution is just that. She is not afraid to research a topic that is not easy to research.

I think that Karen Cushman is a very good author. She writes very moving and emotional stories, but they are also a good representation of the historical aspect of the time period. Her stories explain the problems of daily life among the common people at different times in history.

Many people can enjoy Karen Cushman's writing, but I think that girls would probably take pleasure from it more because she writes about girls in each of her books, and the main character in each book is also a young girl. Her writing is for readers ages 11 and up.


Cushman, Karen. Catherine, Called Birdy. New York: Harper Trophy, 1994.

Cushman, Karen. Midwife's Apprentice. New York: Harper Trophy, 1996.

Cushman, Karen. The Ballad of Lucy Whipple. New York: Clarion, 1996.

"Karen Cushman" Downloaded www entry from a website for Karen Cushman.

Hedblad, Alan, ed. Something About the Author. Vol. 89. Detroit, MI: Gale, 1997.

Holtze, Sally Holmes, ed. Junior Authors and Illustrators. Vol. 7 New York: H.W. Wilson, 1996.

Rochman, Hazel. "Karen Cushman" The Booklist Interview. June 1 & 15, 1996: 1700-1701.

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Created March 31, 1997, Last Updated April 8, 1997