Catherine, Called Birdy
by Karen Cushman. Novel. 288 pages. Grades 5-9.
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The scene is a manor house in England in 1290 and fourteen-year-old Catherine, the willful, stubborn and delightful daughter of Sir Rollo and Lady Aislinn, has been asked, by her brother the monk, to keep a journal--these are her daily entries for one important year in her life.
Birdy has been promised in marriage to a richer knight than her father. Unfortunately, she finds her future bridegroom to be old, crude and disgusting. We do too. Unlike most of her friends, Birdy rebels against women's work and life. She resents her being bought and sold in order to make her father richer and she has succeeded in driving off all previous suitors. As she ponders her life and her options, she spends a lot of time painting scenes on her bedroom wall.
As we live through a year with Birdy, we learn about village, castle and manor life. We attend fairs, weddings, morality plays, masses and funerals. With Birdy, we visit a monastery. We learn about herbal medicine and the roles played by every station of feudal life. Jews are expelled from England and some stop at the manor house where Birdy, who has been warned about them, looks for their tails and wonders at their humanity.
The skill of Cushman, however, is so great that mostly we learn about Birdy. She's not just there, as are many protagonists in children's historical fiction, as a camera to witness the events for our benefit. She's a fully developed character and by the time you finish this short novel, you'll feel you know her well and regret having to leave her when the year is over.
The afterword sets Birdy's life in a larger context and contains a lot of easily grasped historical information within a few pages, as does the whole book.
Things to Talk About and Notice
- Birdy's relationship with her parents changes in this year of her life. What changes do you see? Why do you think this happens?
- Perkin, the goat boy, also rebels against his role in medieval society. What do you think his chances are for success?
- Luck plays a part in what happens to Birdy. Find some places where, if certain things hadn't happened or had happened, Birdy's life would have turned out differently. How has luck played a part in your life?
- Birdy and Morwenna watch a play in Lincoln in which the roles of the Devil and God are acted out somewhat hilariously and Birdy thinks about what God should look like for her paintings. What do you think either or both should look like?
- What do you think of Birdy's poetry?
- Why do you think there's so much in the book about the saints and their martyrdom?
- Make a list of words you would use to describe Birdy and then find evidence in her journal to support each choice of word.
- There are many scenes Birdy describes which must have been very funny to witness. Find and read aloud some of these.
- Birds play an important part in this book and are used as a symbol throughout. Find as many allusions to them as possible and see if you can decide why and how Karen Cushman used them.
- Several characters in this book have conditions which today's medicine or knowledge could help: Birdy's poor eyesight, lepers, and Perkins' leg. What is the modern cure for these and other ailments?
- Ladies of the manor were expected to heal the sick and wounded. Mostly, they used herbs as medicine. Find out about the use of herbal medicine today. Which herbs are still used?
- Birdy is poor at embroidery (perhaps because of her poor eyesight). Examine pictures of needlework done in that time or visit a museum in which such work is displayed.
- Birdy spends a lot of time painting on her bedroom walls. Draw or paint one scene from her description.
- Jews are being expelled from England in this story. Did that really happen in 1290? Find out why. What others countries expelled Jews? How recently?
- Birdy's brother has been on a Crusade. Find out more about the Crusades? Which one would George have been part of and what did they accomplish? Was George right in his opinion of them after his return?
The Midwife's Apprentice by Karen Cushman. (1996, HarperCollins. ISBN 9780064406307. Order Info.) Novel. 128 pages. Gr 5-9.
In this Newbery Award winner Cushman propels us into the life of a girl living in the middle ages, makes us like and understand her, shows us a lot about the times and a little bit about ourselves. Alyce is an insignificant, nameless child sleeping in a dung heap when we first meet her. We know her first as Brat. Her progress from Brat working for scraps of food to Alyce, the Midwife's apprentice, is painful and thought-provoking. Read More.
Temple, Frances. The Ramsay Scallop. Orchard, 1994 ISBN 0 531 06836 6.
Set in almost exactly the same time as Catherine, Called Birdy, this much longer novel tells about two young people whose marriage has been arranged against their will. A very wise priest sends them on a mission together during which time they, and we, see much about French life in the middle ages, learn a great deal about themselves and end up pleased about their coming marriage. This is much more challenging reading than the focus book, but equally good.
Anno, Mitsumasa. Anno's Medieval World. Putnam, 1980 ISBN 0 399 61153 3.
This picture book introduction to medieval history is centered mostly in southern Europe, but most things were the same in England at the time.
Chaucer, Geoffrey. Canterbury Tales. Adapted by Barbara Cohen Illustrated by Trina Schart Hyman Lothrop, 1988 ISBN 0 688 06201 6.
Hyman and Cohen have chosen four tales to retell and illustrate: The Nun's Priest's, The Pardoner's, The Wife of Bath's and The Franklin's. In each case the tale entertains and enlightens but, together with the illustrations, they come to life, revealing much about the times and the people.
Gerrard, Roy. Sir Cedric. Farrar, 1984 ISBN 0 374 36959 3.
In the age of chivalry, Sir Cedric defeats the evil knight and wins the fair maiden. The plot is a spoof, but the illustrations are very informative.
Goodall, John S. The Story of a Castle. McElderry, 1986 ISBN 0 689 50405 5.
This wordless book shows us the inner workings of a Norman castle at about the time of the focus book.
Hunt, Jonathan. Illuminations. Macmillan, 1989 ISBN 0 02 745770 2.
This alphabet of illuminated letters is full of fascinating information about medieval times.
Lasker, Joe. Merry Ever After: The Story of Two Medieval Weddings. Viking, 1976 ISBN 0 670 47257 3.
The peasant wedding and the knight's wedding offer two sides of life in the Middle Ages. Looking at this picture book gives us some idea of what Birdy saw at the milkmaid's wedding and at her brother's wedding.
Caselli, Giovanni. The Middle Ages. Bedrick, 1988 ISBN 0 87226 176 X.
With detailed drawings and other artwork, we get a glimpse of the life of the time.
Gregory, Tony. The Dark Ages. Facts on File, 1993 ISBN 0 8160 2787 0.
Well captioned photographs and drawings make this short book accessible as well as informative.
Howarth, Sarah. Medieval People. Millbrook, 1992 ISBN 1 56294 153 4.
One of three volumes in a series, this one looks at the life of six representative people: a doctor, a monk, a knight, a lady, a bishop and a heretic.
Related Areas Within Carol Hurst's Children's Literature Web Site
- The Middle Ages Recommended Booklist
Some of our favorite novels, picture books and nonfiction books.
- World History Through Kids' Books
This is a subject category which links to articles and books on our site under various subtopics.
- Women's History Recommended Booklist (annotated)
Some of our favorite novels, picture books and nonfiction books organized under the categories of "Women Who Expanded Traditional Roles," "Women in the Arts," "Women Who Protested," and "Women's Rights."
- Free Teacher's Guides: A listing of all our teacher's guides. Picture Books, Nonfiction and Fiction.
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