Their Names Were Brat and Birdy

The thatched houses of Gold Hill in Shaftesbury, DorsetWhat kind of person sets out to become a ballerina by reading library books and practicing dance steps in her family’s driveway? Or spends hours studying large medical textbooks, trying to learn about anesthetics … at the age of 12?

Dedicated, maybe? Single-minded? Determined? At the very least, someone who looks at books as her best source of valuable information, even at a very young age.

Born on Oct. 4, 1941, Karen Cushman didn’t start out wanting to be a writer. “For my real job,” she says, “I wanted to be a movie star or a ballet dancer, an archaeologist or a brain surgeon, depending on what book I had just read.”

Since she had never known anyone who wrote for a living, becoming a full-time writer never entered her mind.

Instead, she earned a B.A. in Greek and English from Stanford, and two master’s degrees – one in human behavior and one in museum studies. And for 11 years, she was adjunct professor in the Museum Studies Department at John F. Kennedy University.

It wasn’t until 1996 – the year her second book, The Midwife’s Apprentice – won the prestigious Newbery Medal, that she resigned from her teaching position to devote all of her time to writing.

The things that pushed her toward writing the types of books she did, and the way her life has changed since then, is the focus of this month’s issue.

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After seeing the types of things her own daughter struggled with as a teen, and because of an ongoing fascination with life in the Middle Ages, Cushman became curious as to how a teenage girl might have lived back then. But since she couldn’t find any books on the topic, she decided to write some stories of her own.

Judging from the main character in Cushman’s first novel, teenage girls haven’t changed much in the past 700 years. Catherine – who goes by the nickname of “Birdy” in Catherine, Called Birdy – is a 14-year-old girl living in 13th-century England who uses a wide variety of ploys to get out of marrying the young men her father, a baron, chooses for her.

Most of her tricks work, causing her suitors to change their minds. Except for one wealthy, middle-aged man … whom she REALLY doesn’t want to marry.

The book reads like a diary and is filled with trivial information like which saint is being celebrated on some days, what she had to eat on other days, expressions like “corpus bones,” and home-grown remedies like goose grease to deal with a rash. (“The dogs are following me everywhere,” she writes.) The book follows her life for an entire year: 1290-1291.

The research Cushman did for this first book made the writing of her second book a much easier task. In that book, The Midwife’s Apprentice, a young girl known only by the name of Brat is discovered sleeping on a dung heap. (Later in the book, she’s given the name of Alyce.)

The village midwife takes her on as an apprentice when she sees the girl is not afraid to work. The story follows her transition to a confident young woman whom villagers start seeking out more than her ill-tempered “boss.”

Cushman and her husband, Philip (a professor), now live on a “soft, green island” near Seattle, Washington. “Our daughter, Leah, is a librarian,” she says. “The love of books runs in the family.”

‘Passing It On’

I love it when I read about authors like Cushman who don’t just “rest on their laurels,” but instead find ways to encourage other writers.

She and her husband have partnered with SCBWI (Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators) to create a grant for authors over the age of 50 who have not been traditionally published in the field of children’s literature.

“This award was established to encourage and celebrate late-bloomers like me,” says Cushman, who didn’t start to write until she was almost 50. “But then I bloomed, and I’d love to see others do so as well.”

Each year’s winner (entries are accepted March 1-31) receives $500 and free admission to one SCBWI conference anywhere in the world.

Staying Current

Cushman’s blog – What’s New? – makes for some fun reading. One recent post encourages readers to take a look at a book that was published a month ago by a new author, Esther Ehrlich. Amazon calls Nest a “stunning debut novel.”

Just another example of Cushman doing her best to encourage other authors … and not just unpublished ones!

KEYS TO SUCCESS:  Good research skills, being true to your passions, a generous spirit



Catherine, Called Birdy  by Karen Cushman  (1994)

Cushman’s first book was published when she was 53 years old and was named a Newbery Honor book the following year.

Personally, I preferred this book over her second book, which is why I list it here. The diary format is great, and I found all the references to medieval life fascinating. Birdy’s thought processes sound exactly like a modern teenager’s.

Eight Steps of Historical Research”  (National History Day –

These tips are excellent for anyone trying to tackle historical research. One tip – Analyzing and Interpreting Sources and the Topic’s Significance in History – is something I’ve recently learned is very important when checking facts online.




Understanding who you’re trying to reach with online content is a must if you want your marketing to be effective. Darren Rowse and Chris Garrett, authors of ProBlogger, suggest creating “pen portraits” for your audience (“reader group”).

Write down everything you know about your audience, describing them as well as you can “so you can have a fully formed impression” of what they’re like and what will please them. Then brainstorm ideas for content they would LOVE.

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“Time in these villages moved slowly – not in a line from hour to hour, past to future, but … in a circle, marked by the passing of the seasons. … Most people did not know what century it was, much less what year.”  –  Karen Cushman  (“Author’s Note” at the end of Catherine, Called Birdy)


This article originally ran in the October 2014 issue of The Write Stuff.

This entry was posted in Children's Books, History, Storytelling, The Write Stuff, Writing and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Their Names Were Brat and Birdy

  1. a says:

    Way cool! Some extremely valid points! I appreciate
    you writing this write-up and the rest of the
    website is really good.

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