Catherine, Called Birdy by Karen Cushman

If we’re being totally honest (and I usually try to be), this isn’t a five-star book. It’s a historic fiction book written for elementary school kids, and while it’s better than the majority of the introductory-history books aimed at kids, it’s certainly nothing spectacular. But I’m giving this the full five stars, because a) this is my blog and I can do what I want and b) this is the book that made me love reading, so I’m going to give it the highest possible rating.
I first picked this up in 4th grade and started reading it for no particular reason, and I loved it, to the extent that I re-read it multiple times over the next few years, tracked down and read all of Cushman’s other historic fiction novels, and even wrote about this book for a college research paper.

The book is written in diary format by Catherine (nicknamed Birdy), the fourteen-year-old daughter of a minor lord in 13th century England. The overarching plot of the book deals with Catherine’s attempts to avoid getting married off (resulting in suitor-scaring shenanigans, and wisely sidestepping the intense creepiness of a barely-pubescent girl being considered for marriage by middle-aged men), but deals with other Welcome to the Middle Ages topics such as religion, witchcraft, perceptions of royalty, the politics of a typical English village, public hangings, and even the expulsion of the Jews from England. The reason I love Karen Cushman’s historical novels is because nothing is sugarcoated here. Catherine writes about villagers freezing to death during snowstorms, not bathing for months at a time, and the joys of picking maggots out of meat before it’s served for dinner. One thing that modern Renaissance fairs try hard to make us forget is that the Middle Ages sucked, and no one there had a good time. I applaud Cushman for helping me realize this at a young age, and for starting my love affair with history.
As an added bonus, the story has some good dirty bits and swearing. One of my favorite parts of the book is when Catherine complains about her brother Robert and says that her earliest memory of him is him “drowning ants by pissing on the anthill.”
Ten-year-old Madeline: “Humor and dirty words? BEST BOOK EVER!”

Verdict: Five out of five stars


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