Catherine, Called Birdy by Karen Cushman

Tuesday, December 18, 2018

The best way I can describe this book is “The Taming of the Shrew meets Confessions of Georgia Nicholson.” That’s not an entirely fair description because this book actually came out before Angus, Thongs, and Full-Frontal Snogging, but it has a similarly sassy diary-writing heroine.

Review of Catherine, Called Birdy by Karen Cushman | Lydia Sanders #TwistyMustacheReviews


The year is 1290. Catherine is the thirteen-year-old daughter of a “poor” English knight, which means that even though her family has lands and servants, there’s still some work left for her to do, especially lots of embroidery. She longs for a life more free and interesting than she has, whether that be fighting a crusade or herding goats. This book begins when Catherine’s brother Edward gives her a diary so that she can “grow less childish and more learned.” At first, in surly teenage fashion, Catherine uses her diary to complain about her life. As the year goes by she gets gradually more mature as she writes about her family conflicts, attempts to avoid suitors, crushes, crazy plans, hobbies, work, and weird adventures.

Catherine, Called Birdy  by Karen Cushman was published in 1994 and won the Newbery Honor and Golden Kite Award in 1995.

Review of Catherine, Called Birdy

The first time I read this book, I couldn’t find the protagonist believable. She was just too sassy for the time period. Upon rereading it, however, I think it’s fine. We all like to make ourselves a little sassier and smarter in our diaries than we are in real life. For 1290, a girl this headstrong is a bit of a stretch, but Cushman first and foremost had to create a heroine that middle-grade readers could relate to and enjoy reading about. In the Author’s note at the back, she writes “Birdy fought years of training and tradition in opposing her marriage to Shaggy Beard” to clear up any difficulties.

This book is also full of earthy humor. References to farts, poop, and sex are frequent but presented in an age-appropriate manner. Birdy’s diary entries are hilarious and reminiscent of early teenagehood. Early on she gets a book of saints and begins every entry with the name of the saint whose day it is and a little bit of trivia about them which, if not inherently funny, is followed by a funny comment with Birdy's thoughts on it. It's one of my favorite weird little things in this book.

My favorite thing about this book is the richness of the world. Cushman allows Birdy to emotionally respond to some major historical events of the time. She walks a fine line, allowing Birdy to be a person of the time without condoning the brutality of some of the historical practices and events. Birdy’s thoughts about magic, medicine, and religion are fascinating too. It’s clear that Cushman did a ton of research for this book, but it never seems like she’s trying to cram it into the story.

I also love the ending, but I can’t get into that without spoilers.

Bottom Line

While Karen Cushman takes some creative license to make her heroine interesting, Catherine, Called Birdy is still a great historical middle-grade novel. It’s hilarious and has a great character arc. I give it five out of seven twisty mustaches. Like The Midwife’s Apprentice, it would make a great Christmas gift for your favorite surly tween.

Have you read Catherine, Called Birdy? What did you think of it?
Leave a comment below or my hairless ghost lemur will haunt your dreams.

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