Catherine Called Birdy may be the most entertaining children’s book to be published since… ever. It was Karen Cushman’s first YA novel, and it won the Newbery in 1995. I knew I was sunk when I read the first entry by our intrepid narrator, fourteen year-old Catherine (called Little Bird or Birdy):
“12th Day of September. I am commanded to write an account of my days: I am bit by fleas and plagued by family. That is all there is to say.”
Living in a rural England in 1290 has its own challenges – fleas in the rushes, no indoor plumbing, tangling your spinning. But as the daughter of, as Birdy puts it: “a country knight with but ten servants, seventy villagers, no minstrel, and acres of unhemmed linen,” she is up for sale as a wife – and her father is intent on marrying her off as soon as possible, no matter how detestable (re: old, unclean, rude, fat, etc) the potential groom, so long as he be rich. But Birdy is clever and stubborn, and determined not to be married off to any of the wealthy but disagreeable suitors that come calling, and sends them off without a sweat.
Birdy is a hilarious narrator, with a professed fascination with a macabre that will squick your stomach – after receiving a book on saint’s days, she delights in prefacing her entries with the name and grisly manner of martyrdom of that day’s saint. I wish I could fit in more of her quotes and antics, but you’ll have to read them! Let me just say that in the course of the book, she debates which exclamatory curse is best, burns down an outhouse with her suitor in it, saves a dancing bear, and takes part in a spitting contest during Lent. For a young woman who is (by our standards) uneducated, uncultured, and unclean, her observations are astute and insightful, and while she loathes her suitors unequivocally and is quick to judge, she never gives up. Her position in medieval society is tenuous, but she manages to sneak out of every fiasco with a wink and a grin like it’s no problem!
While this book is intended for younger-grade readers, Birdy’s quick wit and sharp tongue will entertain you whatever your age. Furthermore, Cushman’s grasp of medieval life is as fascinating as it is gross, and all of it accurate! This book has been, and still remains, one of my favorites of all time, and keep an eye out for Cushman’s newest book, Alchemy and Maggy Swann, published this year by Clarion Books.