Catherine, Called Birdy is the first children's novel written by Karen Cushman. It is a historical novel in diary format, set in thirteenth century England. It was published in 1994, and won the Newbery Honor and Golden Kite Award in 1995.
The book is described on the title page as "Summary: the thirteen-year-old daughter of an English country knight keeps a journal in which she records the events of her life, particularly her longing for adventures beyond the usual role of woman and her efforts to avoid being married off. An afterword discusses the mind set of medieval people and concludes with a list of books to consult for further information about the period.
The story begins in September of 1290, when Catherine describes her world: her father's manor, her father and mother themselves (her father is bawdy, loud and disagreeable; her mother, kind and sweet), and the different people she comes in contact with on a daily basis. One of the largest subplots of the book occurs when her favorite Uncle George comes home from the Crusades and falls in love with Catherine's friend Lady Aelis. However, because George does not have a high position in society, they cannot marry, and both end up marrying others (George, a crazy older woman named Ethelfritha who was struck by lightning, Aelis first to a seven-year-old duke and later to Catherine's brother Robert).
Catherine, Called Birdy discusses everything from the mundane events of her life (killing fleas, spinning and embroidery) to festivals and holidays (such as Easter or May Day, many of which are celebrated by the entire village) to her travels in England, which are limited (she goes, for example, to Lincoln with her father, or to spend a few day at Lady Aelis' manor).
Catherine's father wants her to marry an old, repulsive man whom she calls "Shaggy Beard" in her diary. She spends the year fighting the marriage. She refuses to marry him, though she realizes that her father may be able to physically force her to; she comes up with many different plots to escape, and alternate versions of her life where she will run away and be a monk, or escape overseas and go on the Crusades.
As the day approaches for her official betrothal, she runs away to her Uncle George and Aunt Ethelfritha's home, thinking that she and her aunt can come up with some plan. Once there, though, she realizes that her aunt is completely crazy and that she herself will be the same no matter who she marries; thus, she allows her uncle to take her home. When she arrives home, though, she is confronted with the happy news that Shaggy Beard has died in a tavern brawl and she is now engaged to his son, Stephen, who is clean and young and educated. This match pleases her greatly, and she starts to dream about being married to him, counting down the days to when she can see him.
In an interview on the ipl2 website, author Karen Cushman said of this book, "I had been interested in the Middle Ages for a long time. I like the music, the costumes, the pageantry, and the color. It seems an interesting time, when western civilization was growing towards the Renaissance just like a child growing into adolescence. I first thought about writing books set at that time after reading about the lives of children in times past." Ms. Cushman describes the concept she had for the book, which takes the form of a diary of the intimate details of the life and thoughts of a young woman in medieval Englandime after power and little value. Especially had little ially girl children. I wondered how they coped with their lack of value and still kept a sense of their own worth; how they made choices when there were few options; how they survived wreading about the lives of children in times past. I thought about what life might have been like for them when they had no hen power."
In a recorded interview on teachingbooks.net, Ms. Cushman describes that she was 50 when she wrote this, her first book, and tells how she came to write it.
Kirkus Reviews found "The period has rarely been presented for young people with such authenticity; the exotic details will intrigue readers while they relate more closely to Birdy's yen for independence and her sensibilities toward the downtrodden. Her tenacity and ebullient naivete are extraordinary; at once comic and thought-provoking, this first novel is a delight." while Publishers Weekly wrote "Despite the too-convenient ending, this first novel introduces an admirable heroine and pungently evokes a largely unfamiliar setting." Common Sense Media described it a "Spirited novel offers warts-and-all view of the Middle Ages." and "It draws readers into a rich, well-realized world where the trappings are fascinatingly old-fashioned, but the characters are universal and relatable."