In the summer of 1995, I attended the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) annual conference in Los Angeles. It wasn’t my first rodeo, but I was still new at this whole kids’ book thing. Sometime during the conference, there was a keynote speech that exploded my writing life. Karen Cushman, author of one of that year’s Newbery Honor books, Catherine Called Birdy, stood behind the podium and, in her eloquent and inimitable manner, told me to follow my passion for writing historical fiction even though the trend was to write about wizards and vampires and the end of the world. I say “told me” because it seemed as if she was speaking directly to me, despite the fact that I was sitting with at least a thousand writing colleagues. At any rate, when Karen Cushman talks, I listen.
I had read Birdy, of course, prior to the conference; a book that not only opened the door to a new way of thinking about historical fiction, it broke the hinges clean off. Historical fiction was – to my mind – staid, third person, a bit aloof. Not Birdy! She was saucy, immediate and swept me into her medieval village life with an ease and a confidence that was irresistible. To paraphrase my friend Julie Larios, I didn’t wonder so much about whether Catherine could do what she did; I wondered that Karen could do so! It seemed she was breaking all the rules and, of course, that is exactly what makes CCB a classic.
But get this: that astonishing book almost did not get written! Trust me, the literary world owes a huge debt of gratitude to Phillip Cushman. Why is that so? Well, listen to Karen explain in her own words:
Special thanks to my son, Tyler Larson, for helping me produce this video. And huge thanks to Karen who was so kind and generous to me when I asked if she might blurb my first historical novel, Hattie Big Sky. There is nothing sweeter than the email I received the morning after I gave her an ARC: she cursed me out for keeping her up until 1 in the morning, reading Hattie’s story. That is a compliment I will treasure always.
Brava, Karen! Brava, Birdy! Congratulations on this 20th anniversary, and thank you from your appreciative readers and inspired fellow writers.
I couldn’t squeeze all the comments about Catherine Called Birdy into my Nerdy Book Club post (May 19). Here are a few more! And, I’m sure you’ve figured out by now that if you haven’t read Birdy yet, you need to drop what you’re doing and do so!
Alyson Beecher (educator): Most of the time, the reality of the Middle Ages is watered down for children. As I read Catherine Called Birdy, however, I felt as if I could see, and feel, and even smell the time period. Cushman's writing brings the characters and setting to life for readers. And Catherine is a wonderful protagonist, full of spirit and definitely with a mind of her own.
Ann Rhodes (teen librarian): In library school, I decided to take a class about services to "young adults." I hadn't read much teen lit and was somewhat negative about the prospects, but got some recommendations and plunged in. One of the books suggested was Catherine, Called Birdy. This, and The Perks of Being a Wallflower, totally changed my view of YA literature. I had previously dismissed YA books, incorrectly assuming that most of them would be overly dramatic and filled with angsty, unrealistic characters. But, the humor and wit that I found in Birdy helped completely change my view of this genre. Her character was amusing and interesting without being too precocious. I loved reading about her exploits and realized that I was learning about her time period at the same time.
I still recommend Catherine, Called Birdy whenever I get a chance and haven't had a dissatisfied customer yet. Karen Cushman showed us how to make history and historical fiction enjoyable and that is a true art.
Angela Ellis Roberts (educator): It was a girl-power rush, a YA novel game-changer for me. As one of the first books I read in my graduate program (working on children's literature), it opened up a new world for me: the kind of book that turns traditional stories on their heads.
Patsy Svavari (Humboldt County Author Festival): Catherine definitely made the list of “SCARFs” (Strong, Courageous, And Resourceful Females) that our local AAUW developed for a project for our local school libraries.