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Catherine, Called Birdy



Spirited novel offers warts-and-all view of the Middle Ages.

What parents need to know

Educational value

Catherine's journal entries give readers a detailed view of rural English life during the 13th century. Gender roles in the upper class are deeply explored, including marriage customs and daily life. Kids will also learn about food and cooking, home life, the Crusades, religious practice, and religious prejudice, as seen through the eyes of a 13-year-old girl.

Positive messages

As Catherine searches for a way to escape marriage to a man she doesn't love, and wishes she had the choices men have, the message that sustains her is one related to her early in the novel by a Jewish matriarch whose family was being forced to leave England: "Little Bird, in the world to come, you will not be asked 'Why were you not George?' or 'Why were you not Perkin?' but 'Why were you not Catherine?'" In other words, be true to yourself. Catherine realizes that who she is inside is something no one can take away.

Positive role models

Catherine is surrounded by flawed adults, but each has something to teach her. Her mother shows her that there's often more to relationships than can be seen on the surface. Nurse Morwenna's nurturing teaches Catherine how to give selflessly. Robert reminds his sister that even people who seem beastly may have some fine qualities.


Many of Catherine's journal entries begin with a one-sentence description of a saint whose feast day falls on the entry date; these bits are short and matter-of-fact but often tell how the saint died, mentioning stoning, torture, stabbing, and beheading. Two men engage in a knife fight, and one of them dies of his wounds. A little dog bites a man, and the man threatens to stab the dog. Catherine tries to attend a hanging, but she runs away. A very difficult childbirth is described in some detail.


Sex is not described graphically, but unmarried characters are found "snuggling in the hay." There's a marriage between a man and a much younger girl, whom the man has impregnated. Catherine asks a friend for a kiss, but he turns her down.


Catherine spends a fair amount of time trying to arrive at a satisfying curse phrase, and ultimately decides to use mainly "God's thumbs!" She also uses other quaint phrases like "Corpus bones!"

Not applicable
Drinking, drugs, & smoking

Many of the adult characters -- including Catherine's father, her uncle George, two of her brothers, and various male visitors -- drink far too much ale, resulting in headaches and other hangover symptoms.

Parents Need to Know

Parents need to know that Newbery-winning novel Catherine, Called Birdy describes the life of a 13th-century English upper-class family through the eyes of 13-year-old Catherine, the youngest child and the only girl when the book begins. Catherine writes regularly in a journal her brother Edward gave her, and her entries offer a richly detailed portrait of family life, customs, and lifestyle in her world. The book delves especially deeply into the impact of marriage customs and gender roles on young people of the period. Catherine dreams up plan after plan to avoid being pursued by suitors whom her father hopes will offer large sums for her hand in marriage. There are some violent (but not graphic) and disturbing scenes, including a difficult childbirth and a deadly infection resulting from a stabbing. Though there's no overt sexual activity, readers are made aware that unmarried characters have sex, and a 12-year-old girl is impregnated by her fiance.

What's the story?

CATHERINE, CALLED BIRDY describes a year in the life of an upper-class 13-year-old girl whose father wants to marry her off in exchange for increased wealth. When the book begins, Catherine has just been given a journal by her brother Edward, and in it, she tells about her daily life, her frustration over the limited choices and activities available to girls, and her powerful wish not to marry any of the suitors that her father favors. Catherine is a smart, high-spirited, rebellious young girl, and she comes up with all kinds of schemes to avoid marriage. She also expresses disapproval of brutish behavior of any kind, including the Edict of Expulsion (1290), which decreed that all Jews must leave England. As Catherine is pulled, kicking and screaming, toward her own adulthood, she learns a lot about the value of home and family, and she finds peace in the knowledge that no one can take her true self away.

Is it any good?


Catherine, Called Birdy holds special appeal for preteen girls who enjoy period fiction, as this Newbery winner accomplishes what the best historical novels do. It draws readers into a rich, well-realized world where the trappings are fascinatingly old-fashioned, but the characters are universal and relatable. This book teaches a great deal about England in 1290 -- revealing customs, gender roles, daily activities, religious views, etc. -- but does so within the framework of an engaging story about a smart, fierce, warmhearted girl that modern readers will love.

Families can talk about...

  • Families can talk about the important lesson Catherine learns from the Jewish family that spends a night at the Hall. What do you think that lesson is?

  • In what ways does good historical fiction give you a picture of life in another time? Do you think it would be nice to live in 13th-century England? Why or why not?

  • Try keeping a journal for a few days. Does it help you to express your feelings through journaling?

Book details

Author:Karen Cushman
Genre:Historical Fiction
Topics:Brothers and sisters, Friendship, History
Book type:Fiction
Publisher:Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Publication date:May 28, 1994
Number of pages:176
Publisher's recommended age(s):9 - 12
Available on:Paperback, Nook, Audiobook (unabridged), Hardback, iBooks, Kindle
Award:Newbery Medal and Honors

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Kid, 12 years old January 23, 2015

One of my favorite books of all time

WARNING THIS IS A REALLY LONG REVIEW THAT I WROTE FOR SCHOOL This book tells the story of 14 year old Catherine, called Birdy by her friends and family. And an interesting group they are. There are her brothers: gentle Edward, a monk, who taught her to write, Thomas, who serves the king, and the abominable Robert. There is Morwenna, her eternally scolding nurse, and Perkin, the goat boy who wants to be a scholar, and is her best friend. This engaging and heartwarming story begins as Edward asks Catherine, who “utterly loathes” her life, to write an account of her days as the daughter of a beastly minor nobleman in the early Middle Ages. Her first few entries are mainly complaints about sewing and spinning and ticks, but become deeper as she learns of her fatherʼs latest plot to marry her off to a rich man, any rich man, no matter how horrible. Catherine isnʼt going down without a fight, and manages to save herself from the first few suitors, using a combination of wit, luck, her interesting dowry, and privy fires. Until she comes up against “The Pig”, an old, cantankerous man with manners even worse than her fatherʼs. Catherine is determined not to wed this most persistent suitor, plotting to be a tumbler, a wart charmer, anything to escape this betrothal. But when she uses his gift to save a mistreated bear, her fate seems sealed. Told in a touching diary format, this is the tale of Catherine of Stonebridge, a funny, thoughtful, scheming, dreaming, and seemingly ignorant girl who has the wisdom to realize that, “some stories are true and some stories are just stories”. Catherine has a powerfully unique voice that will stay with you long after you have closed this bookʼs pages. Karen Cushmanʼs debut novel includes many details about life in the Middle Ages, including information on healing, clothing, festivals, and food and is a sure favorite for fans of historical fiction.
What other families should know
Educational value
Great messages
Great role models
Educator and Parent Written byCommonSenseChristian May 3, 2015

She's a Damsel, She's in Distress...She Can Handle This.

Thirteen-year-old Catherine is growing up in 1290 England. Thus, she's already expected to act like an adult as her mother trains her to become a lady of the manor. But Catherine wants nothing to do with this, and she certainly doesn't want her blowhard father to marry her off to a rich, ugly, unpleasant baron. Catherine will concoct any plan and pull any prank to keep herself from this fate, sometimes with hilarious results. She tells us all about it, and Medieval life, in the diary she keeps at the behest of her beloved brother Edward, a monk at a nearby monastery. Catherine is an intelligent, spunky character who's way ahead of her time. She struggles with things modern readers can relate to: obeying parents, accepting societal expectations, and crafting her own identity. Funnily enough, she wants to be anyone but herself; she considers becoming a nun, a juggler, a minstrel, and all manner of other occupations to avoid marriage. In the end though, she does learn her own value, and finds happiness in her position. The Middle Ages was a rather gross and gritty time period, and the author stays true to that. Bodily functions and diseases are discussed, as is death by childbirth, sometimes in detail. Sexual interaction, even incest, is hinted at with less than discretion. Catherine and other characters swear. Catherine's father regularly abuses her physically; she and other characters see this as completely normal. These things said, Catherine, Called Birdy is a great intro to the Middle Ages for appropriate audiences.
What other families should know
Educational value
Great role models
Too much swearing
Teen, 13 years old Written byluiysia June 29, 2013

good book

A fun character with an interesting story and good message that's not too heavy-handed. Some mild language and medieval partying/brawling, but generally fine for kids.
What other families should know
Educational value
Great messages
Great role models
Too much violence
Too much swearing
Too much drinking/drugs/smoking


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