FAQ#3: Going Medieval

Do you remember your first exposure to medieval history? What clicked with you about that time?

In 1965 and many years after, I attended Renaissance Faires and was enchanted by the color, the music, the people, the language and food and life.  I transported the fair in my mind to the middle ages and held the memory tightly for 25 years until it blossomed in Catherine Called Birdy.

Renaissance Festival
Renaissance Festival (photo credit: Carol Mudd)
Renaissance Festival
Paved roads were a rarity! (photo credit: Carol Mudd)

In no other place or time

Q. Some people feel that if the writer has lived through it, it can’t be termed historical fiction. Teachers are considering historical fiction to be anything before 2000, because their students didn’t live through those times. How do you feel about this? Is The Loud Silence of Francine Green historical fiction?

A. Jane Yolen says that children think a historical novel is about anything that happened before they were born. But that misses what I think is the most important attribute of a historical novel: it tells a story that could not possibly have happened in any other place or time, a story that results from the combination of character and circumstances. The character would not have been faced with the particular situation or issues at any other time. The situation springs from the period, focused through individuals. For example, The Loud Silence of Francine Green and the anti-communist hysteria of the late 1940s/early 1950s. Or Catherine Called Birdy facing an arranged marriage for her family’s gain. Or the science that made alchemy believable while superstition prevailed in Alchemy and Meggy Swann.


Marking time in the Middle Ages

Oxford Dictionary of SaintsQuestion: How did it occur to you to use the Saints’ Feast Days as a device in Catherine, Called Birdy?

Answer: I spent 12 years in Catholic schools so I knew all about saints’ days. And I knew it was customary in the Middle Ages to mark time by saints’ days and festivals. When I reached the halfway point of Birdy, I realized she would mark time that way so I went back and added them. It was fun to decide what saints Birdy would pick and what she would say about them.

Me and Lena

Saturday I was part of the cultural phenomenon that is Lena Dunham. We had brunch on Saturday before I attended her reading and frenzied fan festival. Lena is funny, warm, open, vulnerable, bright, articulate, passionate, and compassionate. She seems to adore her fans, and they are over the moon about her. I had a terrific time. If all goes well, Lena and her production company will be turning Catherine, Called Birdy into a movie. I can’t wait to make a bowl of popcorn and watch it. Thank you, Lena, for a great time.

Karen Cushman and Lena Dunham
Karen Cushman and Lena Dunham

Announcing the 2014
Karen and Philip Cushman Late Bloomer Award Winner

Jennifer SommerThe Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators congratulates Jennifer Sommer of Kettering, Ohio, as the award winner for authors over the age of fifty who have not been traditionally published in the children’s literature field. Jennifer received an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Hamline University and has worked as a children’s librarian for twenty years. She won the award for Octopus Capers, an interesting twist on nonfiction in which octopuses are the culprit in aquarium mysteries around the world. Learn more about Jennifer.

The grant was established by Newbery Award winner and Newbery Honor Book recipient Karen Cushman and her husband, Philip Cushman, in conjunction with the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators. Karen published her first children’s book, Catherine, Called Birdy (winner of the 1995 Newbery Honor), at the age of fifty-three and has gone on to become one of the field’s most acclaimed novelists.

“I chose Jennifer Sommer’s Octopus Capers because it reached out and grabbed me—it’s original and engaging. The proposal made me wonder, laugh, and want to know more about octopuses, and I am looking forward to reading the whole thing,” said Karen.

SCBWI Executive Director Lin Oliver added, “Due to the generosity of Philip and Karen Cushman, this award recognizes the fact that creative life has no age limit. Jen pursued her MFA during midlife and her dedication has borne wonderful fruit!”

To read an interview with Jennifer Sommer by SCBWI official blogger, Lee Wind, visit SCBWI: The Blog.

To find out more about the Karen and Philip Cushman Late Bloomer Award and the application process visit the “Awards and Grants” section on the SCBWI website.

Adrian Mole, the Musical!

For years I have said that Catherine, Called Birdy is the love child of Rosemary Sutcliffe and Adrian Mole. Now Adrian is getting his own musical. I suggest you read or reread the book and then lobby to bring the show here. We could get Adrian Mole T-shirts!Secret Diary of Adrian Mole Aged 13-3/4

“Next year the Curve Theatre in Leicester will premiere The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole Aged 13 3/4—The Musical, with the intention of taking it to London’s West End. The Guardian reported that the late Sue Townsend, who created one of the most popular characters in British fiction in Mole, “advised and encouraged the musical on its near three-year journey.”

“Sue was an absolute dream, she was so supportive and went through everything with us,” said Pippa Cleary, half of the writing team with Jake Brunger. “She gave us all the time in the world to get it right.” (from Shelf Awareness, July 15)

A Wedge in Her Subconscious

Margi PreusCatherine, Called Birdy blew my mind. It might have been the first time it occurred to me that history was stories and not just dates and proper names. That story wedged its way into my subconscious and I am sure had no small role to play when I set out to write my first story based on history. Karen Cushman showed the way. I’ll just say it, I think she’s a genius.

Thank you, Karen Cushman!

Margi Preus

An Amazing Journey

Vashon BookshopCatherine, Called Birdy  is one of my favorite books to recommend. I know the reader will have an amazing journey through history with a strong, tenacious, witty, imaginative character. So often, once they have read Catherine, they come back for more of Karen’s books.

Congratulation, Karen your books are so essential for our Kids.

Thank you,
Nancy Katica
Vashon Bookshop

Picker of Fleas and Maggots and Burrs

Professor Nancy Roser, of the University of Texas at Austin, shaped a poem from her children’s literature seminar students’ resonant phrases after they read Catherine, Called Birdy. Prof. Rosen framed the poem with a page from the original manuscript, which she studied at the Kerlan Collection of the University of Minnesota, where my working materials are housed. Thank you to Nancy and her students! This is a toast I will always cherish.

Tribute to Catherine