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)

Those Girls Said What They Meant

Amy Timberlake
Amy Timberlake

When I first came across Karen Cushman’s books, it was the ‘90s. Back then, I was a mess (and that’s putting it nicely). I was a graduate school drop-out who wanted to write fiction. Unfortunately, every time I put pen to paper (or more accurately, fingers to keyboard) I felt physically nauseous. I had a bad case of writer’s block, something to do with graduate school. Hence, I got a job at Borders Bookstore. If I couldn’t write books, I’d read them. The managers, for whatever reason, decided to put me in the children’s section. Since the last children’s book I’d read was Are You There God, It’s Me Margaret I had some reading to do. I read, read, and read. Some of my favorite reads from that time? Two of Karen Cushman’s books come to mind immediately: Catherine, Called Birdy and The Midwife’s Apprentice.

I loved those books. The heroines were right up my alley. Those girls said what they meant, did what they needed to do, and then got themselves back up when they fell. They didn’t take themselves too seriously either — they acknowledged their foibles, and as they did, the reader couldn’t help but smile.

Did I mention that these books are set in the past? This was important — to me especially. I’d dropped out of a graduate program in history. It was just as well, since I’d never reconciled writing history with wanting to write novels. But reading these books, I was struck by the way the author saw the past.This wasn’t a ‘please-pass-the-tea-dear’ past, the kind with silence punctuated by ticking clocks. No, this stuff set my my heart racing. Something about the way Karen Cushman wrote about the past felt like a way forward for me.

It’s been over a decade since I’ve read Catherine, Called Birdy and The Midwife’s Apprentice, but the stories have lived on in my imagination. I am indebted to both of these books, and to the author, Karen Cushman, for taking the time to commit them to paper.

Thank you, Karen Cushman!

—Amy Timberlake

Learn more about Amy Timberlake

Thanks to A Mighty Girl

I appreciate the shout-out about Catherine, Called Birdy. It’s a thrill to find my book on your wonderful site. Readers, be sure to visit A Mighty Girl for more book recommendations.

My Own Favorite Medieval Novels

Favorite Medieval BooksHappy Birthday, Birdy

2014 is the 20th anniversary of Catherine, Called Birdy. There will be celebrations all year, there will be hoopla, there will be cake. Here for your reading pleasure is a list, in no particular order, of my own favorite medieval novels for young people.                       

Crossing to Paradise — Kevin Crossley-Holland

Gatty, the engaging peasant girl from Crossley-Holland’s Arthur trilogy, accompanies her mistress on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. When tragedy hits, it is Gatty who leads the group to the fulfillment of its pilgrimage and, by the time she returns home, she is much changed. The story is compelling, and the writing is gorgeous.        

Blood Red Horse — K.M. Grant

Will and his brother Gavin follow the king on crusade to the Holy Land. Blood is shed, lives are changed and lost, but two things are constant—his love for Eleanor and the blood-red horse called Hosanna. Lovely, thoughtful depiction of the Muslims and their side of the conflict.

Book of the Maidservant — Rebecca Barnhouse

Johanna, serving girl to Dame Margery Kempe, a renowned and difficult medieval holy woman, accompanies her mistress on a pilgrimage to Rome. But Dame Margery abandons Johanna, who must journey through fear and anger and physical hardship to find her own way. 

Knight’s Fee — Rosemary Sutcliff

A game of chess, a brave minstrel, a kind old knight, and a friend lead the orphaned Randal to squirehood, and his own courage paves his path to becoming a knight.

The Puppeteer’s Apprentice — D. Anne Love

Mouse, a timid orphan, joins the company of a master puppeteer, and she, too, learns to make the puppets dance. Searching for her own identity, Mouse ultimately receives a name and experiences great joy and great sorrow on her way to fulfilling her dreams.

The Ramsay Scallop — Frances Temple

Eleanor and her betrothed, Thomas, are sent on a pilgrimage to the shrine of St. James and come to realize the glorious possibilities of the world around them … and within each other.

The Wicked and the Just — J. Anderson Coats

Cecily’s family moves to Wales, where the king needs loyal Englishmen to control the rebellious Welsh. The Welsh Gwenhwyfar, struggling to survive under the hostile English, is taken as servant to the bratty Cecily … until tensions explode and the tables are turned.