The 100 Books Project: Catherine, Called Birdy.

“I have chosen! God’s thumbs! What a time I had in deciding. I chose God’s thumbs because thumbs are such important things and handy to use. I thought to make a list of all the things I could not do without my thumbs, like writing, plaiting my hair, and pulling Perkin by his ear, but now it seems to be a waste of paper and ink, for I can think of no purpose for such a list unless some heathen Turk threatened to cut off my thumbs with his golden sword and I was able to convince him to spare my thumbs by reading him my list of how important thumbs are, but since it seems unlikely both that a Turk would threaten my thumbs and that a list would stop him if he did, I shall save the time and the ink and not make a list.”

“Catherine, Called Birdy” by Karen Cushman

Finishing the book took much longer than I had anticipated it would; I mostly blame things actually happening rather than anything else, as it’s been one of my favourite books since I was much younger. I’m pretty sure only The Westing Game was read more by me. It was a huge staple in my repertoire and definitely fed into my fascination with the Middle Ages, right along with all those King’s Quest games, Ren Faires, and at least one visit to a Medieval Times in Canada. There’s actually one not too far away from where I’m living now; I was talking to someone about going to it for old times’ sake, and it just might have to happen.

Anyway, enough rambling on that. “Catherine, Called Birdy,” if you’re unfamiliar with it, is a young adult book chronicling the life of a rambunctious and ambitious young woman named Catherine, though she is called Birdy. The year is 1290 and she is the thirteen year old daughter of a minor country lord, and the book is told from her perspective as she keeps a diary by the request of her older brother who believes it will make her wiser and more observant. Mostly, it’s filled with complaints about the restrictions of a girl in her position, grief over the far too common loss of people near and dear to her, and irritation at being married off to the highest bidder.

This is where all my recent thoughts on feminism and the preconception that people seem to have that it exists only in modernity. It’s true that, over all, Birdy is an extremely rare example of an outspoken and rebellious girl of that age. But I refuse to believe that she’s a complete anachronistic anomaly. As Cushman comments in her author’s note at the end of the book, highlighting for her young readers some of the history of the setting, there are still a great many qualities we can share and understand with these basically foreign people from a world entirely different from our own. And, for the rest, we’ll just have to imagine.

It was definitely fun to read through this classic again; I enjoy these books so much more now that I’m older because I just absorb so much more and I pick up on things that, as a young girl, I would have never noticed. Cushman is very good at throwing in details for the older reader to appreciate, and, while sometimes it does feel as if it’s historical fiction for the sake of being historical, you don’t really feel bludgeoned with an obsessive attention to detail along the lines of “It’s medieval times! Look at how different it is!” Not bludgeoned, though sometimes slightly swapped with a small stick.

I identified greatly with Birdy when I was growing up, and I still do, in that she was a little different than the others she knew, a little awkward, and almost uncontrollably imaginative, thinking of random and sometimes silly things as if they had a great significance to the meaning of the world. Rereading this book rekindled my desire to play her eventually at Fandom High (which, by the way, is now accepting applications for the summer, if you’ll forgive me to small advertisement for a game that has sucked away a great deal of my soul and time). She’s inspired many of my own characters, and even her best friend Aelis has manifested in a character that’s somewhat of a fusion between the two girls. Definitely a classic. Definitely a favourite. Definitely something that will probably be read many more times again in the future.

Books read: 16 out of 100.


  1. I adore books like this. I’ve never read it but I’m going to go look in my library for it today. Did you read The Protector of the Small books by Tamora Pierce? Now those have fantasy and magic in them but the setting reminds one of medieval times. I love them–a strong girl not wanting to be married off. No! She wants to be a knight!

    • It’s absolutely one of my favourite books; definitely worth a look, although I do prefer Cushman’s other medieval historical fiction, The Midwife’s Apprentice, a bit more. I started with Catherine, Called Birdy myself, though, and then discovered the other one.

      Tamora Pierce is one of those authors I’ve always intended to start reading, but have never quite got around to it. So maybe I’ll have to start with those. It’s always good to have a recommendation!

  2. […] think on it, I realize I have not read many, overall, but I have enjoyed several. Case in point is Catherine, Called Birdy, which I read earlier this year; it’s one of my favourites. The nice thing about the journal […]

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