“12th Day of September: I am commanded to write an account of my days: I am bit by fleas and plagued by family. That is all there is to say.”
Reading the opening lines of Karen Cushman’s Catherine, Called Birdy, it’s easy to see why seemingly every girl in my elementary school loved this book. Catherine is a 14 year old girl in England; the year is 1290 and she’s writing this journal because her brother Edward, a monk, thinks it will be good for her. Catherine isn’t exactly pleased about writing, though, and she mostly uses her journal’s pages to complain about her family, her chores and her “lady-lessons.”
I may not have been able to define the word “feminist” in the fifth grade, but clearly I knew one when I saw one. Catherine is smart, funny and she rejects the traditional gender and class rules of the time. She hates doing traditional “ladylike” things like hemming and spinning (not, like, the kind with bikes; this is 1290 and cardio classes haven’t yet been invented), and she’d much rather be going on adventures or fighting in the crusades. Instead of being around her family, she prefers hanging out with the villagers, including Perkin the goat boy (who, unfortunately, is just a guy who takes care of goats and not a half man/half goat hybrid).
Catherine’s biggest problem is the whole idea of arranged marriage, specifically a marriage arranged by her father (whom she refers to as a toad and a beast). When he starts parading a steady stream of potential suitors through their home, she refuses to play along. Catherine adopts all sorts of measures to scare off the fellas, including blacking out her teeth and talking to herself. At one point, she (accidentally, she would add) sets the privy on fire while a man is inside. But when her father decides she’ll marry a man she calls “Shaggy Beard,” Catherine’s best attempts to get rid of him fall flat. I’ll avoid any spoilers for those of you who haven’t yet read it (although if you haven’t read this book yet, I feel bad for you and your childhood), but Catherine ends up coming to a new appreciation for the family and the home she spent so much ink complaining about.
-By far the best thing about Catherine, Called Birdy is that it’s written as a diary. Fake-journals (like The Princess Diaries, the Jessica Darling series, and the terrible-but-I-still-loved-it Go Ask Alice) are one of my favorite kinds of YA books. Some of you history buffs out there might be saying, “Is it realistic that a girl in 1290 would keep a detailed, funny journal full of olde timey curse words?” To you I say, “Shut your stinking trap, this book is GOLDEN.” Catherine is hilarious and sharp, but she’s also relatable. Maybe most girls can’t necessarily understand what it’s like to have an arranged marriage, but they definitely know what it’s like to deal with their parents or swoon over a cute boy.
-Speaking of old curse words, Catherine is full of them. She’s particularly fond of the phrase “corpus bones,” which unfortunately doesn’t get a lot of play today.
-I suspect I liked this book so much as a kid because it’s kind of gross. There’s a lot of farting, burping and dumping chamber pots on people. You know, the kind of stuff that keeps the kids coming back for more.
Thanks to everyone who left a comment on last week’s post about Such a Rush! It sounds like all of you guys have great summers planned. A big congratulations to our winner Jessica Wolfe! Please e-mail me your mailing address at firstname.lastname@example.org. If I don’t hear from you within a week, I’ll have to pick a new winner, so please e-mail me soon!
As always, I love to hear your suggestions about what books you’d like to see in Young Adult Education! E-mail me at email@example.com, find me on Twitter @KerryAnn or leave a comment!
Image via Rainbow Resource