Catherine, Called Birdy – Karen Cushman

Catherine_Called_Birdy_coverReading level: 7.5
Genre: Historical fiction
ELL-Friendly: No
Library recommendation: Middle school

This book has the makings of something pretty spectacular: it’s a Newbery Honor Book, has rave reviews, is set in 13th century England, has an unconventional and intelligent heroine…

But I didn’t finish it. And I make a point to finish all books that I start, but I was so dreadfully bored. I felt like I was wasting my time, so I quit.

Since I own the book, I’ll put it in my classroom. Students may really love it. It’s written in diary-style and is kind of funny (sometimes – a little). The premise of Catherine falling out with her friend Aelis, not getting along with her dad and brothers, and generally rebelling (she’s 14 years old) is something many middle schoolers may enjoy.

Parents might object to the prevalence of the almost permanent state of male drunkenness. But even Catherine is continually annoyed with it, and drunkenness isn’t glorified or anything. I came across 1 curse word and about 5 fart jokes in the 82 pages I read. I don’t think we’re in danger of enraging any parents, here.

The beginning of the book sees Catherine being scared of the Jews. Then she meets them and finds they are kind and like all other people. She laments that they are being expelled from England. That was the only remotely interesting or meaningful part, although I did only get to page 82.

I was kind of weirded about by Catherine’s apparent crush on her much older uncle. I know it was normal for women to marry much older or younger men (apparently Aelis marries a baby?) at this time, but she really seems to have a thing for him. There’s a difference between being forced to marry an older man because your dad says so and having a crush on your uncle.

The author’s note at the end was both helpful and interesting. It should have been placed at the beginning, I believe, to set the stage.

The language is…medieval…as it should be, but that means it’s just not good for ELLs. I could even see strong middle school readers becoming frustrated because the words are so different from what we’re used to. And it is a middle school book, I think. The interest level according to Scholastic is 6th grade.

Lastly, I fully acknowledge that many people adore Catherine, Called Birdy. And good for those people. Hopefully my students have more luck with this book than me.

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