SELECTIONS FROM KAREN CUSHMAN’S LIBRARY
Matilda Bone, Clarion, 2000.
The Ballad of Lucy Whipple, Clarion, 1996.
The Midwife’s Apprentice, Clarion, 1995.
Catherine, Called Birdy, Clarion, 1994.
UPCOMING BOOKS: Rodzina, Clarion, Spring 2003.
Karen Cushman is still coming to terms with her fame. She’s written four books, garnered several awards including the coveted Newbery Medal for excellence in children’s literature, and sold the television rights to The Ballad of Lucy Whipple (Clarion, 1996) to Glenn Close for a CBS television movie. But when she walks into a room and her fans say, “Look who’s here,” Cushman still turns around with a puzzled expression on her face and says “Who?”
As a young girl, Cushman never considered becoming a writer. “I didn’t know writing was a job, something real people did with their lives, something like being a secretary, or a salesman.” Nevertheless, story ideas kept bubbling to the surface: she imagined she was kidnapped from gypsies and sold to regular people, wrote poems and short stories, and imagined several new plots for Elvis movies. Later in life, she regaled her husband with her ideas, until he finally challenged her to commit her ideas to paper. What followed was a seven page outline for Catherine, Called Birdy.
Armed with degrees in the classics, human behavior, and museum studies, Cushman is a history buff with a twist. “I grew tired of hearing about kings, princes, generals, presidents. I wanted to know what life was like for ordinary young people in other times.” At first, Cushman relied on her museum studies career to lead her to diaries and records that would help her paint a picture of medieval life for a young girl like Catherine. But now her own shelves overflow with books from different historical periods that dwell on the minute details of daily living: superstitions, herbal remedies and medieval medicine, clothing, money. “It’s the small, obscure details that bring stories to life.”
And Cushman’s characters are indeed alive. While she was writing Catherine, Called Birdy, Cushman couldn’t bear to marry her off to Shaggy Beard. A few adults criticized her for taking the easy way out, but Cushman was adamant: “I’ve spend three and a half years with her and I’m not going to marry her off to that beast. I’m in charge, so I can do it!”
During school visits, Cushman is frequently asked where she gets her ideas. “An idea is not like an egg—you can’t go to the store and pick one out.” She attributes her ideas to listening carefully and reading everything she can get her hands on. The idea for The Ballad of Lucy Whipple came from reading the cover of a book, which said the Gold Rush was a movement of men. Right away Cushman thought, “Wait! What about women and children?”
Matilda Bone, set in the Middle Ages, grew out of Cushman’s research about medieval medicine for her Newbery Medal winning book, The Midwife’s Apprentice (Clarion, 1995). “Matilda is an orphan raised by a priest to know a lot about heaven and hell and devils and sin, but not much about the world she lives in.” She’s forced to live with a bonesetter in the medical quarter with its blood letters and barber surgeons. Cushman describes Matilda as “gross enough for the average seventh grader.”
Several children have written to Cushman asking for writing advice. One child wrote: “I live in second grade. Second grades stinks. We’re still learning one plus one. But I loved your book. Can you tell me how to write good books?” According to Cushman, “It’s not easier for me to write than it is for you. I’m a regular person with a facility for writing, but I work hard.” As proof she offers twenty-seven different drafts of the first page of Catherine, Called Birdy, a Newbery Honor Book.
Cushman lives in Washington with her husband and cat. She’s hard at work on her fifth novel, Rodzina, about an orphaned Polish girl in Chicago who travels west on an orphan train. “I ran across a book on the orphan trains that really affected me. The picture on the front cover of all those tiny little children dressed up in their best clothes standing in front of an engine. . .I thought of them standing on the platform as people passed, almost like they were picking a puppy or kitten. What would the kids have been thinking? Please take me. Please don’t take me. What will happen if you take me? What will happen if you don’t take me?”
Her passion for her characters is a gift that Cushman gives her readers. During her Newbery Medal acceptance speech, Cushman said, “Writing for me is us feeding each other—writer and reader—fifty-four year old me and the young people who pick up my books. . .They read and I am nourished, and my book becomes something richer and more profound than I ever hoped.”