Karen Cushman: Biography & Books

Instructor: Christina Boggs

Chrissy has taught secondary English and history and writes online curriculum. She has an M.S.Ed. in Social Studies Education.

Karen Cushman is a highly acclaimed author known for her books ''Catherine, Called Birdy'' and ''The Midwife's Apprentice.'' In this lesson, you will learn about Cushman's life and the experiences that influence her work.

Early Life

Karen Cushman was born on October 4, 1941, just a few months before the United States entered World War II. Up until the age of ten, Cushman grew up in Chicago, Illinois. She loved living in Chicago: it had thunderstorms in the summer, snowstorms in the winter, and it was the home of her grandparents. Things changed for Cushman when her family moved from Chicago to Los Angeles, California. If you've ever had to move, then you know how challenging it can be to start over in a new place, especially if that new place is somewhere you don't like! Cushman did not care for Los Angeles but used her experiences there as inspiration for some of her later writing.

As a kid, Karen Cushman loved to read and write. She spent countless hours at the library checking out books on a wide array of topics, anything from ballet dancing to the Middle Ages to the human brain. When books weren't readily available, she read anything else she could get her hands on, including cereal boxes! Around this time, Cushman discovered her love for writing. As a kid, she wrote all sorts of poems, short stories, and plays. She and her friends would act out different parts of the plays. Even though she truly loved to write, it never occurred to Cushman to become a professional writer, at least not until much later in her life!


After graduating from high school, Cushman had a chance to leave Los Angeles to go to college. She remained in California, attending Stanford University to study English and Greek. For Cushman, her time at Stanford was life-changing. In the 1950s, many women were expected to get married and dedicate their time to raising a family and maintaining a household. It was here that for the first time, Cushman realized there was a world of opportunity available to her.

Cushman later moved back to Los Angeles where she met her husband, Philip. The two of them went to graduate school to earn their Master's degrees. Karen went back to school a third time and earned her second Master's degree from John F. Kennedy University where she worked as a museum studies professor.

Becoming a Writer

Despite a lifelong love for reading and writing, Cushman didn't start writing until she was almost 50 years old. She and her husband had one daughter, Leah, who proved to be very inspirational to Cushman. As a mom, Cushman watched her daughter and her friends struggle with growing up, and she realized how difficult it could be for a young woman making her way in the world. These observations became the kernel of an idea for Cushman's first book.

Cushman had always loved to study history and the ways people grew up and lived throughout the world and time. She began thinking about what life was like for young women growing up in different time periods, especially the Middle Ages. She started researching life in the Middle Ages, everything from how they spoke and dressed to the types of foods they ate. Her extensive research and imaginative ideas came together in her first book Catherine, Called Birdy, published in 1994.

Cushman's Books

Karen Cushman's books have several common themes. She writes about strong female characters who are faced with numerous obstacles but persevere to achieve their goals. Her most popular novels take place during different points in history.

Cushman's first book, Catherine, Called Birdy (1994) tells the story of a girl from a wealthy family in the year 1290. Catherine's father wants to marry her off to a wealthy noble, but Catherine is determined to make sure this doesn't happen. To scare off all of her potential husbands, Catherine uses every trick up her sleeve to appear dumb or unattractive. Eventually, she's left with only one potential husband, but of all the men she's met, he's by far the worse. Catherine, Called Birdy won numerous awards including a Newbery Honor.

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