Catherine, Called Birdy

A new contender for the worst cover of all time? Catherine, Called Birdy was published in 1994, and has just been made into a film (which I would love to see, if my younger daughter hadn't imposed a ban on Disney in our house). The book has been in print for thirty years, and it's a wonderful, sprightly, funny, surprisingly frank diary of a young girl in medieval England. It pulls no punches on the topics of sex, death, and arranged marriage -- in fact I wonder if it would even be published in the US in today's climate.

But oh lord, the covers have not served it well. Too much like a Disney princess film; medieval Vogue, anyone?; strange and dark rather than funny and lively. In fact the best version is probably the film poster, which shows Birdy as a live, warm, breathing human girl.

It's interesting to compare Karen Cushman's novel with Kevin Crossley-Holland's Arthur diaries, set about a hundred years earlier, with the same conceit. Many of the details of daily life are similar, though as a boy and a squire, Arthur's experiences are not the same as Birdy's, but the main difference is in tone. The Arthur books are beautifully written, but they take themselves more seriously than Cushman's. I think young readers would do well to read Catherine, Called Birdy first, and if they get a taste for medieval life, give Crossley-Holland a try.


  1. I haven't read this, but I recently saw the film. The main character is an absolute joy (I can't remember the actor's name off the top of my head, but she was wonderful,) but I had some problems with the plot. Birdy seems to be 'for sale' to suitors who want to marry her, and her flaky family need her to get married to prop up their finances. There is some discussion of girls being worth more if they're virgins, pretty, appealing etc. But as I understand it, it was the other way round - girls had to have dowries to attract husbands, and girls from poor families had to hope they could attract someone with their looks and charm, or important connections if they had them. It's a fun, entertaining film though with good performances all round, if you can get round your Disney embargo. (Is it only on Disney? I feel like I watched it on Netflix or Amazon.)

  2. You're right, Ann, it's on Amazon! But unfortunately my daughter has put a ban on Bezos as well :( I will plead my case. That's interesting re the dowries, and that does ring true with my impressions too. In the book, Birdy is being shopped around, but there's no reference to the family needing financial help -- maybe that was added to the script to make it more palatable to a modern audience (who have been primed by Pride and Prejudice for this scenario??)