Thursday, April 14, 2016

LS 5603 20 Review: Catherine, Called Birdy by Karen Cushman

Catherine, Called Birdy
by Karen Cushman

Cushman, Karen. Catherine, Called Birdy. New York: Clarion Books, 1994. ISBN 9780060739423

Plot Summary:
Fourteen-year-old Catherine is the daughter of a knight and lady during the medieval times. Preferring to go by the nickname "Birdy," Catherine is a tomboy at heart who wants nothing more than to sneak off the the village to help with a festival and sing with the other peasants. Her father has much different plans for her, however. He intends to marry her off to the most suitable bachelor; read, the man with the most money. Her mother focuses on teaching her the manners of a proper wife, while Catherine works hard to get rid of the suitors as often as possible. 

Critical Analysis: 

Cushman does a wonderful job of creating a character who not only fits into the medieval time period of the novel, but also has typical teenage qualities that today's teens can still relate to. More than anything, Catherine is an amusing character. In her diary entries we get to see exactly how she feels about the suitors and her life, and it is often laughable for the reader to experience. The plot is intriguing and engaging as well, something that reminded me very much of something that Shakespeare would write in one of his own epic comedies. It is quite amusing that this young girl has become so good at getting rid of suitors. Of course, some young readers may be a bit confused by the idea of the protagonist marrying at fourteen, despite that being accurate to the time period.

The themes of this novel are also ones that today's students can still relate to. Catherine is a strong, stubborn character who knows exactly what she wants with her life, and is not afraid to stomp her feet about it from time to time. Catherine longs for a true best friend, there is angst in regards to her parents, she feels misunderstood, and wants to do something that will have some importance in the world. Birdy is flawed and selfish at times, which makes her an even more believable character, and really helps hit home on the themes that are covered.

As far as style, this is another novel that is written in the form of diary entries, and it is nice to see how matters progress in order of occurrence. With the history and time period, I think it is very beneficial to keep the story linear and continually moving forward. Cushman also has a wonderful gift for adding just the right amount of humor to her novel. This story could have easily gotten dull and repetitive had the character not had such an amusing personality. Cushman seems to know just how to give and take to make a successful story.

As far as authenticity goes with this novel, it does seem to be quite accurate. Not only does Cushman explain her love of history and how she spent a great deal of time researching medieval times to make this novel accurate, she has an extensive author's note with an abundance of other English and medieval history that can help to clarify some of the ideas in the story. With the dates and details provided, it is clear that she has done a great deal of research, and this was evident in her writing of the story.

Review Excerpts: 

From Publisher's Weekly: "Birdy's journal, begun as an assignment, first wells up in the reluctant and aggressive prose of hated homework, and then eases into the lighthearted flow of descriptive adventures and true confessions; the narrative device reveals Birdy's passage from rebellious child to responsible adult." 


This book would be a wonderful addition to any study of medieval times. It would be interesting to see a strong female character portrayed at this time period instead of the knights that most people typically think of.

LS 5603 20 Review: The Hired Girl by Laura Amy Schlitz

The Hired Girl
by Laura Amy Schlitz

Schlitz, Laura Amy. The Hired Girl. Massachusetts: Candlewick Press, 2015. ISBN 9780763678180

Plot Summary:
It is the year 1911, and protagonist Joan Skraggs wants more than the life she has on the rural farm with her father. She wants a proper education and to find true love. Her father, however, does not believe that his daughter needs an education, and instead burns her book. That is the last straw for Joan, and she decides to run away to Baltimore where she is sure she can find something more to life. Finding a place to stay is harder than she expects, and that is how she comes to be hired by the Rosenbachs. A Jewish family who needs assistance for their aging housekeeper. Joan must learn to grow into a young lady while learning to accept those who are different from herself. 

Critical Analysis: 

Overall, the characters and plot of this novel were interesting and entertaining, though not always completely engaging. The events of the story are interesting, especially for a young woman in 1911. We understand that Joan is struggling with the loss of her mother and her father's reluctance to allow her a proper education. The fact that Joan wants to fight for these things make her a relate able and likeable character, despite her naive nature. While naive, it is clear that Joan does embody a typical fourteen-year-old. She does not understand the outside world, people of different cultures, or how difficult life could be outside of her rural farm with her father.

The setting was well-detailed and detailed, so that it felt as if the reader knew how Baltimore was in the 1900s. It was very interesting to see these things through the eyes of a young girl as well; one who had only known life and work on a farm up to that point. While the characters, plot, and setting were all very transparent, the theme did seem a bit muddled. Every time it seemed as if Joan had learned an important lesson, she said something naive or inappropriate again. While her personality made it likeable, it was a bit difficult at times to over look these flaws completely. I do believe that the overall themes were to accept others despite differences and to fight for what you want, but some digging had to be done at times to support these ideas.

The style of the novel stayed consistent throughout the entirety, which was certainly a redeeming quality for the novel. The diary style added a bit of interest as we were able to see the inner most feelings and thoughts of the main character as she tried to adjust to the new life she had made for herself. The language and terminology seemed appropriate for the time period as well as the age of the character, though I do believe some of it could prove challenging and confusing for young readers. The dialect is accurate, but a bit difficult at times.

As far as authenticity goes, I had a difficult time determining if this book was based off of much research as there was not much noted in the book itself. Schlitz did explain why she used certain terminology, and explained that the idea came from seeing her own grandmother's journal. While it does seem to fit with the time period, it is a bit difficult to fact check this information without more sources discussed by the author.

Review Excerpts: 

From Publisher's Weekly: "Schlitz (Splendors & Glooms) has crafted another exquisite literary gem, one told entirely via Joan’s vivid, humorous, and emotionally resonant diary entries over a year and a half." 

From School Library Journal: "Writing a book that could only be written by her, published by the only publisher who would take a chance at it (Candlewick), Schlitz’s latest is pure pleasure on the page."


Other books that are similar and could be suggested to students who enjoyed this book could be Anne of Green Gables and Little Women. 

Naturally, as historical fiction, this book could be used to get a better glimpse at how life was back in 1911. Of course, there is a bit of controversy around the main character and her views, so those things could be discussed as well.

LS 5603 20 Review: Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys

Between Shades of Gray
by Ruta Sepetys

Sepetys, Ruta. Between Shades of Gray. New York: Penguin Young Readers Group, 2012. ISBN 9780399254123

Plot Summary: 
It is Lithuania in 1941, and Lina and her family are trying to live a normal life. Lina has been accepted into a wonderful art program for the following year, and is looking forward to summer, but everything changes drastically for her family within a short amount of time. The Soviets come into the country looking for those who have "broken the law," and Lina's father seems to be taken. That evening, the Soviets come to their house and Lina, her mother, and her younger brother, Jonas, have twenty minutes to get their things together. They encounter horrible conditions and treatment at the hands of the Soviets as they are transported to Siberia to work in camps. They must find a way to stick together and survive when everything seems to be falling apart around them.

Critical Analysis: 

"Whether love of friend, love of country, love of God, or even love of enemy--love reveals to us the truly miraculous nature of the human spirit." 
 -Ruta E. Sepetys 

This book offered so many wonderful qualities for those looking for a raw and beautiful historical read about a history that is often hidden and overlooked. Our fifteen-year-old protagonist Lina is so easy to relate to, even as she struggles through conditions that a lot of us could not fathom. She cares deeply about her family and their safety, and is a wonderful artist. And she is flawed, which is one of her best qualities. Despite the hardships, Sepetys wrote of Lina in a way that shows she is still a teenage girl trying to understand certain aspects of life while dealing with a horribly reality. The plot is so provoking and shocking, that the book is impossible to put down. There is no way to know what will happen to our characters next, as the events are ever changing and always shocking. Nothing is sugar-coated, and while some parts were difficult to read, I do believe they were essential in order for readers to truly understand the distress these individuals went through at the time. 

 The setting of this book was easy to follow, though it did change many times. Lithuania is not a country that most people are familiar with, and so Sepetys did a wonderful job of giving enough background knowledge without overwhelming readers with details. Every time the setting changed, they were described beautiful and could be pictured easily in the reader's mind. As for theme, the quote shared above says it all. While the characters struggled with loss, fear, and grief, they also had an abundance of love between one another, and a desire to help keep one another alive despite starting as strangers. This shares the universal theme that love can conquer even the most difficult of times. 

As far as authenticity goes, this book passes with flying colors. The details and descriptions were always so clear that it was obvious that Sepetys had done her research, and the accounts seemed too realistic, despite being fictional characters, to be made up without any historical support. Sepetys went on to explain in an author's note that she traveled to Lithuania twice during the writing of the novel, and discussed the history with several people who were involved as well as historians. It is clear that she put a lot of time and energy into making sure the book was as authentic as possible.

Review Excerpts: 

From Publisher's Weekly: "The narrative skillfully conveys the deprivation and brutality of conditions, especially the cramped train ride, unrelenting hunger, fears about family members' safety, impossible choices, punishing weather, and constant threats facing Lina, her mother, and her younger brother."

From School Library Journal: "I did not know the details; and that is what Between Shades of Gray provides, the details of living, of dying, of survival. Of finding love and beauty and hope in bleakness."


This book, or at least excerpts from it, would be a wonderful addition to any World War II lesson or discussion. In fact, after reading it, I believe it is a necessity. There is always so much talk and study of Hitler's reign of terror, that it is often pushed aside just how deadly Stalin was as well. This book brings light to that.
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