Life and Background
A contemporary writer of historical fiction for young adults, Karen Cushman considers herself to be a "late bloomer." At age 53, she wrote her first novel, Catherine, Called Birdy (1995), a novel that won numerous awards including a Newbery Honor. Six months later, Cushman finished her second novel, The Midwife's Apprentice (1996), and earned the Newbery Medal. Cushman's novels, set in diverse social and historical settings, are about the aristocracy and homeless in medieval England and the California gold rush; however, the struggles faced by her heroines are timeless. Cushman's protagonists are strong females who have a will of their own that surfaces as they discover their identity. Her characters possess hope, determination, and imagination. Cushman writes about universal issues — the search for identity, perseverance, limitations, and the humane treatment of all individuals.
Cushman was born on October 4, 1941, in Chicago, Illinois, to Arthur and Loretta Lipski. Her family moved to Southern California when she was eleven. Cushman discovered the library at an early age, and books became a big part of her life. She loved fiction, but from time to time she would find herself interested in a variety of nonfiction topics such as the Civil War, physiology of the brain, or anesthetics. She read everything she could get her hands on about each topic.
Cushman attended private schools. Because her formal education was not a match for her imagination, she became interested in plays. She would hold plays with friends from her neighborhood. Once, she got a book about ballet and had her friends pretend to be taking a ballet class. Her friends used car door handles like a ballet bar and Cush-man read to them, directing them in what to do. One of Cushman's first attempts at writing was a play called Jingle Bagels, a multicultural Christmas story in which Santa Claus goes down the wrong chimney and ends up in a Jewish house during Hanukkah. Growing up, she also wrote poems about Elvis Presley and plots for Elvis movies.
After graduating from high school, Cushman won a scholarship and chose to attend Stanford University. She graduated in 1963 with a degree in English and Greek. After graduation, Cushman wanted to go to Greece and dig for treasures in ancient ruins, but instead, she began working for the Beverly Hills telephone company. She eventually quit that job and several subsequent jobs. She was working as an assistant clerk-administrator at Hebrew Union College in Los Angeles, when she met Philip Cushman, then a rabbinical student. They married in 1969 and moved to Oregon. While in Oregon, her husband taught at a small college and Cushman took up weaving and made blackberry jam. They also had a daughter named Leah. Two years later, they returned to California, where Cushman and her husband went back to school to earn master's degrees. Cushman graduated from United States International University in 1977 with a master's in human behavior. Her husband received his master's in counseling. Her husband continued with his studies and received a doctorate in psychology. He has been a psychotherapist and professor ever since. Cushman also continued her studies. She received a second master's in Museum Studies from the John F. Kennedy University in 1986. After graduating, Cushman stayed at John
F. Kennedy University, where she has taught classes in museology and material culture, edited the Museum Studies Journal, and coordinated the master's project program.
As her daughter, Leah, grew up, Cushman read numerous books to and with her. When Leah began reading adult fiction, Cushman didn't. She chose to keep reading young adult literature because the stories and themes captivated her attention. Cushman began to share her ideas for stories with her husband, until one day he told her to write the stories down.
Because Cushman had always been interested in history, particularly medieval England, she began her research in that area. She read young adult historical novels, including those by Patricia MacLachlan and Rosemary Sutcliff, and attended writers' conferences. She went to Renaissance fairs and listened to medieval music. Despite the fact that many people tried to dissuade Cushman from writing historical fiction, she never gave up. Her first novel, Catherine, Called Birdy, was published in 1994 and her second novel, The Midwife's Apprentice, was published in 1995. Both stories are set in medieval England. Cushman's research for her novels is extensive. Her goal is to portray the setting of her books as accurately as possible for her readers. All of the old words and expressions in Cushman's books are real, and foods mentioned in the books are from actual cookbooks. Cushman's third book, The Ballad of Lucy Whipple (1996), takes place during the California Gold Rush. She is currently at work on a fourth novel.
Both Catherine, Called Birdy and The Midwife's Apprentice have earned many awards and honors including the Newbery Honor and Newbery Medal (respectively), American Library Association awards, the Notable Children's Book in Language Arts award, Books for Youth Editors' Choice award, Fanfare Honor List award, School Library Journal's Best Books of the Year award, American Booksellers Association award, and the Gold Kite Award for Fiction from the Society for Children's Book Writers and Illustrators.
Cushman lives in Oakland, California, with her husband, Philip, two cats, a dog, and a rabbit. When she isn't writing, she enjoys working in her garden — growing tomato plants. She also reads and listens to music popular during the Middle Ages. Cushman continues to teach — she is an adjunct professor at John F. Kennedy University in the Museum Studies department — and to write for young adults.
Cushman's Selected Works
Catherine, Called Birdy (1994)
The Midwife's Apprentice (1995)
The Ballad of Lucy Whipple (1996)