Newbery winner to offer tips on writing

Posted: Thursday, March 08, 2001

I t seems unlikely that a schoolgirl who hated history would grow up to be a historical novelist.

Karen Cushman's award-winning novels transport readers to the medieval manors and rough peasant cottages of the Middle Ages, and to the gold rush mining towns of the old West. Her stories, told through the eyes of young girls growing into adolescence, offer telling details of those times.

"I hated history in school," Cushman said. "We learned about who was king, about battles between popes and nobles. We didn't learn about where people bathed, what they ate, and that's what I wanted to put in my books as an adult. Who was pope does not bring history to life. It's the details."

Cushman, 59, will offer a presentation Saturday and workshops for adult and school-age writers Sunday at the downtown library.

She began writing professionally at 50 and published her first book when she was 53. Her first novel, "Catherine, Called Birdy," was Honor Book in the 1995 John Newbery Awards. Her next, "The Midwife's Apprentice," was the Newbery Medal Book for 1996, awarded by the American Library Association to the author of the most distinguished contribution to American literature for children. Her most recent books are "Matilda Bone" and "The Ballad of Lucy Whipple," set in the California Gold Rush era.

Cushman said she will read a little and give a short talk, but she's most interested in answering questions about writing and publishing.

"What I most like to talk about is how to develop ideas into stories," she said. "How you use language, images and details to bring your story to life."

She said young writers often have questions about how to get their work published, which surprises her. She said although she wrote as a child, she wasn't concerned with publishing.

"As a kid I wrote a lot - poems, stories, plays, a neighborhood newspaper," she said. "I adapted a death scene from 'Little Women,' we put it on in the garage and charged everyone a nickel to see it."

She studied Greek and English at Stanford University, and dreamed of being an archeologist. She married and had a daughter, earned a master's degree in human behavior, then a second master's in museum studies. For the past decade she's taught, edited a museum journal and advised students at John F. Kennedy University near her home in Oakland, Calif.

She said over the years she had many ideas for books and she'd tell her husband about them - and that was as far as they went. One time he cut her off and said, "Don't tell me. Write it down." "Catherine, Called Birdy" was born.

The book had close to a dozen rewrites as she worked. She said she likes to emphasize the importance of good editing and rewriting when she talks about writing.

"When I talk to school kids I bring the 27 versions of the first page of 'Catherine.' So when they complain about rewrites I show them how many drafts it takes," Cushman said.

She said it's important for her to be historically accurate in her books.

"Especially when I'm writing for young people," she said. "Children, they accept what we're telling them as historical truth. I feel a definite responsibility to give them a historical picture. If you say people were eating this, or doing that, or feeling something, or responding in a certain way - they can trust me and trust that's true."

Sometimes the gritty realities of life in the 13th century can be unpleasant. Cushman has been praised and criticized for her accuracy, sometimes by the same people.

"Many say they appreciate how true-to-life the stories are, but then they don't want me to used a term like 'piss' or 'privy,' " she said. "I search to find the least offensive word, but those were different times."

Cushman compared the Middle Ages moving into the Renaissance to a child growing into adolescence. At that point in history, people began to have concerns about their identity and appearance, about privacy and accountability. Those are some of the same issues adolescents face.

"Catherine, Called Birdy" is set in 1290 and is told in a diary form, a style that Cushman said made the story more intimate and immediate. Although Cushman works in academia, she said she's found excellent, first-hand accounts of life in the Middle Ages in her local bookstores.

Cushman's next book is on the orphan trains.

"They were set up in the 19th century as a way for children's aid societies to move (orphan) children from the cities out west, where they could be adopted. New York had probably the biggest program. Some ran away, some were treated as slaves or as unpaid farm labor, families and brothers and sisters were spilt up. There are very touching stories."

Riley Woodford can be reached at

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