Biography

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 709

Karen Cushman was born in Chicago, Illinois on October 4, 1941, and the future Newbery Medalist was an avid childhood reader from the time she discovered the library. Her formal education through high school—in Chicago and Tarzana, California, where the family moved when Cushman was eleven—came in Catholic schools which...

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Karen Cushman was born in Chicago, Illinois on October 4, 1941, and the future Newbery Medalist was an avid childhood reader from the time she discovered the library. Her formal education through high school—in Chicago and Tarzana, California, where the family moved when Cushman was eleven—came in Catholic schools which she found "more controlled than inspired."

She responded to this rather confined intellectualism with a private fantasy world that found outlets in holding plays with neighborhood friends and mental reveries of traveling the world on her younger brother's homemade scooter. This imaginative realm was enhanced by extensive reading, especially fiction; although she has always had the capacity for sudden intellectual passions such as "the Civil War. . .or. . . the physiology of the brain." This ability for ardently engaged research helps her present finely detailed and authentic historical backgrounds in her young adult fiction. Cushman also wrote poems and stories from an early age, a talent that was much in demand once teachers and classmates discovered her facility.

After graduating from high school, Cushman won a "blanket" scholarship to attend the college of her choice; almost by accident she went to Stanford. She graduated in 1963 with a B.A. degree in English and Greek. Cushman wrote little during her undergraduate years, partly because there was no creative writing program she could enter and partly because the Stanford experience was "a bit intimidating." Cushman continued her higher education much later, receiving a M.A. degree in Human Behavior in 1977 from United States International University and a M.A. in Museum Studies in 1986 from John F. Kennedy University. The timing and fields of study were influenced by changes in her personal life, changes in intellectual focus, and work-related issues.

Cushman had thought of a career in archaeology after leaving Stanford, but she instead worked for a number of years at several "ordinary" jobs, at the last of which she met her future husband. This was at Hebrew Union College where Philip Cushman was a rabbinical student. They were married on September 6, 1969, and they have a daughter, Leah. The couple spent two years in Oregon where her husband taught at a small college before they moved back to California.

They both earned master's degrees in counseling and human behavior, and her husband continued on to get his doctorate in psychology. He has a private practice and is also a professor and writer in the discipline of psychotherapy. Cushman moved on to get her second master's, after which she became an adjunct professor of museum studies at John F. Kennedy University. Here she has edited Museum Studies Journal, taught courses in museology and material culture, and overseen the master's project program. She is now Assistant Director of the Museum Studies Department. Her remarks about this field illuminate the cast of mind that has helped make her such an effective writer: "Museum studies was an interesting way for me to put together many of the things that interest me in life. I am fascinated about the concept of what artifacts say about a culture, and also which artifacts are saved and why others are not."

Reading books to a daughter as she grew up reintroduced Cushman to the world of young adult literature, a type of writing for which she now felt a great affinity. She often mentioned great story ideas to her husband, but nothing came of them until he challenged her to write a story synopsis for him to read. She produced a seven page sketch in 1989, spent three years researching the Middle Ages, read well-written historical fiction for young adults, and finally immersed herself for three years in writing her first book. Catherine, Called Birdy was published in 1994 to considerable acclaim. This story of a thirteenth-century girl garnered numerous 1995 awards and citations: Newbery Honor Book, Carl Sandburg Award for Children's Literature, Golden Kite Award, Bay Area Book Reviewers' Association Award for Children's Literature, Best Books list of School Library Journal, Ten Best Books list of Parent's Choice Foundation, and Cuffie award from Publisher's Weekly. The Midwife's Apprentice won the 1996 Newbery Medal. Her third novel, The Ballad of Lucy Whipple (1996) is set during the California Gold Rush. Cushman is now at work on her fourth historical novel, and her third with a medieval background.

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