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...
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