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The Midwife’s Apprentice, by Karen Cushman

14 May

1996 edition, HarperCollins, ISBN 978-0064406307

Plot Summary: Brat is an orphaned girl with no name or family. When the village midwife discovers her sleeping in a dung heap to keep warm, she takes her on as an apprentice. The reader sees Brat grow in confidence and ability as she learns her trade and to stand up for herself against Jane, the midwife who takes her in, and the cruel villagers among whom she lives. She earns the respect of one of the bullies when she aids him in delivering a calf, and women of the village begin requesting her over her midwife mentor when they realize that she possesses a strong skill set of her own.

Critical Evaluation: A 1996 Newbery winner, this historical fiction novel has a strong message: you can make your own way in this life, no matter what cards you are dealt. Alyce remembers no mother and no home; she is the target of village bullies and sleeps in a dung heap to keep warm, but she never believes in giving up. When the midwife is cruel with her words, she shakes it off and continues to learn by observation. She does not wait for someone to provide her with a kinder name than Brat or Beetle, the name given her by Jane the midwife; she decides she likes the name Alyce and tells people to call her by that name. She finds a way to even the score with the cruel villagers and earns their respect.

Reviews: School Library Journal: “Earthy humor, the foibles of humans both high and low, and a fascinating mix of superstition and genuinely helpful herbal remedies attached to childbirth make this a truly delightful introduction to a world seldom seen in children’s literature.”

Booklist: “Cushman writes with a sharp simplicity and a pulsing beat. From the first page you’re caught by the spirit of the homeless, nameless waif, somewhere around 12 years old, “unwashed, unnourished, unloved, and unlovely,” trying to keep warm in a dung heap. Kids will like this short, fast-paced narrative about a hero who discovers that she’s not ugly or stupid or alone.”

Awards: Newbery Medal (1996); American Library Association (ALA) Best of the Best Books for Young Adults; New York Pubilc LIbrary’s One Hundred Titles for Reading and Sharing.

Reader’s Annotation: Orphaned and alone, a young girl learns that you are what you make yourself, not what others make of you.

Author Information: Karen Cushman is a two-time Newbery Award-winning novelist. Her website offers a full bibliography of Ms. Cushman’s books, along with an author biography and “odd facts”. An FAQ is available for popular questions, and there is a link to contact the author for appearances.

Genre: Historical fiction.

Booktalking Ideas: Do you think Jane the midwife was kind or cruel to take Brat/Alyce in? Was she somewhere in between? How does Alyce rise above her circumstances to gain respect? Is there a skill you would like to learn?

Reading Level/Interest Age: 13+

Challenge Issues/Defense: There may be some objection to the crass behavior of the medieval folk in the book. Defense: This is an historical fiction piece based in medieval England. LIke Chaucer, it can be a bit bawdy, but it is not over the top for a teen reader.

Why did you include this book in the titles you selected?

I enjoy reading historical fiction and this book came highly recommended.

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