• Happy birthday Stephen Manes (Be a Perfect Person in Just Three Days!), Nancy Bond (A String in the Harp), Floyd Cooper (The Blacker the Berry), and Marjorie Priceman (Zin! Zin! Zin! A Violin!, How to Make an Apple Pie and See the World).
  • Happy birthday to the Chicago Public Library system, begun with the Blackstone Library, dedicated in 1904. Read The Library by Sarah Stewart, illustrated by David Small.
  • In 1963, Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa is exhibited in the U.S. for the first time, at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. Read The Mona Lisa Caper by Rick Jacobson and Laura Fernandez.
  • It’s Bubble Bath Day. Read Squeaky Clean by Simon Puttock, illustrated by Mary McQuillan.

In Greece January 8 has been designated Midwife’s Day or Women’s Day, to honor midwives. Midwifery, of course, has a long and important history throughout the world. Drawing on her extensive knowledge of medieval times, Karen Cushman chose the practice of helping women deliver babies as the subject for her second novel, The Midwife’s Apprentice, winner of the Newbery Award.

The book opens with an intriguing scene: an unwashed, unloved, unnourished young girl climbs into a dung heap to seek shelter for the night. Awoken in the morning by noisy boys calling her “dung beetle,” the girl begs for food from a woman who comes by, offering to do any work for it. That woman, Jane Sharp, happens to be the midwife of the area, plying her craft with herbs and drawing on vast experience delivering babies. So Beetle, as she is now called, becomes her apprentice, soaking up the schooling that Jane provides.

Living up to her name, Jane is truly sharp in manner and style, always cursing the young apprentice; Beetle has a softer, gentler manner. Consequently, one day a villager only wants to hire the young girl—for a case that she cannot handle. Feeling guilt and remorse, Beetle runs away—but ultimately has the courage to face Jane and ask for another chance.

The Midwife’s Apprentice is filled with the sights, sounds, and smells of a medieval village. Beetle, who has a single companion, a cat named Purr, makes a great protagonist. She has the liveliness, the spirit, and the determination to make a better place for herself. Ideal for fourth and fifth graders, the book has frequently been taught in classrooms and naturally leads to discussions of medieval villages and life—their fairs and inns and customs.

Many authors long to find an editor who will appreciate their work. In the case of Karen Cushman, she entrusted her first novel, Catherine, Called Birdy, to a friend in New York. He lived in the same apartment building as Dorothy Briley, one of the great children’s editors of the twentieth century, and stalked her, always with manuscript in hand. One day he jumped into the elevator with Dorothy and thrust the manuscript at her. Without missing a beat, Dorothy took the package to her apartment. The next morning she brought it in for editor Dinah Stevenson to look over. The rest, as they say, is history. In Dinah, Karen found a sympathetic and skilled midwife, one who has helped bring all of her books into the world.

Here’s a passage from The Midwife’s Apprentice:

She chewed on a lock of her hair to help her think. What did people want? Blackberry pie? New shoes? A snug cottage and a bit of land?

She thought all that wet afternoon and finally, as she served Magister Reese his cold-beef-and-bread supper, she cleared her throat a time or two and then softly answered: “I know what I want. A full belly, a contented heart, and a place in this world.”



Originally posted January 8, 2011. Updated for .

Tags: Award Winning, History, Middle Ages, Newbery, Women
Instructional materials from TeachingBooks.net for The Midwife’s Apprentice


  1. Sarah von Moritz says:

    This is one of my favorite books! What a nice surprise to find it as the entry for today. Especially loved the information about how Cushman came to be paired with her editor.

  2. Anita says:

    Sarah: Thanks for the comments. Yes, it is an amazing story. I worked with Dorothy Briley for the last few years of her career. When she was having a bad day, I used to say, “Why don’t you go ride in the elevator!” Anita

  3. Forget touring the English or American countryside visiting famous authors’ houses and studios for inspiration. I say we go to NYC for the elevator tours.

  4. Anita says:

    Peter: A great idea. Let’s get a bus going from Western MA.

  5. Thanks for this review. I’ve seen the book but your review makes me want to give it a try (and try it out on my 3rd grader or 5th grader).

  6. Jennifer Gibson says:

    How I love this book! I was just “selling” it to someone last week as a great historical fiction read. Thanks for making my morning!

  7. suzi w. says:

    “Why don’t you go ride in the elevator?” Oh how wonderful. I love the stories you tell about the editorial history of books–they are perhaps my favorite part of your Almanac.

    This is a very important book to me. I’ll have to find my copy today. I didn’t so much like Catherine, but was working at Barnes and Noble when Midwife came out. When I tried for a promotion (to Children’s Dept Supervisor) I read the last bit from the book, I was so determined to get the job. I can still see myself in the cafe, talking with my then boss. That store is gone now, in its place, a completely unromantic Office Depot.

    I’m a bigger fan of Trina Schart Hyman’s cover. I’m trying to remember if there are illustrations in the book. Have you done a post on her yet? She is my favorite illustrator of all time. I wish she were still alive.

    Oh, and I remember reading the Newbery acceptance speech in Horn Book, thinking oh good, I still have time to be a children’s writer if she came to it so late.


  8. I love the insider information you provide with these posts, like you did with your own book–100 BEST BOOKS for CHILDREN. I don’t own all the books you recommend in there, but I do own many of them. Now I shelve them separately, alongside your book, so that the best are easiest to find.

  9. Anita says:

    Aline, Suzi W., Jennifer: Thanks for your comments. I love telling the back stories of these books, certainly what I enjoy writing the most on the Almanac. Suzi: I have a TSH essay planned for her birthday, April 8.

  10. suzi w. says:

    I will now put April 8 on my calendar.

  11. Joy Corcoran says:

    Oh, this is one of my favorites. Karen Cushman consistently comes up with compelling plots and lively characters. I love that she writes so many historical stories that are realistic about what people, particularly poor people, had to do to survive. Beetle is such an optimistic character, in spite of her circumstances. I’m always glad to have the Almanac to spark my day. And how nice that at least one country has a Midwife’s day.

  12. Thanks, Anita, for the post. That friend in New York was actually my very dedicated agent. I am still so grateful to him and to Dorothy. And I loved your telling her to go ride the elevator! Magic lurks in the strangest places.

  13. Anita says:

    Karen: Thanks for the note. How I miss Dorothy, as did all who had a chance to work with her.

Leave a Comment

Daily children’s book recommendations and events from Anita Silvey.

Discover the stories behind the children’s book classics . . .

The new books on their way to becoming classics . . .

And events from the world of children’s books—and the world at large.