The Midwife's Apprentice, by Karen Cushman


Having recently renewed my committment to conquer more Newbery winners, one of my selections from the library last week was 1996 medal winner The Midwife's Apprentice. What a unique book, and one that is chock full of ammunition for discussion and study of character development! It is the tale (set in the Middle Ages) of an orphan girl who has nothing, no one, no knowledge of anything, and keeps warm in the winter by sleeping on huge mounds of poo. As you read her story, you will watch her go from Beetle (a name given by the village bullies) to Brat (the midwife's name for her) to Alyce (a name she finally chooses for herself). By the end of the book, she is a beautiful and confident young woman who is courageous enough to finally figure out her dreams, and then to boldly pursue them.


The vocabulary and topic of midwifery in Cushman's book obviously warrant its 6th grade reading level. While it has more to do with how Beetle/Brat/Alyce grows as a person than birthing babies, questions on that subject are likely to arise. My favorite aspect of TMA is the precision with which the story is told. Cushman uses 5 words to say what most authors need 15 to say. Another interesting and noteworthy trait is the unusual adaptability of the plot. I could easily see Cushman beefing up the details and marketing this to adults, or slimming down some of the events in order to create a picture book for children. Instead she chose a more straightforward approach, which (for me) was "just right!"