For Award-Winning Author, The Story Comes First

Karen Cushman burst onto the children's-literature scene in 1994 with her first novel, "Catherine, Called Birdy," which won a Newbery Honor Award.

The next year, Ms. Cushman's second novel, "The Midwife's Apprentice," won the coveted Newbery Medal. Her third novel, The "Ballad of Lucy Whipple," was published this month.

The Monitor talked by phone with Cushman at her Oakland, Calif., home:

How does it feel to have your books receive such prestigious awards?

It really hasn't sunk in yet. It's been so amazing and so much more than I've expected. Especially since I'm still me and still have to clean the cat's box!

All of your books feature strong female characters. Do you deliberately write about young women?

I don't think I ever sat down and said 'Now, I'm going to write this story about a girl.' In each case, the story came first. I said, 'What if there's this story about a person that . . . blah, blah, blah.' It always seemed to fit better that it was a girl. I think they're girls because the stories call for girls. I also think they're girls because I'm a girl and know much more about girls, their lives and thoughts, than I would a boy. I also think that there are plenty of male protagonists out there. So it seemed time for some strong young women.

What makes these female characters interesting to you?

They're not comfortable in their time and place. There's always something a little bit wrong - or a lot wrong. They're not satisfied. They're not sitting back, but looking for something more.

I like that they are all smart. They all seem to me to be courageous. They are all outspoken. I think they remind me of me in the fact that they're wise guys.

How did you come up with the idea to write 'The Ballad of Lucy Whipple'?

I can name the exact moment I had the idea. I was in a bookstore, looking at a book about the Gold Rush. It said, 'The California Gold Rush was a movement of men. Fully 90 percent of the people who went west to search for gold were men.... Then it went on and on about the men. I thought, 'Whoa! Wait a minute. That is dismissing 10 percent of what was a very substantial number of people. Who were these 10 percent? What were they looking for? Did they find it? Were they happy? Did they want to come?'

I thought, 'What if there was this girl who was perfectly content in her Massachusetts farmhouse, who was perfectly content with her dog, her grandparents, her public library, and her indoor plumbing. And what if she got dragged across the country because of someone else's passion or fantasy. How would she cope? And what would she do?'

What characters were the most challenging?

I think Lucy herself was hard to write about. In the beginning I wanted to make her dissatisfied, a little whiney, afraid, and I had to do all that and still make her likable. I found that difficult.

Is there a particular influence you hope this book will have on readers?

As with all of my books, I want readers to think about themselves, and their place, and their lives. In this book, I'd like them to look at love, and home, and family. Also, I want readers to know about the importance - for generations - of books and reading.

In 'The Ballad of Lucy Whipple,' you cover some very adult issues: racism, domestic violence, murder. How do you keep your poise in dealing with these topics?

I try and deal with issues from a child's point of view. Lucy wouldn't look at something as a matter of racism but as someone being unkind or unfair to her friend.

In your Newbery Medal acceptance speech, you said you wanted to write about your own passions, values, and beliefs. What are the most important values you include in your books?

First of all, identity, knowing who we are. The value of knowing, and being, and expressing ourselves. Also, I think all the ideas about compassion and being humane are extremely important. Finally, the whole idea of being passionate about something, caring deeply about something.

I'm interested in leaving children with books that are meaningful as well as entertaining. Someone has called those ... "transformational books," where something in your life - your thinking or attitude - changes a little bit by reading the book. I would like to think that's what mine are.

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