Anyway, Cushman's 14th century England starts out as a cold and hungry place, filled with hard work. I think her introductory paragraph was incredible - it hooked me hard, and it definitely set the tone for the rest of the book:
When animal droppings and garbage and spoiled straw are piled up in a great heap, the rotting and moiling give forth heat. Usually no one gets close enough to notice because of the stench. But the girl noticed and, on that frosty night, burrowed deep into the warm, rotting muck, heedless of the smell. In any even, the dung heap probably smelled little worse than everything else in her life - the food scraps scavenged from kitchen yards, the stables and sties she slept in when she could, and her own unwashed, unnourished, unloved, and unlovely body (pg. 1).I really enjoyed all of the details on midwifery in the past that Cushman wove into the story - the herbs, the superstitions, even some of the details of labor. I would guess all of this would appeal more to girls than boys. Similarly, the story of how Beetle becomes Alyce, and how Alyce grows into a valued member of the village, with more confidence, perseverance, and knowledge (as well as a cat and a comb), is a story that girls will probably appreciate.