Karen Cushman's The Midwife's Apprentice was published in 1995, winning the Newbery Medal in 1996 (the same year I finished high school). It's not a long book, only about 120 pages, but is a wonderful historical novel for middle school readers. A strong central character really pulled me into the story.
The narrator is Brat, a young girl who has never known a family and has fended for herself since she can remember, scrounging for scraps and sleeping wherever she can find shelter. The medieval English setting doesn't afford Brat many kindnesses and she is regularly teased, taunted, and chased from town to town as an outsider. One cold night she finds a dung heap to sleep in (which can be nice and warm) and wakes to find the town midwife looming over her. Although the midwife is gruff and suspicious she allows Brat - renamed Beetle from her origin in the dung heap - to carry her bundles, fetch firewood, gather herbs, help with the laundry, and so on. Beetle is very clever and learns very quickly; she visits other artisans in town to learn about their professions and even chooses to give herself a new name - Alyce - in a boost of confidence. Even though the midwife won't let Alyce learn midwifery, she peeps in the windows to learn how to deliver a baby. Or at least she thinks she learns. Alyce makes a mistake and runs away from the village; she finds an inn in need of a scullery maid and determines to to forget the midwife and her life in the village. However, Alyce has one more lesson to learn...
Brat/Beetle/Alyce is a great role model for girls and young women. Alyce is stubborn and refuses to kow-tow to others simply because she is a girl and doesn't know where she comes from. She is resilient, resourceful, clever, and intelligent; Cushman has given her character a great thirst for learning, particularly in a setting where women did not receive an education, and Alyce excels at one of the few respectable postitions open to women at that time. Cushman also lends a lot of period detail to her short novel - the style is similar to Ken Follett's Pillars of the Earth - as well as a wealth of herbal knowledge that Alyce garners throughout the novel. The Midwife's Apprentice is definitely a book deserving of the Newbery.
Vocabulary (and I'm sure many of these are herb nicknames):