“'There's cold chicken inside it,' replied the Rat briefly; 'coldtonguecoldhamcoldbeefpickledgherkinssaladfrench
rollscresssandwichespottedmeatgingerbeerlemonadesodawater----'

'O stop, stop,' cried the Mole in ecstacies: 'This is too much!'”
-- from
The Wind in the Willows


Monday, April 19, 2010

Alchemy and Meggy Swann • Historial fiction

Alchemy and Meggy Swann
by Karen Cushman
Just out! April 2010 Clarion Books Ages 10-14
Fans of Newbery winner Karen Cushman's witty, satisfying historical fiction will welcome Meggy Swann, newly come to London with her only friend, a goose named Louise.
Story:  The place:  London.  The time:  the Elizabethan era.  Meggy's mother was glad to be rid of her; her father, who sent for her, doesn't want her after all. Meggy is appalled by London,dirty and noisy, full of rogues and thieves, and difficult to get around in—not that getting around is ever easy for someone who walks with the help of two sticks. Just as her alchemist father pursues his Great Work of transforming base metal into gold, Meggy finds herself pursuing her own transformation. Earthy and colorful, Elizabethan London has its dark side, but it also has gifts in store for Meggy Swann.
Story behind the story:  "Meggy Swann, deformed since birth, walks with a halting gait using two sticks. Many believe she is cursed by the devil" (School Library Journal), but the author explains:  "Meggy... lives at a time when many medieval ideas and prejudices are disappearing, including certain attitudes toward the ill, infirm or disabled.  Although opinions were diverse, most people believed that such afflictions had supernatural or demonological causes....Ill or disabled persons might be suffering possession or intervention by the Devil or perhaps God's punihsment for some unspecified sin.  But the times were changing....The birth of the modern era and the development of scientific and medical theories saw more advocates for belief in natural causes."  "Cushman has the uncanny ability to take a time and place so remote and make it live. Readers can hear and see and smell it all as if they are right beside Meggy." (Kirkus)  In doing so, she presents a character whose "courage and confidence grow with each obstacle overcome." (School Library Journal)


Advance praise For Alchemy and Meggy Swann:
 "Ye toads and vipers!  Meggy Swann's coming of age story is way-fun and, thus, my trip through Elizabethan London was come and gone way, way too soon." -- Richie Partington, MLIS, Richie's Picks http://richiespicks.com

"Writing with admirable economy and a lively ability to re-create the past believably, Cushman creates a memorable portrayal of a troubled, rather mulish girl who begins to use her strong will in positive ways."--Booklist, starred review

"Queen Elizabeth I is on the throne. London is a sprawling, chaotic city that teems with all manner of humanity. Meggy has come to London ostensibly to serve her alchemist father, a man she has never met. When he rejects her because she is not male and because she is unable to walk normally, she needs all her pluck and determination to rise above her plight...Cushman has the uncanny ability to take a time and place so remote and make it live. Readers can hear and see and smell it all as if they are right beside Meggy. She employs the syntax and vocabulary of the period so easily that it is understood as if it’s the most contemporary modern slang. A gem."--Kirkus, starred review

Read an excerpt.  Like what you read?  Then, lucky you, because on Tuesday, May 4, 2010, at 10:30 a.m. PST/ 1:30 p.m. EST, you can tune in for a live discussion/webcast with students from the TOPS K-8 school in Seattle, WA and the author about Alchemy and Meggy Swann. Classes, libraries, bookstores, and individuals are all invited. You can register here

FYI: all the review copies for this title have been sent; please check back on the "comments" link to read what your colleagues have to say.

22 comments:

wisteria said...

Alchemy and Meggy Swann
by Karen Cushman
Clarion Books
978-0-547-23184
Page Count: 176
Ages: 10-15, grade 5-9

The year is 1573 when Meggy Swann arrives in London after traveling in a wagon “between baskets of cabbages and sacks of flour.” Her companion and friend is a crippled white goose. And like the goose, Meggy does not walk, she waddles with the aid of two sticks to support her crippled legs. She is raised by her Gran after her mother turned her back on her. Now she is summoned to live with her dad, Master Peevish, an alchemist. An alchemist who makes it quite clear his transformations, his search for gold are paramount.

Meggy must find her way alone. With willful determination she carries on, unaided, struggling as she learns to care for herself. She is angry with understandable reasons. She is befriended by a young boy, an actor, smitten by her angelic face. She has a gift of language, crude yet humorous. She can’t help but spit out threats and insults with each searing word. You have to love this impish character Cushman has created. In one tirade Meggy aims her wrath at Roger as she says,

“Go then you writhled, beetle-brained knave. You churl, you slug, you stony-hearted villain! May onions grow in your ears.”

You can’t help but chuckle as the author makes it so easy to visualize this hot-tempered gammin turning red faced, blowing off steam. If she could, she would probably stomp her foot! The streets of Elizabethan England come alive when you walk them with Meggy Swan, a delightfully quick witted soul on a virtuous mission.

Karen Cushman is one of my favorite children’s authors. Of her many works I especially liked, The Midwife’s Apprentice and Catherine, Called Birdy. Both excellent. I highly recommend Alchemy and Meggy Swann for historical fiction bookshelves in classrooms, and libraries. A great read aloud and perfect for literature circles.

loonyhiker said...

I would definitely give this book 5 out of 5. The story takes place in London during the Elizabethan error and is about a young girl who has a physical disability. The story starts off right away with an interest grabber and I couldn’t put it down. I think this book would be great to use in a classroom to enhance different types of lessons. It can be used as historical fiction and would lend itself to many discussions in a social studies class. I think the book also uses wonderful vocabulary to attract a student’s interest. I think it also touches on a lesson of social skills in dealing with people who are different and how other people treat them. I like Meggy’s spirit in the story and how she doesn’t give up and let other people’s attitudes determine how she will live her life. In addition to be a great educational tool, it is an uplifting and interesting story. I can easily see this being used on the middle school level and even the high school level in a special education class.

Pat Hensley
Greenville, SC

Catherine said...

I love Alchemy and Meggy Swann. I work with special education students and they often feel like Meggy does - ugly, unwanted, and sometimes friendless and unloved. This is a great story to teach kids to see beyond the obvious. It is also a great way to teach them about history.

I especially loved the characters of Grimm and Merryman. Not only does it show kids that adults with disablities can be accepted and have full lives, but it shows the kids how well their own creativity can help them deal with problems. This is always a situation that I have to find a way to resolve and I'm glad to have a book that shows them how to do it.

5 out of 5

Catherine Yezak, Special Education Teacher, Marquette Area Public Schools, Marquette, Michigan

PLLoggerR said...

Karen Cushman's Alchemy and Meggy Swann is a wonderful depiction of Elizabethan England. There is much to learn about the times --from how a disabled person (Meggy) is treated to laws concerning actors, from food to bodily functions, from printing to alchemy, from daily language to curses, the book covers it all. This will be a great book to discuss during a study of the period, while also being a good book for dealing with different people.

My favorite part of the book is definitely the language--it is close to period and a full of phrases children will love.

Becky Jensen, Co-Director
Peacham Library

Wayne said...

I very much enjoyed Karen Cushman's latest. Meggy Swann does for Elizabethan England what Catherine, called Birdy did for the medieval era. It is a delightful read and I would wholeheartedly give it 5 out of 5 stars.

dmuldawer said...

Crippled as much by society's expectations of her as by her legs. Meggy Swann's life is transformed when she arrives at her father's home in London.

She does not take her handicap with good grace; in fact, Meggy is rude, irritable, belligerent, and demanding. But most qualities have a flip side and Meggy is no exception.

When she turns her considerable energy outside of herself, she makes friends, saves a goose, warns a nobleman about a death threat, and finds a way to support herself.

Alchemy and Meggy Swann is an interesting snapshot of the prejudices and history of Elizabethan England and Meggy, who is an active, real, and thoroughly present character holds her own as she navigates the challenges of her unique world.

This is a good book to explore prejudice, differences, and history. Because the language and some of the concepts are complex, it would best be taught as a class book.

I can't see my students reading Alchemy and Meggy Swann for fun, but the book has many literary applications and would be a good teaching tool.

Alchemy and Meggy Swann is a worthwhile addition to school and classroom libraries; just be aware that it will be primarily used by teachers and will appeal mostly to more advanced readers.

Picnic Basket Rating: 4

Anonymous said...

Karen Cushman has written another amazing piece of historical fiction. I would give this book a 5. The setting is well developed – the reader really takes a virtual journey to Elizabethan London. The main character is a spunky who over comes many hardships , including a physical disability. The book would be a great addition to any unit about Elizabethan England.

Anonymous said...

I enjoyed the story which includes the historical perspectives and Meggy with her disability, giving us insight to her feelings. I liked the language although I would give this book a 3 because my concern would be in how slow the book moves along if my students would stay with the book and finish it, the storyline is great but moves a little slowly for most students, especially those with disabilities. I considered reading this to my class but I believe that most of them might fall asleep. I wish it had a bit more action or moved quicker as it has the potential to be an excellent tool.

Anonymous said...

I enjoyed reading "Alchemy and Meggy Swann". Karen Cushman has written another great book to share with my students. This historical fiction book goes along with the time period taught in our 6th grade social studies classes. I will add the book to the collection of other books for the students to choose from when doing historical fiction book talks.
I know that it will be one of their favorite.
I give this a 5 in my picnic basket and look forward to seeing the book projects my students create to go along with it.

linda said...

I would definitely give this book 5 out of 5. The book grabs your interest from the beginning and with the twists and turns in the story,you never lose interest. I would definitely put it on my list of historical fiction and also teaching about tolerance. I think students reading at a higher guided reading level wouldn't have any problems with it, as well as middle school students. I plan to introduce it to my 4th grade class.

EShay said...

Alchemy and Meggy Swann was a story I was very much looking forward to. I thoroughly enjoy this period of time and was intrigued as to how it would play out. In the end, I was left feeling so so.
I loved how it dealt with disabilities and differences. I enjoyed the author's note at the end, explaining some of the history. It was a quick read.
However, I was a bit disheartened by the language. It did not stay true to itself, I felt. I understand why it was made easier, but I am not sure it is easier enough for the target age range. The story seemed to ramble.
I give it a 3.5

Charlotte said...

I wondered, when I first saw the title of Alchemy and Meggy Swann (2010, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, mg, 176 pages) if this might be fantasy...it's not, but it is my favorite of all of Karen Cushman's historical fiction to date. Set in Elizabethan England, it tells of a young girl summoned by the father she's never met to join him in London. When she arrives, however, she is given a cold greeting. Her father wanted an able-bodied boy to work for him. Meggie is a girl, and needs sticks to lean on when she walks.

Neglected, angry, and uncertain, Meggie scowls at the world. But gradually, her friendship with Roger, a player's boy, grows (mainly because he is incredibly patient with her), and she finds herself on cordial terms with a few of the tradesfolk in her new London neighborhood, although there are others who still hold the the medieval beliefs that lameness like Meggie's is a sign of sin. But up on the top floor of her new house, her father is busily trying to turn base metal into gold. To do this, he needs money....and alchemy can be put to more sinister uses. Like murder and treason....

Cushman strikes just the right balance here between historical accuracy and a lively story of contemporary interest. The dialogue is particularly zesty, managing to be Elizabethan-esque while still fun to read. Here's an example, picked more or less at random:

"Of a sudden the door banged open. "Come, Meggy Swann," Roger called. "We are off to the river in search of a breeze."

She looked up, hiding the joy she felt at seeing him, and said, "Pray sir, pardon me. For a moment I mistook you for someone I did once knew. Someone who swore he was a friend and then abandoned me to sink under my afflictions in this--"

"Nay, Meggy, be not spleeny. I was occupied with drilling the apprentices and learning a new part myself." (page 95)

Meggy is at first not the most likable of characters (she is indeed very spleeny), but she sure has reason to be more than a bit prickly. I found it a pleasure to watch her gain confidence, realizing that she actually does have the power to change her own circumstances. The story of how she finds a place in the world is both moving and believable (well, pretty believable. In all likelihood, she would have ended up begging in the gutters, but I'm glad she didn't).

Recommended to those who like detail-rich historical fiction or books featuring characters with disabilities, and in particular to those interested in alchemy, Elizabethan theatre, and the difficulties of keeping a pet goose in 16th/17th London on a limited budget!

Charlotte said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Heather Hill said...

"Alchemy and Meggy Swann" started off a bit slow for me, but as soon as the cast of characters started to emerge, I became involved in the story. The use of the period language and phrases made me laugh and I think students would really enjoy this book as a read-aloud. My favorite phrase of Meggy's was "ye toads and vipers" and I find myself muttering it when frustrated. In all, an enjoyable read for fans of historical fiction. I give it a 5 out of 5.

Heather Hill, Reading Specialist
Enterprise Elementary
Woodbridge, VA

Dawn said...

Cushman does a great job portraying life in the Elizabethian Era and this book just adds to her vast collection of them. The twist to this book is Meggy Swann’s cripples body. Long ago, many believed one was marked by the devil if born with deformities. This cruel world was hard, but even harder for someone believed to be practicing in the dark arts. The story opens with Meggy on a carriage to her father’s after the death of her gran. Gran is the loving woman who raises her as her mother runs the ale house. Glad to be rid of her burden, she is sent to assist her father. The man, upon her arrival, believes her a beggar and turns her out. Meggy, and her goose, Louise, have a roof over their head, but little more. She is expected to find her own food, although getting around with her walking sticks is long and painful. As the story progresses, Meggy learns of her father’s career and those of many around her. She is hard but manages to find a few friends along the way. Karen Cushman is yet again successful at providing the readers with a strong girl who is aware of her weaknesses yet uses her strengths to find a purpose in life.
I would recommend this book for libraries and classrooms.

Dawn VanLerberghe
School Librarian
Baraga Area Schools
Baraga, MI

Dawn said...

Cushman does a great job portraying life in the Elizabethian Era and this book just adds to her vast collection of them. The twist to this book is Meggy Swann’s cripples body. Long ago, many believed one was marked by the devil if born with deformities. This cruel world was hard, but even harder for someone believed to be practicing in the dark arts. The story opens with Meggy on a carriage to her father’s after the death of her gran. Gran is the loving woman who raises her as her mother runs the ale house. Glad to be rid of her burden, she is sent to assist her father. The man, upon her arrival, believes her a beggar and turns her out. Meggy, and her goose, Louise, have a roof over their head, but little more. She is expected to find her own food, although getting around with her walking sticks is long and painful. As the story progresses, Meggy learns of her father’s career and those of many around her. She is hard but manages to find a few friends along the way. Karen Cushman is yet again successful at providing the readers with a strong girl who is aware of her weaknesses yet uses her strengths to find a purpose in life.
I recommend this book for libraries and classrooms.

Dawn VanLerberghe
School Librarian
Baraga Area Schools
Baraga, MI

Sandra Stiles said...

I guess I am a sucker for good Historical Fiction. Karen Cushman has created a character, Meggy Swann that you must feel sorry for, annoyed at and love all at the same time. Born a cripple in 1573 England, Meggy has more problems than two legs that won't work. Her mother doesn't want her and thrust her upon her grandmother. When her grandmother dies and her father, whom she has never known sends for "his child", her mother is happy to get rid of her. She considers her a curse on her business. Meggy leaves the countryside along with her only friend a goose named Louise and is dropped at the door to her father's place, an alchemist. When he realizes she is a girl, and crippled he leaves her standing in the door. Like her mother, he also considers her useless. Hungry she soon learns she will have to overcome a lot and transform herself into someone she never knew she could become. She demands her father let her help him and asks questions to try to understand what he is doing. For the first time in her life she has made some friends. Then she finds out her father has a dark side and she must decide what to do about it. Meggy transforms from a despised girl who had to rely on others, to a young lady who finds her real strength. This is an excellent book for those who love the Elizabethan period in history. I will whole-heartedly recommend this book to my students.
So much can be done with this book. Students can discuss the sanitation of that time period. They don't realize that things such as throw your food scraps and emptying the chamber pot into a ditch right outside the door caused so much disease. The historical aspects as well as comparing the caring and treatment of people with disabilities back then to today. This was a wonderful book and one that I give a definite 5 to.

M. Battista said...

I always enjoy Karen Cushman books. I just love how she brings history to life. But...I am an adult reader with a lot more patience than many younger readers. I have a hard time getting middle school kids to read her stories. I can usually find a few kids each year who really take to her, but I have to work at it. I think it's because there isn't enough action to keep kids interested. That doesn't mean that every book needs to be an adventure story- just that many kids don't have the patience for a slow building story. I think her books make excellent read alouds. Hearing the old world speech with proper tone and inflection really brings them to life. I give this tale a 3.5.

M. Battista
Denair, CA

Lemon the Duck said...

This was a wonderful historical piece. The language and sense of place was so on spot. I felt Meggy’s character, in the dingy setting of London, hungry and alone, save for her goose who she connected with so closely. What a sad state of opinion history had on the disabled but such an opportunity for a rich, learning experience when comparing today’s attitudes.
Although Meggy's perseverance is what moves the story along, I didn't feel it was enough to keep the target audience interested through the end as an independent read, unless s/he was an advanced reader. A read-a-loud (using proper narration) with pause for discussions would be a better bet I think.
I give this book 4 out of 5.

Laura Backman
Hathaway School

Carol said...

I am a historical fiction fan, but I have not read any books that take place in the late 1500s in London, making this a special treat! I did not read this one as quickly as other books that I have going, but I liked enough to want to read the entire book.

I think this setting and choice of words used by the author, allow the reader to practice their visualization skills. Karen did a clear and coherent job at sharing the time and place with the reader so they felt like it was the present. At the same time, it clearly allowed for the reader to experience a setting and time period unlike any other before or after it.

Meggy was a great character. She was tough and resilient, yet she was as thoughtful and sweet as her circumstances allowed her to be. There were moments where you lost yourself in her world and thought about what actions you might take in her place. I loved the connection she had to her goose and the opportunities for discourse around their relationship. I was sad that the goose didn't come back to Meggy in the end. I guess I am a sucker for happy animal endings! This would be a quality choice for a literacy circle or book club. I will read more books by Karen now.

K-8 Librarian

juli said...

I love historical fiction and really enjoyed Alchemy and Meggy Swann. It took me awhile to read it and I had to reread some of the dialogue, but it was well worth it.
The story is well developed and the characters are memorable. I have a hard time getting my students to read historical fiction, but I am hoping with a good book talk one might be willing to take the chance!
juli
5th grade teacher

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