“GRAYLING’S SONG,” by Karen Cushman, Clarion Books, June 7, 2016, Hardcover, $16.99 (ages 10-12)
Karen Cushman knows how to tell a good story. She’s the author of nine books, one of which was a Newberry honor and another the Newberry medalist. Up until recently, Karen has focused on historical fiction. That changed with her latest novel, “Grayling’s Song,” which marks her entry into fantasy.
“Grayling’s Song” is named for Cushman’s title character, Grayling, a young girl who is forced to become a hero when she least expects it. Grayling’s mother is a “wise woman” — a sort of witch who people come to for remedies. One day, Grayling returns home to find her mother sprouting roots and bark growing up her legs. Grayling sets off into the wilds, hoping to find a wise witch who can help her mother. What she finds is she finds instead is a weather witch, an aromatic enchantress, a cheese soothsayer, a foolish apprentice and a shape-shifting mouse. Together, this rag-tag band must save Grayling’s mother and all other magical persons before they’re all turned into trees.
“Grayling’s Song” has all the elements of a good middle-grade fantasy — an interesting protagonist, mystery and adventure — but there were times when Cushman’s choice of dialogue made me stumble. The language has a stiff, old-fashioned feel to it that comes across stilted rather than authentic. Here’s an example:
“Thomas Middleton will be coming anon with his son Gabe who suffers from boils. While I lance and clean them, you will watch over Thomas’s youngest, for his mother lies abed with melancholy.”
Where Cushman shines, however, is in setting a scene. Her prose is lyrical and smooth. She transports readers to a different time and place from the moment they turn to the first chapter:
The mist hung low in the valley between the forest and the town. It dangled from tree branches like stockings on a washing line and curled around Grayling’s head as she weeded and hoed and raked, readying the herb garden for its winter rest. When her basket was filled — angelica and agrimony, rosemary and the remains of the dill — she put her shoes on again, for she had been gathering the last of the summer herbs with her feet bare, as was proper. She stood still for a moment, letting mist settle on her shoulders like a damp cloak, and listened to the quiet.
“Grayling’s Song” was not my favorite MG fantasy this year; it comes in somewhere in the middle. It’s fast-paced and entertaining, though, making it a good choice for a summer read.
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