When I jumped at the chance to read Karen Cushman’s new middle grade novel, Grayling’s Song, in an advance reading copy, I expected another of her fine historical novels that took me to life in the past. Settling in for expected pleasure, the first lines seemed to confirm that anticipation. “The mist hung low in the valley between the forest and the town. It dangled from tree branches like stockings on a washing line . . . “
Grayling gathers herbs for her mother’s remedies while her mother threatens to turn her into a toad if she doesn’t hurry. “Ah,” I thought, “medieval story.” Then the fire comes that burns the house down, and something in the smoke turns her mother’s feet into roots that clutch the ground and begin a transformation of her mother into a tree, and I know I’m neither in the middle ages nor in historical fiction!
The grimoire, the book of chants, spells, and rituals that can reveal the way to undo the magical rooting, has disappeared in the smoke. Forced to leave her complaining and timidity behind, Grayling accumulates interesting companions on her quest that sometimes help and sometimes get in her way – a bewitching enchantress, an aging weather witch, a prophet who uses cheese for his divination, and the lovable Pook – a shape-shifting mouse.
She relies on her mother’s songs for gathering, for healing, for heartening, and for discovery along her treacherous journey seeking the grimoire and discovers there’s a song that only she and the grimoire can hear that directs her path. Eventually, she comes to a crisis that requires a song of her own.
Both those who look for Cushman’s trademark lyrical prose and those who love to find themselves in a magical world of fantasy will enjoy the book, even if they don’t fit its intended audience of middle graders.