Karen Cushman

Karen Cushman

Newbery award-winning children’s book author

Karen Cushman


Alchemy and Meggy Swann

Alchemy and Meggy Swann

Fans of Karen Cushman’s witty, satisfying novels will welcome Meggy Swann, newly come to London with her only friend, a goose named Louise.

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.


Read an excerpt!

My Bookshelves: Elizabethan Times: while writing, I used these books for checking facts. You may enjoy reading them, or they may be useful for your own writing.

American Chemical Society alchemy experiments and activities

What is alchemy?” from The Royal Society of Chemistry

Awards and Recognition

Kirkus Reviews Best Books of 2010

National Council of Teachers of English Notable Book 2011

School Library Journal Best Books of 2010


 “Feisty Meggy, sent from her mother’s village to live in London with the father she has never known, struggles with his evident disappointment when they meet. Not only lame, she is not the son he had expected. Initially, Meggy finds the city a horrible place, but slowly she begins to change her mind after making a few friends and helping her father a little with his alchemy work. When she learns that he has sold arsenic to men who intend to poison their master, she frantically seeks a way to save both the man from his murderers and her father from the law. An author’s note discusses the Elizabethan era, including its language, the publication of broadsides, the practice of alchemy, and lingering medieval attitudes toward disabled people. Because so many historical novels set in this period feature girls of royal or noble lineage, it’s bracing to meet Meg, who empties her own chamber pot into the ditch outside her door and trades strings of creative Elizabethan insults with Roger, her best friend. 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. Grades 4-8.” (Booklist, Carolyn Phelan, starred review)

“Cushman adds another intrepid, resourceful, courageous girl to her repertoire in this tale set in 16th-century London. Meggy Swann, deformed since birth, walks with a halting gait using two sticks. Many believe she is cursed by the devil. The 13-year-old has lived in a small village over an alehouse run by her mother and has only ever felt love from her deceased grandmother. Now she has been sent for by her father in London. The astounding sights, sounds, and smells of the city accost her, and readers see and hear them all through Cushman’s deft descriptive and cinematic prose. When her father finally sees her, he is disappointed to discover that she is just a disabled girl. Roger Oldham, her alchemist father’s apprentice, is leaving to become a player and she is to take his place. Meggy meets a varied cast of characters, and Roger remains her good friend despite her ill-tempered treatment of him at times. Her father, whom she nicknames Master Peevish, is single-minded in his focus, oblivious to all else. In order to do his life’s work, he needs money and Meggy overhears him plotting what she believes is a murder to obtain it. Fearing his head might wind up on a pole on London Bridge, she is determined to stop him. Her courage and confidence grow with each obstacle overcome. Cushman fans who loved Catherine, Called Birdy (1994) and The Midwife’s Apprentice (1995, both Clarion) will not be disappointed.” (School Library Journal, 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. Her loneliness and hunger are assuaged by Roger, an apprentice actor, and his troop of players, as well as a printer and a cooper who become her friends. She works tirelessly to gain her father’s respect, but she finds her own self-respect instead. Meggy is a heroine in mind and deed. 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. (author’s note, bibliography) (Historical fiction. 10-14)” (Kitkus Reviews, starred review)

“From the moment Meggy Swann wabbles on scene with a terse assessment of her new living situation with her long-absent father (“Ye toads and vipers!), I was swept up in this robustius book. Cushman transported me to smelly, raucous and mysterious London in Elizabethan times with a deft hand and a exuberant use of deliciously old-fashioned words (gallimaufry! belike! laboratorium!). And she piles trouble upon trouble on dear Meggy—” her legs did not sit right in her hips;” her alchemist father can neither remember her name nor remember to feed her; she’s blamed for a neighbor’s fire and her best friend, a goose named Louise, is banished from the house for getting her head stuck in a beaker. Meggy’s struggle to transform from a country girl to a city girl, from loner to friend, parallels her father’s struggle to complete the ultimate transformation: turning liquid into gold and gold into an elixir for eternal life. Meggy is none too fond of Master Peevish, as she calls her father, but she does not want to see his head among those impaled on London Bridge. So what is she to do when she learns he may be involved in a murder plot? She engages in a little alchemy of her own, using words rather than elements.

“In addition to being one of the best books I’ve read in a good long while, it is also very educational and has provided me with ample ammunition the next time someone cuts in front of me in traffic—I might call out, “Begone, you carbuncled toad!” or “A pestilence take you, you rump-faced knave,” or even perhaps my favorite, “Go then, you writhled, beetle-brained knave!” (Kirby Larson, author)