Feiwel & Friends, 2011, 247 pages
September is a girl who longs for adventure. When she is invited to Fairyland by a Green Wind and a Leopard, well, of course she accepts. (Mightn’t you?) But Fairyland is in turmoil, and it will take one 12-year-old girl, a book-loving dragon, and a strange and almost human boy named Saturday to vanquish an evil Marquess and restore order.
So, when I asked What's Your Favorite Book? last week for the Saturday Book Club discussion, if you'd asked me on a different day (or after I'd had time to write this review), I might well have have said The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making.
There aren't a lot of books that I unreservedly recommend to everyone and say this is good read it you'll love it just go read it like now. And a book that's not even YA, but a children's book?
How much did I love this book? I started listening to it as an audiobook (read by the author), then went and bought the hardcover before I was done listening.
The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making is a fairy tale in the fine old tradition of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, Peter Pan, Dorothy and the Wizard in Oz, the Chronicles of Narnia, and many, many others: an ordinary girl from our world is magically transported to a fairyland and there Has Adventures.
The Leopard of Little Breezes yawned up and further off from the rooftops of Omaha, Nebraska, to which September did not even wave good-bye. One ought not to judge her: all children are Heartless. They have not grown a heart yet, which is why they can climb high trees and say shocking things and leap so very high grown-up hearts flutter in terror. Hearts weigh quite a lot. That is why it takes so long to grow one. But, as in their reading and arithmetic and drawing, different children proceed at different speeds. (It is well known that reading quickens the growth of a heart like nothing else.) Some small ones are terrible and fey, Utterly Heartless. Some are dear and sweet and Hardly Heartless At All. September stood very generally in the middle on the day the Green Wind took her, Somewhat Heartless, and Somewhat Grown.
Catherynne Valente is not an author I was previously familiar with; she's written many highly-regarded adult fantasy novels, but I hadn't read those and I selected this book on a whim. (I couldn't resist the title.) She originally produced this book as a crowd-funded e-book; you can still read the first few chapters for free on the book's website.
Her writing... is beautiful. And funny. And charming. And poignant. And magical. I'm gushing. This book turned me into a sap! Okay, I was already a sap, but this book turned me, a grown-ass man way too old to be falling in love with children's books even if I do write Harry Potter fan fiction, into a ten-year-old boy again. Remember when you were ten, just old enough to know that fairy tales aren't true and nobody really steps through a wardrobe into a magical land filled with talking animals, but young enough that you could still read books about such places and they felt real, and for a little while you could still convince yourself that you really might get a letter from Hogwarts? This book made me wish I had read it when I was that age, even as I savored all the slightly sophisticated bits and literary winks that will probably go over the heads of most ten-year-olds.
I don't know how to adequately express how much I loved this book. I want to quote chunks out of every chapter.
“It’s a family name,” A-Through-L said loftily, scratching behind one horn. “My father was a Library. So properly speaking, I am a Lyvern, or…a Libern? A Wyverary? I am still trying to find the best term.”
“Well, I think that’s very unlikely,” said September, who preferred Wyverary.
“However unlikely it may seem, it is the truth, and therefore one hundred percent likely. My sainted mother was the familiar of a highly puissant Scientiste, and he loved her. He polished her scales every week with beeswax and truffle oil. He fed her sweet water and bitter radishes grown by hand in his laboratory, and therefore much larger and more bitter than usual radishes. He petted her, and called her a good Wyvern, and made a bed for her out of river rushes and silk batting and old bones. (They didn’t come from anyone he knew, so that was all right, and a Wyvern nest has to have bones, or else it’s just not home.) It was quite a good situation for my mother, even if she hadn’t liked him a great deal and thought him very wise. As all reptiles know, the bigger the spectacles, the wiser the wearer, and the Scientiste wore the biggest pair ever built. But even the wisest of men may die, and that is especially true when the wisest of men has a fondness for industrial chemicals. So went my mother’s patron, in a spectacular display of Science.”
“That’s very sad,” sighed September.
“Terribly sad! But grief is wasted on the very roasted. Without her companion, my mother lived alone in the ruins of the great Library, which was called Compleat, and a very passionate and dashing Library indeed. Under the slightly blackened rafters and more than slightly caved-in walls, my mother lived and read and dreamed, allowing herself to grow closer and closer to Compleat, to notice more and more how fine and straight his shelves remained, despite great structural stress. That sort of moral fortitude is rare in this day and age. By and by, my siblings and I were born and romped on the balconies, raced up and down the splintered ladders, and poured over many encyclopedias and exciting novels. I know just everything about everything—so long as it begins with A through L. My mother was widowed by a real estate agent some years ago and I never finished the encyclopedia. Anyway, mother told us all about our father when we were yearlings. We asked: why do we not have a Papa? And she said: your Papa is the Library, and he loves you and will care for you. Do not expect a burly, handsome Wyvern to show up and show you how to breathe fire, my loves. None will come. But Compleat has books aplenty on the subject of combustion, and however odd it may seem, you are loved by two parents, just like any other beast.“
September bit her lip. She did not know how to say it gently. “I had a friend back home named Anna-Marie,” she said slowly. “And her father sold lawnmowers all over Nebraska, and some in Kansas, too. When Anna-Marie was little, her daddy ran off with a lady from Topeka with the biggest lawn in the county. Anna-Marie doesn’t even remember her daddy, and sometimes when she’s sad, her mother says she didn’t have one, that she’s an angel’s daughter and no awful lawnmower salesman had a thing to do with her. Do you think, maybe…it could have been like that, with your mother?”
A-Through-L looked pityingly at her, his blazing red face scrunched up in doubt. “September, really. Which do you think is more likely? That some brute bull left my mother with egg and went off to sell lonemozers, or that she mated with a Library and had many loved and loving children? I mean, let us be realistic! Besides, everyone says I look just like my father. Can’t you see my wings? Are they not made of fluttering vellum pages? If you squint you can even read a history of balloon travel!”
Notice that little kernel of the not-so-magical real world even in the most exquisitely fantastical? See how skillfully Valente reminds us that September is a real girl, with both feet in Fairyland at the moment, but still attached to the real world to which we know she must eventually return? And that even fantastical adventures with magical creatures don't free you from the hard lessons of life? This book is full of moments like that. Just when you think it's all wyverns and witches and a jodphur-wearing Green Wind and animated furniture, there will be something to remind you that like the truest fairy tales, this isn't all fantasy and fun. In fact, although the book is enormous fun for the reader, September herself has very little fun: Fairyland is beautiful, absurd, ironic, satirical, magical, and dangerous.
"Who are you?"
"I am Death," said the creature. "I thought that was obvious."
"But you're so small!"
"Only because you are small. You are young and far from your Death, September, so I seem as anything would seem if you saw it from a long way off-very small, very harmless. But I am always closer than I appear. As you grow, I shall grow with you, until at the end, I shall loom huge and dark over your bed, and you will shut your eyes so as not to see me."
Not only is The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making beautifully written, it is perfectly structured. September comes to Fairyland, she goes through Trials, she experiences Character Growth, she makes Friends, Mistakes, and Hard Choices, and induces readers to rave about her story in Capital Letters. For all the whimsy and thrills and tears, there isn't a wasted moment on the page.
And then, at the very end... well, I can't spoil it. But the Marquess is one of the best children's storybook villains ever.
Taken as a whole (and even the twist at the end), there is nothing about The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making that you haven't seen in a children's story before. Valente isn't trying to do anything truly "original" per se. This isn't a brilliant book because it's aiming at subversion or because Valente's Fairyland is unlike any other ever seen before. Her writing and her imagination bursts across the pages, but it's still just another magic-filled secondary world. Valente winks knowingly at all her predecessors -- yes, there's the breath of Oz and Narnia and Wonderland and Disney in this book, yet at no point is Fairyland derivative in the sense of reading like just another lesser author's iteration. September is her own heroine, her tale is her own, and Fairyland is her place. For a little while.
Verdict: This is good read it you'll love it just go read it like now.