Catherynne Valente’s The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making is her first foray (I think) into YA fiction and it is a wildly inventive and original debut, one which I’m happy to say has already been followed up by the equally inventive The Girl Who Fell Beneath Fairyland and Led the Revels There.
September (and tell me that isn’t a great name for a character — the cusp of change, the move from summer to fall) is left to her own devices around the house because her father has gone off to war and her mother works during the days at the local aircraft factory. What would have been another dull day is wonderfully transformed by the arrival of the Green Wind, who, seeing that September appears “an ill-tempered and irascible enough child,” offers to take her away ‘Upon the Leopard of Little Breezes… to the Perverse and Perilous Sea” that borders Fairyland. It turns out that the Green Wind, in his “green smoking jacket, and a green carriage-driver’s cloak, and green jodhpurs, and green snowshoes” can’t enter Fairyland himself as “Harsh Airs are not allowed,” but he dutifully explains a few of the rules to September and escorts her to the threshold where she embarks on her grand journey, followed unbeknownst to her by a very important flying key.
In Fairyland, as one might expect, September meets a bevy of wondrous creations (wyverns, golems, marids, witches and werewolves, and a host of more original ones that it would be spoiling the fun of meeting them if I described them here). She also finds herself on a quest forced upon her by the ruler of Fairyland (which is not as happy a place as it could be or once was) — the bratty little tyrannical Marquess.
This is a fairyland much more akin to Carroll’s Wonderland/Looking Glass worlds or Juster’s Phantom Tollbooth than the usual medieval fantasy-world setting. It shares with them that great sense of whimsy and creativity, of surrealism and originality shot through with darker veins. As with all good true fantasy, there’s a lot of bitter mixed in with the sweet and Valente doesn’t condescend to her young readers by pretending otherwise. Like those other works, it’s also more episodic than narrative. While there is a storyline and a goal, the September’s journey and the many startlingly wondrous discoveries she makes while on it, as one of the subtitles might put it, is really the joy.
Valente doesn’t simply make use of fairy tale and storytelling tropes. In re-using and refashioning them, along with making up her own, she comments on them as well, sometimes via the characters themselves, as when one subtly and indirectly alludes to a famous pair of shoes. But most often the metafictional or intertexual aspects arrive through the commentary of the enjoyably intrusive narrator, as when September pauses before a large decision:
The trouble was, September didn’t know what kind of story she was in. Was it a merry one or a serious one? How ought she to act? If it were merry, she might dash after a Spoon and it would all be a marvelous adventure with funny rhymes and somersaults and a grand party with red lanterns at the end. But if it were a serious tale, she might have to do something important, something involving, with snow and arrows and enemies. But no one may know the shape of the tale in which they move… Stories have a way of changing faces. They are unruly things, undisciplined, given to delinquency and the throwing of erasers. This is why we must close them up into thick, solid books, so they cannot get out and cause trouble.
I’m a big fan of this sort of thing, so I ate it up all the way through. And it’s just one of the ways the book, ostensibly for younger readers, can be read on multiple levels. Again, similar to Carroll’s Alice books or, in a more recent, different medium, much as most Pixar movies are vastly entertaining both to children and their parents, who if they’re honest would admit they are there as much for themselves as because they “had to stay with the kid.” For instance, I’m not sure a lot of kids are going to understand a reference to a lecture on hermetics.
But just to be clear, The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland is not an adult book dressed up in children’s clothing. Kids will thoroughly enjoy it and like many of the truly great kids’ books, it begs to be read aloud, thanks to the various voices, that great narrator, and the playful, lyrical language throughout.
Is it perfect? No, though that’s hardly much of a complaint. I think sometimes the pacing is a bit off; it does slow here and there. For all the fun involved in watching September’s adventures, to be honest I didn’t often feel very connected to the character herself or to a strong sense of narrative arc. My guess is the former is going to be the minority response and the latter will bother some more than others.
Despite those issues, the payoff was certainly worth it and I was more than happy to pick up book two to see what happened when September returned. But that, as they say, is a tale for another time. Highly recommended to read and to read aloud.