The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland In A Ship Of Her Own Making

The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making by Catherynne M. Valente fantasy book reviewsThe Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland In A Ship Of Her Own Making by Catherynne M. Valente

September’s father has gone off to war and her mother works all day building airplane engines while September stays home and washes the china teacups. Life in Omaha is disappointingly dull for such an imaginative and adventurous (and heartless!) 12-year old girl… until the day September looks out the kitchen window to see the Green Wind perched on his flying leopard and beckoning her to Fairyland.

There are many wonders to see in Fairyland: witches, werewolves, fairies, flying bicycles, animated furniture, spriggans, glashtyn, marids, a fabric city, a golem molded from soap, and a red wyverary (a wyvern whose father is a municipal library). If you have read Catherynne Valente before, you can imagine the kinds of wonderful creatures you’ll meet in The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making… or, actually, maybe you can’t!)

But all is not as it should be in Fairyland. The Marquess, who’s only a child, is quite the little tyrant, and she’s got a job for September. During her quest, September explores Fairyland and learns a lot about courage, honor, friendship, and love.

The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland is Catherynne Valente’s first young adult novel and, as Valente fans will expect, it’s gorgeous in every way. The story is fun and the characters and plot will appeal to children, but this book goes far beyond most modern children’s fantasy literature. It’s most comparable to Alice in Wonderland; Like Lewis Carroll’s classic, The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland is intelligent, beautifully written, packed with imagination, and full of thoughtful and charming ideas (often pointed out by the delightfully intrusive narrator) that give depth and charisma and make this children’s story more than easily-forgotten entertainment:

  • All children are heartless. They have not grown a heart yet, which is why they can climb tall trees and say shocking things and leap so very high that 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.)
  • Stories have a way of changing faces. They are unruly things, undisciplined, given to delinquency and the throwing of erasers. That is why we must close them up into thick, solid books, so they cannot get out and cause trouble.
  • As all mothers know, children travel faster than kisses. The speed of kisses is, in fact, what Dr. Fallow would call a cosmic constant. The speed of children has no limits.

I listened to The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making on audio (Brilliance Audio). It was read by Ms. Valente herself and, though she is not a voice actor and didn’t give each character a unique and distinguishable voice, she was quite pleasant. I like hearing an author interpret her own work as long as she has an agreeable voice and prosody, which Ms. Valente does. My only issue with the audio version is that I missed Ana Juan’s lovely art that introduces each chapter in the print version. Oh, audiobook publishers, why can’t we have the art, too?

~Kat Hooper

The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making by Catherynne M. Valente fantasy book reviewsCatherynne 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.

~Bill Capossere

The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making by Catherynne M. Valente fantasy book reviewsThe Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland is a fantasy in the The Wonderful Wizard of Oz/The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe tradition, where a young girl goes to a magical land and tries to Right What’s Wrong.

Twelve year old September, bored with her life and washing pink-and-yellow teacups and dealing with mostly-absent parents, gets talked into a trip to Fairyland by the Green Wind, who settles her into the saddle of his flying leopard and whisks her away to new adventures. Because — like most children — September is more or less Heartless, she doesn’t tell her mother good-bye or leave her a note. She finds some delightful (and magical) friends and is reluctantly pulled into a quest by the cruel ruler of Fairyland, the Marquess. And September begins to grow a heart, which can be a painful process, especially if you are fated to lose it.

The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland is extremely fantastical and whimsical, and it was a little too much for me when I sat down and tried to read it straight through, but when I started reading it in smaller doses, with breaks in between, the delightfulness resurfaced. This would be a fun read-aloud book with children who are old enough to handle some painful scenes where characters get badly hurt. It’s ultimately a very uplifting story with a good underlying message.

“You are not the chosen one, September. Fairyland did not choose you–you chose yourself. You could have had a lovely holiday in Fairyland and never met the Marquess, never worried yourself with local politics, had a romp with a few brownies and gone home with enough memories for a lifetime’s worth of novels. But you didn’t. You chose. You chose it all.”

~Tadiana Jones

The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of her Own Making by Catherynne ValenteReading through Catherynne Valente’s first children’s book, I found it increasingly difficult to imagine what my review for it would be like. It almost defies categorization, even as it’s hugely reminiscent of various other stories: not only myths and folklore, but also the likes of Alice In Wonderland, The Wizard of Oz and Peter Pan, as well as authors such as Eva Ibbotson, E. Nesbit and a dash of J.K. Rowling. There’s even a trace of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, if you’ve ever wondered how it must have felt for the Pevensie siblings to go from kings and queens in Narnia to their old child selves back in England in the space of a few minutes. And yet there’s a definite stamp of originality in the way Valente tells a story, both in her writing style and the book’s content.

It wasn’t until I had finished that I became aware that Valente had actually coined a new phrase to describe her work: mythpunk. She defines this as a subgenre of mythic fiction, one which bears a slight resemblance to steampunk, in which classic fairytales get a postmodern makeover. According to her: “the term describes a brand of speculative fiction which starts in folklore and myth and adds elements of postmodern fantastic techniques: urban fantasy, confessional poetry, non-linear storytelling, linguistic calisthenics, world-building, and academic fantasy.” It results in a story that resembles no other, whilst still containing plenty of echoes from tales of old.

As such, Valente’s take on Fairyland includes various wonders: a city of cloth, another made of bread and milk, islands populated by half-people who must join together if they want to complete their sentences, herds of bicycles migrating over grassy plains, and a woman carved entirely from soap, who washes people’s courage, wishes and luck. Rudimentary science and movie newsreels are present, and things like evolution and Charles Darwin are mentioned, giving what is otherwise a traditional fairytale a unique modernistic feel.

September is young girl living in Omaha, Nebraska who dreams of escaping her humdrum life of routine. With her father away at war and her mother working shifts as a mechanic (suggesting that all this takes place during WWII), September longs for adventure. Luckily for her, “because she had been born in May, and because she had a mole on her left cheek, and because her feet were very large and ungainly, the Green Wind took pity on her and flew to her window one evening just after her twelfth birthday.” Whisked away to Fairyland, September soon finds herself in the company of a wyvern called A-through-L, the hybrid offspring of a wyvern and a library, with extensive knowledge of any word lying between the two letters of his name. Later she becomes acquainted with a Marid, a boy with dark blue skin and strange tattoos who fills the damsel-in-distress role, and with a floating, glowing lamp that communicates by ever-changing words written on its sides.

Surrounded by wonders aplenty, and kept safe by a number of obscure rules designed to help her navigate this strange new world, September eventually takes up a number of quests, as befits a visitor to Fairyland. Soon she learns more about how the place is run: that the Marquess, the terrible girl-ruler of Fairyland, has filled the land with bureaucracy, chained down the wings of dragons, and wears a large sinister hat. Having usurped the throne of the missing Good Queen Mallow, the Marquess’s aim is to make Fairyland safe for children to visit. But is it really Fairyland without the inherent danger? Would there be any stories without it?

Like J. M. Barrie, who once described children as “heartless”, so too does Valente do away with the idea of children as innocents — or at least the assumption that innocence denotes kindness and generosity instead of selfishness and ignorance. That said, September grows over the course of her journey; it shapes and changes her, and it’s clear that she’s not the same girl she was at its inception. Her journey is poignant, exciting, awe-inspiring, frightening, and by the end — even a little tragic. There’s plenty of room left over for a sequel, one to be found in The Girl Who Fell Beneath Fairyland and Led the Revels There.

Likewise, September bears a striking resemblance to Alice (in Wonderland), especially with her Mary Jane shoes. Valente’s narrative voice is about as close to Lewis Carroll as you’re ever likely to get: whimsical and breezy, but with a razor sharp wit and deceptively dark undertones, including small asides to the reader that fill us in on background details concerning September, Fairyland and various subplots. It plays with the reader’s expectations, keeping them constantly on their toes, and remains fully aware of its role as the narrator. There are in-jokes and wry comments and speculation on the nature of the story that September finds herself in. A couple of times it feels a little intrusive, but your mileage may vary heavily in this case — I suspect that the language and tone with which Valente tells her tale may well be the most divisive element of the book’s reception.

Whether children will enjoy it is another question, for at times it felt less like a story for children that is sophisticated enough for adults to enjoy than a story written for adults who enjoy fairytales. At least, this was the vibe that I picked up on, and certainly the commentary on the nature of childhood and the narrator’s tendency to speak to the reader as though they were much older and wiser than September gave me the sense that Valente had a much older audience in mind than the publishers’ recommendation.

There are certainly a lot of dark elements: the true story behind the Marquess, an island of homicidal furniture (more disconcerting than it sounds), and even Death itself, who appears as a small brown creature, explaining that she appears as such: “only because you are small; you are young and far from your Death, 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.” I was reading this late at night, and found myself getting quite spooked! Between the exploration of childhood (as told from an adult POV) and the style in which the book is written, I’m not entirely sure I would give this book to a child — not because I don’t think they could handle it, but because I’m not entirely sure it’s written with children in mind.

The illustrations by Ana Juan supplement the story perfectly, and may end up being as inseparable from Cathy Valente’s text as Quentin Blake’s are to Roald Dahl’s. All in all, The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making left me captivated, and eager to seek out more of Valente’s work.

~Rebecca Fisher

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KAT HOOPER, who started this site in June 2007, earned a Ph.D. in neuroscience and psychology at Indiana University (Bloomington) and now teaches at the University of North Florida. When she reads fiction, she wants to encounter new ideas and lots of imagination. She wants to view the world in a different way. She wants to have her mind blown. She loves beautiful language and has no patience for dull prose, vapid romance, or cheesy dialogue. She prefers complex characterization, intriguing plots, and plenty of action. Favorite authors are Jack Vance, Robin Hobb, Kage Baker, William Gibson, Gene Wolfe, Richard Matheson, and C.S. Lewis.

View all posts by Kat Hooper


  1. This looks amazing!

  2. I don’t believe that Valente writes anything for children. I think both of the “Fairyland” books are adult stories, captured by her virtuosity with language.

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