The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making

Written by Catherynne M. Valente, Illustrated by Ana Juan

One day a young girl named September is washing the dishes in Omaha, Nebraska, when the Green Wind shows up at the window and whisks her away to Fairyland on a flying leopard.  Fairyland is of course groaning under the yoke of a repressive regime, in this case the powerful Marquess, a very terrible young girl with a very fine hat.  September, who has already read all the stories and knows how a girl should act upon finding herself in Fairyland, decides the only sensible thing to do is to make acquaintance with strange creatures, go on dangerous adventures, and attempt to somehow stick it to the Marquess’ evil empire.

One of the strengths of this book is that the characters are strong and lovable, particularly our heroine September, who is constantly questioning whether she is clever, courageous and ill-tempered enough to truly make good on the fairyland adventure like the “chosen” children in other stories.  September’s knowledge of her unique position and her action and courageous choices in spite of her self-doubt over her “specialness” make her in many ways more interesting and relatable than the protagonists of many a children’s fantasy book.

This book was obviously a lot of fun to write.  Valente is very playful and figurative with her language, and is not afraid to bring in archaic and 19th Century-styled language to great effect.  The story is both comfortably familiar and strange and new, rich with illusions and allusions to not only the fairy tale folkloric tradition but the entire tradition of children’s fantasy writing, from Peter Pan, Alice in Wonderland and The Wizard of Oz on down to the Chronicles of Narnia, Phantom Tollbooth, and A Wrinkle in Time, and probably a lot of other references I didn’t catch.  The book falls into this tradition and at the same time comments on and even comes close to satirizing the tradition.  The narrator is only too willing to show us the seams of the tale she is weaving, giving it a slightly postmodern edge.  I could spend a lot more time geeking out about the writing and allusions in this book;  (these School Library Journal bloggers do a great job of this in their recent discussion, so I refer you to it if you are interested in that aspect.)  Suffice it to say, a lot of really good college papers could be written about this text.  It begs for an “annotated edition.”

For a librarian, the big question of this book is whether it is actually of interest to the 10-14 age range to which the publisher and booksellers are marketing it.  My opinion is that it it will adapt itself to the desires and capacities of the reader, and multiple readings even by the same reader at different ages will bring different results.  Some children, if they are clever and well-read in fantasy, and perhaps a bit ill-tempered, will devour this book and gain much from it.  To others, it may just seem a fun, absurd, slightly confusing fantasy book with lots of big words, and the deeper meanings will just go over their head if they decide to make their way through it.  The book could be profoundly influential to a certain kind of young reader who is ready to think more critically about the stories they have read up to that point; in regards to the subtle references to more adult themes, I think young readers will either be oblivious to them or find them mysterious and tantalizing, and either response is fine.  These elements make it a great book for teens, and could make it extremely useful in the classroom at the secondary level, especially for readers and teachers wary of more provocative YA books.  All that said, basically a reader will know after reading the first chapter or even the first two pages whether they will love this book and want to continue with it.  It is not for everyone, and probably not a good starting place for reluctant readers.

Fairyland is an exceedingly clever, fantastically inventive book with a big heart (and a sly wink.)  It has a wonderful mix of playfulness and sincerity.  It is a postmodern fairy tale of the highest order.  Although not for everyone, it has the distinct possibility of becoming someone’s favorite book.

Review by Joshua Whiting, Granite Library Media Program
Rating: ★★★★★ (5 stars)
Interest Level: Lovers of children’s fantasy and literary types of any age (Grades 5 and Up)

fairylandbook.com

The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making
Written by Catherynne M. Valente, Illustrated by Ana Juan
Feiwel and Friends
247 pages
Release Date: May 10, 2011
ISBN: 9780312649616 (hardcover)

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4 thoughts on “The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making”

  1. I’ve picked this book up several times, but just couldn’t quite get into it. After your glowing report, maybe I’ll give it one more try!

    1. That actually happened to me with this book, too, but it was mainly because of a general lack of time for and interest in reading at that time, rather than anything about this book in particular.

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