With a long title and each chapter having cutesy little summaries, you’re expecting a children’s book. But holy heck, things turned dark and twisty, and the writing is seamless and effortless and HOW DOES VALENTE DO IT, DAMMIT.
THE GIRL WHO CIRCUMNAVIGATED FAIRYLAND IN A SHIP OF HER OWN MAKING
by Catherynne M. Valente
Square Fish, May 2011
Children’s Fantasy, Fairy Tales
Rated: 5 / 5 cookies
Twelve-year-old September lives in Omaha, and used to have an ordinary life, until her father went to war and her mother went to work. One day, September is met at her kitchen window by a Green Wind (taking the form of a gentleman in a green jacket), who invites her on an adventure, implying that her help is needed in Fairyland. The new Marquess is unpredictable and fickle, and also not much older than September. Only September can retrieve a talisman the Marquess wants from the enchanted woods, and if she doesn’t . . . then the Marquess will make life impossible for the inhabitants of Fairyland. September is already making new friends, including a book-loving Wyvern and a mysterious boy named Saturday.
I love this book. It’s very reminiscent to Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland but with less recitations and more descriptive play on words and characters and tropes. It does take a dark turn eventually, and if I hadn’t read two Valente books already, I might have been sucker-punched into the grim plotline later on. That said, I was still really surprised at the plot twist at the end, and enjoyed this book tremendously. I think that mostly had to do with the fact that Valente is a stellar writer and knew how to play with her words, to put it on paper and to run with it.
Which is why I’m throwing a bunch of quotes in here, because I swear, this is really the best way to describe how this book is written.
First off, let’s look at September.
“If I am special,” finished September, halfway between a whisper and a squeak. “In stories, when someone appears in a poof of green clouds and asks a girl to go away on an adventure, it’s because she’s special, because she’s smart and strong and can solve riddles and fight with swords and give really good speeches, and…I don’t know that I’m any of those things.”
September starts off as your run-of-the-mill girl on a mission: the Green Wind and Leopard of Little Breezes come calling, and almost immediately, she answers. She does have a bit of self-doubt, and she questions herself a few times within the story, but eventually September does come to her own, and I love that she’s got a precocious and curious kind of personality. She’s also the daughter of an engineer, which plays a huge role later in the story.
And if September wasn’t enough, the cast of characters she encounters bring a smile to my face every. Single. Time.
“We’re witches,” said Hello.
Manythanks pointed meaningfully at his hat.
“But witches do all kinds of spells–”
“That’s sorceresses,” corrected Goodbye.
“That’s wizards,” sighed Hello.
“And they change people into things–”
“That’s thaumaturgists,” huffed Manythanks.
“And make people do things–”
“Enchantresses,” sneered Goodbye.
“And they do curses and hexes–”
“Stregas,” hissed both sisters.
“And change into owls and cats–”
“Brujas,” growled Manythanks.
“Well…what do witches do, then?”
The witches are pretty much what spurs September onward to her adventure, and she eventually encounters several other characters that either help her, hinder her, or give her more missions on top of missions. There’s a special spot in my heart for the Wyverary, and I love Saturday, a little timid boy who somehow quietly harbors all the power in the cosmos.
“Scientifick’ly speaking, a Fairy–what I am–is not much different’n a human. Your lot evolved from monkeys. We evolved…Fairies started out as frogs…being frogs was no kind of fun, so we went about and stole better bits–wings from dragonflies and faces from people and hearts from birds and horns from various goats and antelope-ish things and souls from ifrits and tails from cows–and we evolved over a million million minutes, just like you.”
“I…I don’t think that’s how evolution works…,” said September softly.
“Oh? Your name Charlie Darwin all sudden-true?”
“No, it’s just–”
“It’s Survival of Them Who’s Best at Nicking Things, girl!”
And I admit to laughing half the time. Either because somebody says something profound, or a character makes a side note that you can definitely take as a commentary for the real world. Again, kudos to Valente for this, because if child readers don’t pick these allusions and references up, adults certainly do!
I suppose you think you know what autumn looks like…The trees go all red and blazing orange and gold, and wood fires burn at night so that everything smells of crisp branches. The world rolls about delightedly in a heap of cider and candy and apples and pumpkins, and cold stars rush by through wispy, ragged clouds, past a moon like a bony knee…
Autumn in Fairyland is all of that, of course.
And just…the language alone makes me drool! It’s BEAUTIFUL I TELL YA.
The orange lantern bobbed in front of her, just over the pit. The lovely handwriting flowed over its face.
The Marquess said to look for a girl wearing beautiful black shoes. I’m sorry.
“And do what?” shrieked September.
The swords threw September down into the black.
She fell a long way.
And then seriously, again, the book does get grim. Turns out there’s more at stake than a simple adventure to retrieve a magic spoon. There’s more at stake than a Marquess charging a girl adventurer to retrieve a sword in a casket. Throughout the book, September starts to ask questions about the lack of actual fairies in Fairyland. She starts to see that there are problems within the realm of fairies, and instead of standing by, she steps into a darker world where the politics almost mirror that of reality.
At the end we even get a resolution, but there are still so many things I want to see in Fairyland. I’m kind of glad September’s adventures aren’t over yet!
5 out of 5 cookies! This was such a great children’s book, I’m even thinking about using it as part of my sixth grade imagination unit lesson plans!