Every so often, a book comes along that I wish I could have experienced as a child. Not because adulthood makes the book unappreciable. Nor because the protagonist—presumably a child—is difficult to relate to. Adulthood provides a unique perspective on the narrative that is different, but no less poignant than that of a child; typically, for the sake of these protagonists, it is all too easy to remember what it was like for us at that age.
But to experience something so enchanting, so lingering to the mind as a child might, would be asking for an immersive journey that speaks to a sense of adventure and open-mindedness binding the souls of youth together that at one time or another, might have existed in all of us. Catherynne M. Valente’s The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland In A Ship Of Her Own Making made me feel like a child again—if only for 256 pages. And now I have to ask: are all of her books this beautiful?
Uniquely enchanting and whimsical, The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland […] tells the story of how twelve-year-old September from Omaha, Nebraska finds herself in a world of flying keys, sentient paper lanterns, and a city sewn from fabric and thread. Although reminiscent of classic children’s stories, such as Michael Ende’s The Neverending Story, Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, or L. Frank Baum’s The Wizard of Oz, The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland […] stands firmly on its own.
The novel does not distinctly follow dramatic structure, but the titles headings are evocative of something theatrical. Even the narrator, who regularly engages the reader, adds to this immediate sense of audience participation. Valente’s fairy tale prose has a lyrical quality that reaches forth from traditional oral storytelling to a quiet persistence in this age of mp3 players, smart phones, television, and other technological distractions and begs, begs to be read aloud. Some may find the winding, poetical sentences familiar in a mid to late 19th or early 20th Century sort of way; it’s undeniable a romantic streak exists in this novel. How could there not be, with a girl who yearns to be a Knight instead of a Princess?
It all begins with a quest. Well, it begins in September’s kitchen, but after the Green Wind whisks her away on a flying leopard, she makes fast friends with a Wyvern—not to be confused with dragons, of which they often are—named A-Through-L and has a confrontation with the evil Marquess. Determined to save A-Through-L from the Marquess’ wrath, September agrees to a quest—the likes of which only September can undergo—and retrieve a mysterious object only she can wield. Along the way she does many knightly things, such as saving her friends, liberating the imprisoned, and facing her own death. Her journey, while exciting, is also frightening, but nothing September cannot handle. It’s this point which seems to be one of the most important lessons of all, if there are lessons to be learned in this fairy tale.
As she draws on practical knowledge and skills learned from her mother (absent until the end, in typical fairy tale fashion), an engineer, in order to survive, September exhibits a commendable display of courage and initiative equally, if not more impressive than Valente’s marvelously rich and imaginatively unconventional fairy world. There are certain truths learned along the way: one cannot hide from death; change is the only certainty; problems are often solved if one merely takes the time to think of a solution. And September does nothing if not learn how to think, or perhaps that this is a skill she has already developed and needed only the opportunity to exercise it. She is an impressive girl. This is an impressive book.
As were the supporting characters who, combined with Ana Juan’s charming illustrations, came to life quite vividly; I still have many favorites. Taken from folklore and fairy tales around the world, Fairyland is a fantastical place where the improbable is real and its inhabitants, captivating. Libraries can be fathers, shadows—in a curious J. M. Barrie-esque homage—can be removed, and smoking jackets can be proud, indulgent creatures. But most delightful of all: a young girl can learn she is her own hero, and a very courageous one at that.
The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland […] reverberates with an ancient rhythm. It is familiar and modern—the kind of story that reinvigorates as it re-imagines what fairy tales are to a contemporary world more connected than it ever has been. Influences bleed from one country and culture to the next so freely through the internet that it’s entirely appropriate this book was first offered, chapter by chapter as a free, online publication. What’s more: this earned Valente an Andre Norton award for Best Children’s Literature of 2009. Well deserved, in my opinion. Still, reading it for yourself is the only way to discover if you agree with me.
Release Date: May 10, 2011
Reviewed Format: Advance reading copy provided by Feiwel & Friends