The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making by Catherynne M. Valente
We had two chapters to go when the daughter announced to me, “Mom, I already read the last chapter myself.”
“You skipped ahead?!”
I was appalled, not just because skipping ahead to the end seemed like bad form, but because I had used every ounce of my willpower to NOT secretly read ahead myself. I was dying to see how Valente was going to wrap her story up.
“Well, don’t tell me what happens,” I said grumpily.
“I won’t. C’mon, Mom, let’s read it!”
Every morning I read a chapter of something to the now six-year old daughter. I’ve been doing this since she was three. Often I choose a classic novel. We’ve read The Wind in the Willows, Alice in Wonderland, The Jungle Book and even The Hobbit, to name a few. But sometimes we read something contemporary. And I have to say that Catherynne M. Valente’s The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making is not only one of the best contemporary novels for children that I’ve read, but is also a fabulous companion to children’s classic novels.
It’s a fairytale. It’s a coming-of-age story. The book began life as an internet novel, freely available, until fan interest and appreciation made it possible for Valente to publish it traditionally with Feiwel and Friends in 2011. You can still read parts of it for free on Valente’s website.
1. The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making knows that it is telling a story. Yes, duh, it’s a novel, but what I mean is that the storytelling is transparent. Valente uses an intrusive narrator that comments on what is happening, tells us things about Fairyland, and gives us glimpses of things that September, the main character, can’t see. Now, the intrusive narrator was a common convention of 19th-century novels. Valente’s use of it helps cement the novel’s Victorian tone and style. But it also makes it a great read-aloud, since the reader-alouder gets to embody the narrator. I think my daughter believed for a while that I personally did know a great deal about Fairyland–yes, me! An ungainly adult–and that definitely piqued her interest. She eventually realized that I had never set foot across the border, but by then it didn’t matter. She was hooked.
2. The vocabulary is rich and exotic. OK, so there’s rich like the description of the Autumn lands: “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.”
And then there’s exotic: September befriends a Wyvern (not a dragon–those have forepaws) whose father was a library, which makes the Wyvern, name of A-though-L, a Wyverary. She comes across Spriggans. People wear smoking jackets and jodhpurs and September herself makes a terrific exeunt. My favorite, though, are the Velocipedes–giant, zoomorphized bicycles, which September and her friends grab a ride on during the annual migration. My daughter loved these words. She lapped them up like ice cream.
3. There are ample references to classic children’s literature and mythology, which create many “aha!” moments for the well-read listener. September hails from Omaha (not too far from Kansas) although, unlike Dorothy, she leaves her dog behind. In a passage that echoes J.M. Barrie’s Peter and Wendy (aka Peter Pan), we learn that all children are heartless. And, of course, September enters Fairyland under the category of “ravished,” recalling Persephone’s immigration status in the underworld. There are many more. If your child knows books like The Wizard of Oz, Peter and Wendy, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, what are you waiting for–go get a copy of the book! If your kid doesn’t know these books, don’t worry. Get a copy of Valente’s book and read it aloud anyway because …
4. It’s an engaging, thrilling and heartfelt story with some genuine surprises. There are quests, magic, friendship, fairies, beasts and a little Pooka girl who can shiver herself into a jackal. There is also loss and pain. The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making is dark at times. But Valente, like Neil Gaiman, understands that you can’t have light without dark, and that winter is when everything begins again.
When my daughter and I finished the book–chapters in the proper sequence–we sighed with sadness. And then we turned right back to the beginning again.