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

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The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland…

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The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making is a middle grade novel by Catherynne M. Valente that takes much of its influence from 19th century children’s stories like The Wizard of Oz. The similarities are quite apparent: A little girl (here named September) is swept by wind from her boring Midwestern home (Nebraska, not Kansas) to an alternate reality where everything is anthropomorphic – and I do mean everything: animals, sure, but also jackets, pathways, keys, the moon, the weather, etc. There she embarks on a quest assigned to her by the land’s ruler, who is not to be trusted, and along the way saves a ragtag group of friends from their own resignation before returning home. You might ask, if it’s so like Oz, why read it at all?

I have several answers. First, September is a more likeable heroine than Dorothy, who spends her entire excursion in a magical place wanting only to get back home. Most of us who read literature do so because we’re looking for a temporary escape from home, which is arguably truer of fantasy. Baum himself asserted that his Oz stories were pure whimsy, so why does their protagonist take them so seriously? September is perfectly willing to be whisked off to Fairyland, and therefore has more in common with Alice, who enters Wonderland out of curiosity and boredom.

That brings me to my second reason: Valente draws from more than just Oz, paying homage to excursions of all kinds and wisely building a Fairyland that cooperates with what children may already know about its history. For example, how iron is trouble for fairies, and how shadows have minds of their own. But like the children’s books of Roald Dahl, there are plenty of original ideas built from that well-researched mythology. These ideas are most often manifest in the characters September encounters: a Wyvern who thinks he’s part library and a soap golem and a Marid (a type of genie) who has to be beaten at a wrestling match before he can grant a wish.

Third- despite being told by an intrusive narrator who wants very much to sound like storytellers of old, this book is better informed by modern ideals and features newer definitions of “weird” and “bold.” It’s no surprise that Neil Gaiman endorsed it. Valente doesn’t shy away from adult words and ideas, from cruelty to nakedness to blood. As a result, it’s almost truer to youth than YA books that pretend children aren’t desperate to be treated like grown-ups. In consequence, it may be less accessible to elementary readers. Parents, in the meantime, will be sustained by the more mature themes and references. But everyone will be swept away by the ending, which bridges a gap between fairy tale and epic and leaves one eager for Book 2 (which has an equally long title). A total of five are planned, so you had better get started!

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