First published in June 2012.
Catherynne M. Valente is rather a prolific author of children’s fantasy and science fiction novels and will be publishing the sequel to this novel – The Girl Who Fell Beneath Fairyland and Led the Revels There – in 2013. The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making was the winner of the Andre Norton Award for Young Adult Literature in 2011.
The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making tells the story of September, a twelve-year-old girl from Omaha, Nebraska. She is rather a lonely child with her father away fighting in an unnamed war, her mother busy at work dealing with ‘stubborn airplane engines’, and no real friends to speak of. September is sent on a quest by a kindly witch in order to rescue a Spoon from the clutches of the Marquess of Fairyland – a character described as ‘very splendid and very frightening’ – who lives in its capital, Pandemonium. Whilst this is rather a strange motive for such an adventure, it is one which September faces gallantly.
Valente has created a cast of her own which is peopled by personified natural phenomenons – the Green Wind, for example, takes September to the Perverse and Perilous Sea which shares a border with Fairyland. The novel also contains such creatures as ‘hamadryads’, ‘spriggans’, witches and wairwulves – creatures who are wolves for the majority of the month and turn into humans upon the full moon. There is also a golem made entirely of soap shavings, Will-o’-the-wisps, hobgoblins and enormous mice who stand taller than fully grown adults.
The magical elements are apparent from the outset and the fairytale-esque phrase ‘Once upon a time’ at the beginning of the novel sets the tone for the entire story. As well as magical, the novel is often quite amusing. The Green Wind tells September that ‘Fairyland is a very Scientifick place. We subscribe to all the best journals’. He also lets the protagonist know that he is taking her away from her home because ‘Omaha is no place for anybody’.
A third person perspective has been used throughout which includes many of September’s thoughts in italics. The narrative often speaks directly to the reader, which really involves us in September’s story. The illustrations throughout are just lovely and, along with the thought which has gone into the elaborate titles and subtitles of each chapter – ‘Exeunt on a Leopard’, ‘The Closet Between Worlds’, ‘The Great Velocipede Migration’ and ‘Autumn is the Kingdom Where Everything Changes’, for example – really add to the magical feel of the story. Each chapter also has rather a long subheading reminiscent of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, which begins ‘In which…’. Aspects of the storyline also echo those of The Wizard of Oz. Parallels can be drawn between the poppy field in which Dorothy falls asleep and the ‘meadow full of tiny red flowers’ which September wakes up in. There are also similarities with the quest, where the heroine is sent, along with her magical companions, to the capital city of a magical land to meet its feared and revered leader.
Valente’s descriptions are sublime and fit incredibly well with the story. Her writing is rather original and this can be seen particularly in the way in which she writes about her heroine – ‘Because she had been born in May, and because she had a mole on her left cheek, and because her feet were very large and ungainly’ – and other characters such as the Green Wind, who is dressed throughout ‘in a green smoking jacket’ and jodhpurs. The prose throughout is charming and Valente is clearly very skilled in her writing. A good example of her constant inventiveness can be seen when she states the following: ‘All children are heartless. They have not grown a heart yet, which is why they can climb tall trees and say shocking things and leap so very high that grown-up hearts flutter in terror. Hearts weigh quite a lot. That is why it takes so long to grow one.’
Whilst The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making is essentially aimed at the young adult market, it is one, like the tradition of novels such as Harry Potter, which appeals to adults just as much. The speech of the majority of the characters is grown-up in its style and the vocabulary which Valente has woven in throughout the novel allows it to appeal to a more advanced audience.
The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making is a wonderfully inventive tale and such an adventure. It is apparent from the outset that Valente has such love for her characters and the world which she has created, and the story is a perfect read for lovers of nostalgia and fans of fantasy novels of all ages.