Take a deep breath for the name: “The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making.” If you survived it, congratulations. A lot of people don’t get past it, and the number of reviewers complaining about the verbiage of Catherynne M. Valente’s fantasy is embarrassingly large. (“Y big words? They make head hurty.”) But the likes of Hugh Lofting, Madeleine l’Engle, Frank L. Baum, J. M. Barrie, J. K. Rowling, C. S Lewis and Lewis Carroll never condescended to their readers. Children don’t need to be sheltered from big words: they need to be INTRODUCED to them. (Lemony Snicket knows this.)
Beyond that, this first book in the “Fairyland” series feels like a modern classic to me. The naysayers point out that “feel” comes from how closely it sticks to the terrain of beloved Wonderlands and Neverlands (with some tweaky, anti-sexist detours off the yellow brick road.) I’m a yay-sayer, and this isn’t a rip-off. Young September is simply tied by genealogy to Alice and Dorothy and Wendy. Those are good genes!
September hails from Omaha, Nebraska. September’s father is a soldier in an unnamed war that could WW2 or Korea or Iraq with equal ease. September’s mom might as well be Rosie the Riveter. They’re both busy, and Nebraska feels as dreadful as Bruce Springsteen suggested, so when September is invited to Fairyland by a Green Wind riding a leopard, (with the inexplicability of all such events) we can see why she doesn’t hesitate to abandon her home without a fare-thee-well.
Fairyland is no vacation spot: like Oz, it’s a patchwork of danger and delights. Among the delights, September makes the acquaintance of A-through-L, a wyvern descendant from a library, (and hence a wyverary). On the danger side of the ledger, she gets caught in a battle of the wills with Fairyland’s ruling Marquess. The Marquess is an unholy petulant fusion of Guh-linda and the Wicked Witch of the West, but it is she who has the most surprises for the jaded reader because her motivations are not readily apparent.
As for the whimsical witches, marids, talking panthers, and tsukumogamis (household objects that acquire souls after 100 years of existence), they’re frequent, and, like in the Alice books, fade in and out without necessarily contributing to the plot. Why should they? It’s a pleasure just to make their acquaintance. A scene involving a stampede of velocipedes is particularly clever.
Ana Juan’s illustrations cement the look of Fairyland’s denizens, like John Tenniel and W. W. Denslow did for those of Wonderland and Oz. “The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making” will delight smart children not afraid of longitudinous words and intrusive narrators, particularly girls looking for resourceful alter egos to whisk their imaginations out of Nebraska – and also smart adults who’ll appreciate references to Plato and Ingmar Bergman, not to mention the ultimate wisdom of Valente’s vision: Fairyland always comes at a price.
RATING : MASTERPIECE!!!