The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making by Catherynne M. Valente


I read a lot of fantasy books–for all ages–and it’s always a joy to discover something that feels entirely new. This book is reminiscent of many that came before it–it nods to Alice in Wonderland, Peter Pan, the The Wizard of Oz, classic fairytales. But it is also wholly itself and wholly new. Valente recognizes the lineage in which she’s writing, and celebrates it, but she doesn’t stay there.

The premise is age-old: twelve year old September is snatched away from home in Nebraska by the Green Wind, who brings her to Fairyland, where she sets off on a quest, makes new friends, and confronts the evil Marquess. It’s everything you might imagine and a whole lot more.

Valente’s Fairyland is all her own, with her own brand of absurdity and beauty, creativity and magic. It was charming, but it was real. It was never cheesy or trite or tired. Every moment felt revelatory in some way–the perfect descriptions, the characters, the made-up creatures, the setting.

There is action and adventure aplenty. But there is also wisdom aplenty, and it never feels contrived or easy, or like it’s just there to teach September (and the reader) a lesson. “Books don’t judge one for being a touch well-traveled,” one character says, and now I want it on a t-shirt.

There are also moments of pure beauty, passages so truthful and gorgeous I just wanted to drink them up:

“Autumn is the very soul of metamorphosis, a time when the world is poised at the door of winter–which is the door of death–but has not yet fallen. It is a world of contradictions: a time of harvest and plenty but also of cold and hardship. Here we dwell in the midst of life, but we know most keenly that all things must pass away and shrivel. Autumn turns the world form one thing into another. The year is seasoned and wise but not yet decrepit or senile.”

I have not fallen so hard for a heroine in a children’s book since reading The Enchanted Forest Chronicles. September is feisty and smart and unafraid and vulnerable. She is not wholly good, because she is not wholly anything– she is a real girl (with an awesome name).

In addition to being consistently delightful, just the right amount of dark, and occasionally profound, this book is also badass and feminist and sometimes spine-tingly. I can’t stop thinking about this passage:

“Am I to save Fairyland, then? Did you choose me to do that? Am I a chosen one, like all those heroes whose legs never get broken?”

The Green Wind stroked her hair. She could not see his face, but she knew it was grave.

“Of course not. No one is chosen. Not ever. Not in the real world. You chose to climb out of your window and ride on a Leopard. You chose to get a witch’s Spoon back and to make friends with a Wyvern. You chose to trade your shadow for a child’s life. You chose not to let the Marquess hurt your friend–you chose to smash her cages! You chose to face your own death, not to balk at a great sea to cross and no ship to cross it in. And twice now, you have chosen not to go home when you might have, if only you abandoned your friends. You are not the chosen one, September. Fairyland did not choose you–you chose yourself. You could have had a lovely holiday in Fairyland and never met the Marquess, never worried yourself with local politics, had a romp with a few brownies and gone home with enough memories for a lifetime’s worth of novels. But you didn’t. You chose. You chose it all.”

I could list every fascinating plot twist, every creatively imagined creature, every bizarre nuance and odd happening, all the weird and wonderful details that breathed life into this magical book–but I could not do them justice, so you should just go read it instead. I can’t wait to get my hands on the next one.

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