Jul 14, 2011

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

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

The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making began its life as a book inside a book: in Catherynne M. Valente’s excellent adult novel Palimpsest, one of the characters, November, names it as her favourite book growing up and refers to it several times throughout the story. This connection between the two books, however, doesn’t mean that Fairyland doesn’t stand on its own.

Fairyland is the story of a girl named September, who lives a comfortable and predictable life surrounded by teacups and small amiable dogs. But comfort and predictability are not what September craves: on the contrary, she wants adventure. So when the Green Wind comes along offering to transport her to Fairyland, September says yes – and she never looks back.

I read The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making with Kelly from The Written World. We each came up with three discussion questions that we’ll both be answering. To see Kelly’s answers to all six questions, just click over to her blog. Here are mine:

Me: One of my favourite things about The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making was Valente’s very conscious use of a Edwardian/Golden Age of Children’s Literature narrative voice. What did you think of the narrator and of the book’s classic feel? What do you think it adds to the story?
Well, obviously I’m going to agree with myself here and say I thought it was awesome. In Palimpsest, Fairyland is a book from the 1920’s, and when she went on to actually write it Valente made sure she kept the period feel consistent. The book’s narrative voice has echoes of even older children’s authors such as George MacDonald and E. Nesbit, which gives it a warm, familiar, cosy and grandparently feel – but not without its hints of danger. That and the metafictional elements of the story very much make Fairyland a book for book lovers. I loved the fact that this is a story that clearly exists within a tradition that it nods to and acknowledges at every turn, and yet at the same time it’s a story that is not at all afraid to be itself. The second passage I share under “bits I liked” at the end illustrates what I mean perfectly: September knows how stories work, and clearly the narrator assumes readers have the same knowledge. But none of this means everything is going to be predictable and safe. Stories can be wild things, and clearly this is one where every possibility remains open.

Kelly: September met a lot of characters along her journey. Which was your favourite? Why?
Definitely the Wyvern. Perhaps it helps that he’s the first friend September makes, and so we get to spend more time with him. But there’s also the fact that he’s so absolutely charming and immediately gained a place in my librarian heart. He believes he’s part library! And I believe him too, because why not? This is Fairyland, after all. His parentage may remain a mystery, but the way he thinks of himself is very much real.

Fairyland illustration by Ana Juan
One of the many gorgeous illustrations by Ana Juan

Me: What did you think of September herself? What was your favourite thing about her?
I loved her loyalty to her friends. I loved her taste for adventure. I loved her bravery, which is not the same as fearlessness. She has moments when she feels lost and helpless and afraid, but she always finds a way to help herself, and she always carries on. And most of all I loved the fact that she was active rather than passive. This is her story, and clearly she’s in charge. As Valente herself put it,
Too often in books like this, (especially in the classics of the genre) girls are acted upon, rather than actors, their choices are few, reflecting the real world, where a girl’s power is often located purely in her ability to say no: to suitors, to her social inferiors, even to herself. I wanted my girl to choose, to find power in saying yes, to make her own story–and of course her own ship.
Kelly: What did you think of September’s thoughts on the war being fought at home? She believes her father has abandoned her and her mother is often not at home. Do you think this reflects how many children felt during the World Wars?
This is a particularly interesting question to me, because I don’t feel I paid as much attention to this angle of the story as I could have while reading the book. I do think September’s feelings are probably an accurate representation of what many children would have experienced, yes. But at the same time, Valente does something a little different here: Fairyland is not an escape. I didn’t get the impression that September said yes to the Green Wind because there was a war on and she felt neglected by her parents – on the contrary, she would have said yes anyway. And once she gets to Fairyland, she doesn’t get a reprieve from all that’s dark about the world. She finds… more of life. The full spectrum of experiences, only more intense. And this is why she continues to say yes. She was never after a Fairyland-shaped theme park. She wanted to seek out real experiences, not run away from them. Which is exactly what she gets.

Me: I’m not sure if you read Catherynne M. Valente’s Big Idea post at John Scalzi’s blog, but to me her final paragraph perfectly sums up what I loved about Fairyland. She says:
I wrote a book about a girl who never said no. When she first enters Fairyland, it isn’t because she falls through a hole in the earth or wanders through a closet or chases a rabbit. It’s a choice, and however dark her journey becomes, she never wishes to take it back. The Green Wind shows up at her door riding a flying leopard and asks if she wants to go. If she wants more than she’s been given. If she wants to leave this world and grasp for another, a mad and gorgeous place, sight unseen, results uncertain.

And she says yes.
What are your thoughts on this?

Why yes, self, I did read that post. I think this ties in with what I was saying in my previous answer about Fairyland not being an escape, and also about September being active rather than passive. The whole novel is a tribute to saying yes to life – more specifically, to a girl wanting things and saying yes to life. How could I not love it for that?

Kelly: What did you think of this book overall? Did it compete well with other Valente books that you have read?
You know what, the only other Valente book I’ve read is Palimpsest, and it wouldn’t be fair to compare them because they’re entirely different creatures. But I did love Fairyland: it’s smart, bold, charming, original yet not afraid to insert itself into an old storytelling tradition, dark in all the right places, occasionally funny, and wonderfully written. I think the only reason why I don’t yet list Valente among my favourite authors is because I’ve let her books gather dust on my shelves for far too long (especially The Orphan’s Tales duology). I’m going to have to do something about that.

Fairyland illustration by Ana Juan

Bits I liked:
“We all live inside the terrible engine of authority, and it grinds and shrieks and burns so no one will say, lines on maps are silly. Where you live, the awful machinery is smaller, harder to see. Less honest, that’s all.”

The trouble was, September didn’t know what sort of story she was in. Was it a merry one or a serious one? How ought she to act? If it were merry, she might dash after a Spoon, and it would all be a marvellous adventure, with funny rhymes and somersaults and a grand party with red lanterns at the end. But if it were a serious tale, she might have to do something important, something involving, with snow and arrows and enemies. Of course, we would like to tell her which. But no one may know the shape of the tale in which they move. And, perhaps, we do not truly know what sort of beast it is, either. Stories have a way of changing faces. They are unruly things, undisciplined, given to delinquency and the throwing of erasers. This is why we must close them up into thick, solid books, so they cannot get out and cause trouble.

“Am I to save Fairyland, then? Did you choose me to do that? Am I a chosen one, like all those heroes whose legs are never 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. [Abridged for spoiler-avoiding purposes] And twice now, you have chosen not to go home when you might have, if only you abandoned your friends. 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. Just like you chose your path on the beach: to lose your heart is not a path for the faint and fainting.”
They read it too:
Libri Touches, The Book Smugglers, Booklust, Good Books and Good Wine, Carol’s Notebook, Tempting Persephone, Charlotte’s Library, Just Booking Around



  1. This book seems great. The cover is so beautiful... Are the black and white drawings on your post from the book?
    Great discussion questions

  2. Ana, I love how you make me think of books I've read in whole new ways and enhance my understanding of them.

    Especially September's agency, I never even really thought about or considered the whole active/passive character thing, but obviously you are right. And I think that's one of those things that unconciously lead me to identify with this story.

    AND EL, oh my goodness, I loved him so so so so MUCH.

    Also, can I just say that I loved the quote that you choose at the end, about the lines on maps and how silly they are.

  3. This sounds very wonderful, but the best part of the review is how you talk to yourself! :--)

  4. I loved how this book came into being and I love both of your questions too :)

    This bit is my fav -
    <>I didn’t get the impression that September said yes to the Green Wind because there was a war on and she felt neglected by her parents – on the contrary, she would have said yes anyway. And once she gets to Fairyland, she doesn’t get a reprieve of all that’s dark about the world. She finds… more of life. The full spectrum of it, only more intense. And this is why she continues to say yes. She was never after a Fairyland-shaped theme park. She wanted to seek out real experiences, not run away from them. And this is exactly what she gets.

  5. I have had this book on my radar for such a long time, and I really enjoyed reading your discussion on it. I love the fact that you focused on how September's choice to go into the Green Wind was a conscious choice, and not one that was made my extemporaneous means. I think that is something that makes the book stand out. I must get this book, and when I mentioned that this book had a wyvern that thought it was half library, my daughter pretty much said we had to get it. She is a lover of all dragons, half library or not!

  6. This sounds like so much fun! I think I have a copy of Palimpsest floating around somewhere, and this is definitely making me want to read it (or acquire it... or both!) all the more! I am in a serious mood for Fantasy at the moment...

  7. I like the illustrations. Very Alice In Wonderland-ish. I also find the idea of choosing to say yes interesting, although I wish more of us had such choices!

  8. I really need to read this book. I have only read the first of the Orphans Tales books but I loved it! I keep on meaning to read more from Valente.

  9. I think when I first heard about this book, I was in a mood where I was down on the entire genre of mid-grade fantasy, so I didn't give it much thought, but I've had Palimpsest on my wishlist *forever* (probably since you reviewed it, in fact), and this review is definitely enough to make me want to give both of them another look.

  10. Gah...I'm really regretting not buying this yesterday now T_T

  11. OH, November mentioned this book in Palimpsest. That makes me feel so much better, because when this book started making the rounds, I kept thinking I'd heard the title before, but I couldn't think where, and after a while I concluded I'd just heard of this book after it was published.

    Those illustrations and excerpts are lovely. I want to read this! That is possibly the best dragon I've ever seen.

  12. I have got to read this; it sounds in every particular like something I could love. I already love one of the passages you quote because it sounds a little like Sam and Frodo encouraging each other to continue by talking about how someone will tell their story someday.

  13. What a lovely way to introduce a book to all your readers. I've read In The Night Garden and loved it. I have The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland on hold at the library and wonder if I should read Palimpsest first. What do you think?

  14. The books sounds gorgeous, if you'd just posted the quotes I'd want to read it but the interview questions made me need it right now! Lovely way to do a review.

  15. Great review. The book sounds all around wonderful too.

  16. Glad you enjoyed this one! I LOVE all your comments about how September is the girl who decided for herself and said yes. I didn't consider that, but that is awesome.

  17. I have also reviewed this book, and I love it, though I'm not entirely sure what to make of it all the time!



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