I’ve been talking this book up to coworkers and friends since I was about halfway through with it, but I’ve found the process to be a bit superfluous. Despite the long list of specific praises I’ve had at the ready, the right sort of person (which, fortunately, is the sort of person I’m surrounded by daily) has been sold on the book as soon as I’ve said the title. And really, the title does a lot of this work for me. If you find it clever and cute, you will be as completely enchanted by this book as I was.
The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making is Catherynne M. Valente’s first children’s book, and it’s easily become one of my all-time favorites. The story follows the adventures of a young girl named September who has tired of her life in Omaha. With her father off fighting in World War II and her mother at work in the factories, September decides she won’t be missed and accepts the Green Wind’s invitation to take her to Fairyland. Once there, September meets a variety of strange and sweet characters, all of which seem to have suffered a loss. Fairyland is darker than September expected, and as time goes on, it becomes clear that September might need to become the sort of hero she’s read about in stories, even as she becomes less and less sure that she’s the right girl for the job.
I loved this book for so many reasons. The characters are lively and wholly endearing. The world Valente creates is imaginative but so well-realized, somehow managing to feel both completely fantastical and lived-in all at once. The tone is humorous and self-aware, similar to a Lemony Snicket or Neil Gaiman story, but Valente’s voice is so unique that I don’t want to downplay her with comparisons. Valente writes not only with humor and fantasy, but also with enormous intelligence. This book doesn’t talk down to its audience at all, which is my favorite quality in a children’s book. Not only does the book have a sophisticated vocabulary, but the language itself is so poetic that it merges with the narrative to create storytelling that’s different than anything I’ve experienced before. The story itself is poetic. It’s hard to even extract a passage as example; the best I can give is when September finds herself in a magical bathhouse, being taken care of by a soap golem named Lye:
“September’s head ducked immediately under the thick, bright gold water. When she bobbed up, the smell of it wrapped her up like a warm scarf: the scent of fireplaces crackling and warm cinnamon and autumn leaves crunching underfoot. She smelled cider and a rainstorm coming. The gold water clung to her in streaks and clumps, and she laughed. It tasted like butterscotch.
‘This is the tub for washing your courage,’ Lye said, her voice as even and calm as ever […]
‘I didn’t know one’s courage needed washing!’ gasped September as Lye poured a pitcher of water over her head.”
The language wasn’t the only part of this book that was sophisticated. This isn’t an easy story of good and evil, knights and princesses. The characters in this story, and the world they live in, are textured and flawed and genuine. There is deep darkness and deep love, and often, the two are intrinsically connected. This book dazzled me with its brain and its heart, and I’m really looking forward to diving back into this world. (Thank goodness it’s a series!) If a whimsical narrator, lovable characters, and a story filled with surprisingly dark turns and unflappable hope appeal to you, I think you will love this book–but again, you’ve probably known that you would from the moment you read the title.