I love fairy tales. Love them. And I love the wealth of literature that has been built around them. One of my earliest books was a big, beautiful, pink book of Hans Christian Anderson fairy tales. My grandmother had several of L. Frank Baum’s Wizard of Oz series that I read whenever I was at her house. I raced through the Narnia series, discovered I vastly prefer Through the Looking Glass to Alice’s Wonderland, and devoured every one of Robin McKinley’s fairy tale re-tellings. I am looking forward, with great anticipation, to Philip Pullman’s upcoming re-tellings of the Grimm fairy tales. Grimm is my favorite show on television, and I even took a class on folk tales, fairy tales, and British romanticism in grad school.
So I was delighted to discover Catherynne M. Valente’s The Girl who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making, the story of a young girl, September, who is taken to Fairyland and sets forth on several quests in an attempt to help the citizens of Fairyland free themselves from the control of The Marquess. I first heard about it toward the end of last school year when it was on one of the tables at the middle school summer reading book sale, and my wonderful mother-in-law gave it to me as part of my grad school graduation present later in May. Clearly, I was meant to read it.
First of, it is young adult. This should not scare all you sophisticated, adult readers! Being a teacher for the last few years, I have had the opportunity to delve back into the world of young adult fiction and have mostly been impressed with my selections from the genre, including Divergent, which I reviewed earlier this summer. So do not be put off by the genre designation.
In fact, I was quite impressed with Valente’s fanciful tale. When I first began the book, I thought, “How charming!” and fully expected a charming, simple, fluffy story. Her chosen style mimics some of the older, more formal fairy tale collections and is reminiscent of a twinkling old storyteller. Occasionally the narrator “breaks the fourth wall,” so to speak, to speak directly to the reader, only intensifying this effect. This feeling intensified as I recognized plot points straight out of some of my old favorites, most specifically The Wizard of Oz and Alice’s Wonderland, and I was slightly disappointed in the apparent lack of creativity. But Valente is neither that shallow nor uncreative as a writer. Such references are deliberate, and it quickly becomes clear that Valente is building a fully realized world that encapsulates all of the worlds we read about as children. Narnia, Oz, Wonderland, they are different parts of Fairyland. With a coy wink and a nod, Valente explains the Stumble way to enter Fairyland when people “stumble through a gap in the hedgerows or a mushroom ring or a tornado or a wardrobe full of winter coats” (186). Such acknowledgements are subtle, delightful, and reveal more fully Valente’s inventiveness and plan for her tale.
Additionally, I found the story to be a bit subversive, for lack of a better world. It is written for children but also clearly meant for adults, the way some popular children’s television shows are. The use of vocabulary is refreshingly sophisticated and at times even feels a bit edgy. For example, besides Stumbling into Fairyland, one could enter Fairyland by being a changeling or being Ravished. In this case, the implication of ravishment is of a child who is willingly taken from his or her home unharmed to go on an adventure, but the word choice is striking for an adult reader, though will likely pass easily over the heads of many younger readers. It’s these specific and subtle choices that allow the book to function on multiple levels.
Valente is not entirely successful maintaining the balance between sweetness and edge, but overall her story is a delight. Yes, it is charming and light but it also deals quite thoughtfully and sensitively with some of the most pressing concerns of an imaginative childhood. Valente’s tale, so firmly rooted in both classic fairy tale literature and folktales, is a tale for the modern world: nostalgic, witty and intelligent, and inventive. I certainly wouldn’t mind visiting Fairyland again, no matter how I get there.