Twelve-year-old September hops a ride to Fairyland where she finds a cruel Marquess has forbidden mischief and chained up everyone who can fly. The Marquess manipulates September into acquiring a magical object that only September can use, then throws the girl’s two new Fairyland friends into jail. September sets out to rescue her friends, aware that her biggest challenge may be to resist the Marquess, who will surely try to trick, persuade, or force her into using the object for evil purposes during the rescue.
This week I read a complex story called The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making, by Catherynn M. Valente—a book I would describe as a literary or possibly classic middle-grade fantasy. The book was thoroughly modern, yet reminded me of fantasies like Alice in Wonderland and the Chronicles of Narnia in that it is clearly the product of a highly imaginative original thinker. The plot has a slightly rambling, seat-of-the-pants, Charles Dickens quality that I found pleasant but that puzzled me until I learned the book originally appeared online as a serial.
I recommend this book for both kids and for grown-ups who enjoyed Alice in Wonderland; who are into philosophy, thinking, and the world of the mind; who like the original and experimental at least as much as the traditional and tried-and-true; who like to keep things open; and who don’t mind wandering off the beaten path into slightly (but not entirely) uncharted territory.
Kid-o-meter ratings (1 = lowest or least, 5 = highest or most)
1) This book made me laugh out loud: 3. I remember smiling, but I don’t remember laughing out loud.
2) This book has good action: 4. Really interesting, odd, and often unpredictable things happen in this book. You won’t find any epic battle scenes here, though.
3) This book is suspenseful: 4. This book has the kind of suspense that comes from knowing there is a surprise around every corner rather than the kind that comes from wondering if the hero or heroine will succeed in a quest and save the day (although you may wonder about that, too).
4) The ending does not disappoint: 4. Very good ending, but there are several loose threads at the end that I hope will be taken up in the sequel.
5) I cared a lot about what happened to these characters: 3.
1) How old is the main character? 12
2) Is there a group of friends I can imagine I’m part of? Yes–the main character, September, gathers friends during her travels in Fairyland.
3) Is this a series or just one book? It’s a series. At least, there’s another book, the The Girl Who Fell Beneath Fairyland and Led the Revels There.
4) Does it get off to a fast start? I wouldn’t call the opening either super fast or super slow. It’s Alice in Wonderlandish–fast in a classic way.
5) Is there at least one nice grownup? The main character has a memory of a nice grownup–her mother–but no nice grownup guides the heroine through the story.
6) Does it get mushy? Is there L-O-V-E? No mushy scenes, but there is a mention of children that one couple will have, and there’s talk of Fairytale creatures who have mating seasons.
1) What’s the major source of suspense? The major source of suspense is wondering what the writer will come up with next. You might also wonder how she’ll tie up the many, disparate plot threads and elements. Some of them are clearly explained/tied up at the end; others are not, or perhaps I should say that I didn’t understand how these threads tied up in a first reading. Examples include the significance of September’s lost shoe and the shoes given to her by the Marquess, the prediction of the broken heart, the reason it’s bad to lose your shadow, and the significance of starting off heartless but growing less so as you get older.
2) Which classic fantasy elements does the book contain? Fairyland and all its inhabitants. Magic, including magical items and creatures.
3) What’s the book’s take on tolerance and empathy? Not a big theme in the book, but the Marquess is intolerant of beings that break rules and do mischief, and you find out why in the end.
4) Is there profanity or violence? I don’t recall any profanity in the book, but note that the author also writes books for adults and there is some profanity on her website. Many of the distressing things that happen in The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making are not scenes that I think of as particularly violent, at least not in comparison to similar events in other middle-grade fantasies. For instance, the main character chooses to let her shadow be cut from her body to pay a river-crossing fee. At one point she begins to turn into a tree (this entails a series of disturbing symptoms) and she meets her own death in the woods (not a violent scene, not even creepy, but a worrying scene nonetheless). The most violent scene is probably the one in which September is thrown down a well by Fairyland inhabitants who work for the Marquess. Her leg breaks when she hits bottom, and for a while, she’s in despair.
5) How about dark creatures? There are witches who can see into the future, and the inhabitants of one of the islands off the shore of Fairyland are quite cruel. The worst unpleasantness and darkest events are the result of the actions of one bitter human, but you don’t learn that until the end of the book.
6) What’s the take on religion and/or God in the book? Not a big theme. There’s magic in the book, and witches who can see into the future, but as far as I recall, God, religion, and spirituality don’t come up.
7) What about politics and government? Fairyland is a monarchy in this book, though apparently not a hereditary monarchy. I don’t think the author chose to make the government a monarchy to explore or comment on political issues, though. Instead, I suspect she chose monarchy because it’s a good metaphor for how each person rules his or her own internal world. In this book, what the Marquess does—the way she rules Fairyland—is an outward extension of what’s going on inside her. The same is true of September: everything she does in Fairyland, from the path she chooses to the shape taken by the magical object she finds during her adventure-ordeals is determined or at least influenced by what’s going on inside her, especially by the state of her heart (how heartless she is or is not). So you shouldn’t take monarchy literally in this book, but metaphorically.
8) Any gender issues whack you in the eye? No. September is good at mechanical stuff, so you could say the book works against gender stereotyping. The book takes place during the World War II era, and September’s mom is a kind of Rosie the Riveter. I really liked this aspect of the book.
9) Any other important issues or themes crop up that you might want to discuss with your child? Yes, the way that loss and exposure to unfairness of life can make us bitter and cruel . . . or not. I think that most of us who make it to adulthood have experienced an unfair life event of some kind; even the very lucky in the crapshoot of life have known someone who’s been randomly knocked upside the head by the apparent randomness of it all—who didn’t seem to reap what they sowed. If I could get my son to read this book, I would talk with him about the exceptionally well-done twist at the end of the novel involving the fate of Good Queen Mallow, who was charge of Fairyland before the bitter and cruel Marquess took over.
10) Is the book especially challenging to read, and if so, why? The book is extremely well-written, but the language is not always simple. For example, some of the Fairyland creatures have difficult names (e.g., Tsukumogami). If your middle-grade reader find this book hard to read, you might try reading it out loud. You can test-read a few pages on Amazon before buying the book to see what you think.
11) How’s the writing? What’s the writer’s major strength? What’s the writer’s Achilles heel? The writing is superb—imaginative, inventive, and technically excellent. The writer doesn’t have an Achilles heel that I can identify, but I can imagine that readers with open-ended, go-with-the-flow personalities might have an easier time loving the structure of this book than writers with “Gimme my checklist and scientific abstract and move that Barcelona chair one inch to the left because it needs to be centered on the carpet” personalities.