Catherynne Valente’s “The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making” is the first book I’ve read in a long time where I put it down and thought to myself “now I have to go and buy a copy”. Given that I work at a library and do all my reading gratis (which, by the way, anyone can do at any library) this is actually kind of a big deal. My precious bookshelf space is mostly dedicated to a paperback collection of Anne McCaffrey’s works, the Clan of the Cave Bear series, with some Robin McKinley and Tolkien sprinkled throughout. And soon to be the entire Fairyland Series.
So what makes this series so flippin’ fantastic that I must have it at an arms length for the entirety of my mortal existence? Let’s break it down with the HerStoryArc Scale of Inclusivity.
Not offensive to women = 1 pt
I did not find anything in the book offensive toward women or little girls (the actual target audience!). My enjoyment was not at any point inhibited by any misrepresentation of the female sex.
Features a woman as the main protagonist and/or supporting character = 2 pts
We follow the story of a little girl named September through the eyes of the genderless narrator for the entirety of the story. The book features multiple tertiary girl and women characters of a variety of mythical species.
Oh, and death is a little girl (a scene which is heart wrenching to say the least).
Passes the Bechdel test = 3 pts
This occurs multiple times, but my favorite interaction that passes the test is between September and a fairy who rides wild bicycles alongside a human changling she has adopted. They discuss wild bicycle habits and nibble on bicycle tire jerky together. Sounds yummy right? 😛
Artistic and/or Entertaining = 4 pts
I consider myself something of a connoisseur of this particular style of children’s book, and this is easily my second most favorite in the genre now. My first most favorite is Carbonel: King of Cats, but that’s a post for another day.
What I love about Catherynne’s style is that she has captured the charm, whimsy, and tonality of classic British children’s fairy tales, but breathed new life into fairy land with some innovative amalgamations of different fairy lores and a sprinkling of more modern truisms.
We follow the somewhat heartless September (because all children are mostly heartless don’t you know), as she traverses fairyland (and sometimes circumnavigates it!) searching for a quest, finding a quest, and stumbling into the middle of what I’ll call a governmental coup.
The real secret ingredient to Catherynne’s story is how she puts September into genuinely risky situations, where as readers we worry for her physical and mental safety. The author does not shy away from depicting death, abandonment, injury, and slavery. In that way she is reviving the terror of the earlier fairy tales, allowing children to experience the scary things in life in a safe way. And isn’t that what stories are supposed to be about? To teach us how to deal and cope with the real world?
And I’m not the only one that sees the genius of this book. It won the 2009 Andre Norton Award as well as the 2010 CultureGeek Readers’ Choice Award (Best Web Fiction of the 21st Century). The sequel was included on the 2012 Time Magazine Top 10 Fiction Books.
Above and Beyond General Media = 5 pts
I knew this book was a little bit different when we learn in the very beginning that September’s father is a soldier fighting in WWII, and her mother is working in an assembly line constructing military equipment. Her mother’s job plays a very, very important role in the story, and September thinks about it often.
As a little girl character, September defies what Hollywood would have us think little girls do. She is described in the second paragraph as “an ill-tempered and irascible enough child”, which appears to be a requirement to be invited to Fairy Land. And indeed, she has the cool logic that young children often have, which is the result of little world experience and incomplete social indoctrination, that leads her to make choices and decisions an adult most certainly would not make.
There are two things which bring this book above and beyond it’s peers in my opinion. The first is how the book handles nudity. At a certain point September must take a bath to clean her personality traits before being allowed to enter the capital of Fairy Land. She tells the soap golem “I… don’t like to be naked. In front of strangers.” Which is a great response for a child to have, first of all, showing that she is comfortable with making decisions about her body.
The soap golem’s response, though, does a great job of dismantling our notions that a naked body is something to be ashamed about:
“My mistress used to say that you couldn’t ever really be naked unless you wanted to be. She said, ‘Even if you’ve taken off every stitch of clothing, you still have your secrets, your history, your true name. It’s quite difficult to be really naked. You have to work hard at it. Just getting into a bath isn’t being naked, not really. It’s just showing skin. And foxes and bears have skin, too, so I shan’t be ashamed if they’re not.”
This advice becomes very important later in the story, but I won’t spoil that for you!
The second thing which goes above and beyond general media is the complexity of the villain. She is also a little girl, but again defies our usual concept of little girls by being a terrifying villain. And she is not a paper thin villain either. The history of the little villain girl is depressing to say the least, but I won’t spoil that for you either!
So all in all, Catherynne’s first Fairyland Series book gets a 15/15 on the Scale of Inclusivity. I cannot recommend this book enough, especially for reading out loud to your own little boys and girls. When I have children this will be a must read at bed time! I’ve already downloaded the prequel onto my Nook and checked out the sequel from the library.
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