5.12.2012

The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making, written by Catherynne M Valente, illustrated by Ana Juan, 247 pp, RL 5

The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making 
is now in paperback!!



 The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making by Catherynne M Valente with perfectly matched illustrations from Ana Juan caught my attention, both for its title, wonderful cover art and quote from Neil Gaiman, "A glorious balancing act between modernism and the Victorian fairy tale, done with heart and wisdom." Besides these wonderful harbingers, the fairy tale nature of the book intrigued me. I have, for a very long time now, loved, collected and even considered pursuing a masters in literary fairy tales. Right about that time (circa the late 1990s when Gail Carson Levine's Ella Enchanted and Gregory Maguire's Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West hit the shelves) children's, YA and adult authors began taking well known fairy tale characters and retelling and refashioning their stories and I became immersed in this new genre. But, I always kept my eye out for traditional fairy tales and new fairy tales written in that style. There aren't many, and when they do occasionally appear they just can't hold even half a candle to the originals. That is, until The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making. In all fairness, this book is more like a Lewis Carroll or L. Frank Baum tale than something from the Brothers Grimm or Hans Christian Andersen, but they all fall under the fairytale umbrella, which probably  looks like a spotted mushroom.

The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making was originally released as serial story on her website, where the first eight chapters of the book can still be read - and listened to! I think that, when reading the book, this is a key fact to keep in mind. This book is meant to be read slowly and savored. It is a dense journey, packed full of sights, sounds and smells to be taken in at a leisurely pace.  After all, this is Fairyland, not Pixie Hollow. And, like all great works of literature intended for children, it can be consumed and appreciated on many levels, appealing to a wide range of ages. To best appreciate this book, I think it should be read out loud at bedtime, one chapter at a time, even though suspenseful events may tempt you to read on. The story starts at a fast clip and the language may take you a while to get used to as our hero, September, is ravished by the Green Wind and the Leopard of Little Breezes while she stands  at the kitchen sink in her home in Omaha, Nebraska. Valente uses the word "ravished" often enough in this book that I decided to look it up and see if it truly means what I thought it meant. It does not. To ravish simply means to "seize and carry off." In Chapter 1, Exuent on a Leopard: In Which a Girl Named September is Spirited Off by Means of a Leopard, Learns the Rules of Fairyland, and Solves a Puzzle, we learn that September is bored with her life and a bit lonely. Her father has gone off to fight in a war and her mother works long shifts in a factory repairing engines. As the Green Wind says as he peers through the kitchen window while September washes tea cups, "You seem an ill-tempered and irascible enough child," making her a perfect candidate for a trip to Fairyland. Much later in the story we learn that she wasn't ravished at random, but for a reason. As they fly off the Green Wind unrolls a long list of important rules for Fairyland that are as bewildering and hard to remember for the reader as they are for September. But that, of course, is an important part of the story. 

Soon enough, we are at Chapter 2, The Closet Between Worlds: In Which September Passes Between Worlds, Asks Four Questions and Receives Twelve Answers, and is Inspected by a Customs Officer, and September must say farewell to the Green Wind and the Leopard of the Little Breezes, as he does not have the proper papers to enter Fairyland. However, he does leave her with his anthropomorphized green smoking jacket which, having "learned a drop or two of manners in its many travels adjusted itself around September's little body, puffing up and drawing in until it was quite like her own skin." And, so, September begins to make her way through Fairyland, learning its sad history under the terrible reign of the Marquess as she does so. In fact, her first encounter is with the sister-witches Hello and Goodbye and their husband, Manythanks, who is a wairwulf, a creature that is a wolf for twenty-seven days a month and a man for three when the moon is full. Goodbye challenges September to retrieve the spoon which helps her to stir the cauldron full of future-telling soup, telling her that the Marquess stole it years ago because she is a "capricious and selfish and a brat." September agrees to do this for the witch, which of course means that she is now on a direct path to the wicked Marquess and her palace in the capital city of Pandemonium.
Of course September meets a few interesting creatures and creations along the way. The Honorable Wyvern A Through L, a dragon who's father was a Library named Compleat. The wyvern (who sounds like pages turning when he snores) got his name when his mother was widowed by a real estate agent and, having read only A through L in the encyclopedias that surrounded him, he and his family were forced to find a new home. My favorite creation in the book is the wise, serene, sad Lye, a golem made from soap slivers left behind by bath house patrons. With a "rich, clean perfume"that surrounds her in a "light, pinkish haze," Lye is quite a sight. Her

face was a deep olivey-green castile, her hair a rich and oily Marseille, streaked with lime peels. Her body was patchwork: here strawberry soap with bits of red fruit showing through, there saffron and sandalwood, orange and brown. Her belt was a cord of hard, tallowy honey soap, her hands plain-blue bathing soap, and her fingernails smelled like daisies and lemons. Here eyes were two piercing, faceted slivers of soapstone. On her brow someone had written TRUTH in the kind of handwriting teachers always have: clear and curling and lovely.

She was made by the former Queen Mallow who wanted a friend in a world that was "terrible and lonely," and left her sad. This is a lovely example of Valente's rich, detailed, list-like writing that so vividly creates images in the mind's eye of the reader. In fact, sometimes it seems as though Fairyland is an actual place that Valente has visited and it writing a travelogue for. While Lye waits in the House Without Warning for the return of her mistress, she also cleanses the bodies and souls of those who pass her way and the descriptions of the baths that she gives September as is about to embark on her quest are wonderful. The first tub, shaped like an oaken wine barrel is full of a warm, golden liquid that is for washing her courage. When September asks why her courage needs cleaning, Lye explains that, "When you are born your courage is new and clean. You are brave enough for anything: crawling off of staircases, saying your first words without fearing that someone will think you are foolish, putting strange things in your mouth. But, as you get older, your courage attracts gunk and crusty things and dirt and fear and knowing how bad things can get and what pain feels like. By the time you're half-grown, your courage barely moves at all, it's so grunged up with living. So, every once in a while, you have to scrub it up and get the works going or else you'll never be brave again." When not describing the wonderous landscape of Fairyland, Valente has a marvelous way with metaphors and can work abstract ideas and emotions into the concrete geography of this world she has created.

Valente is also clearly familiar with the fabric of fairy tales and the nature of the human children who inhabit them. The narrator, who occasionally talks directly to the reader, tells us that we "ought not to judge" September for her eagerness to leave her home without even a good-bye to her mother for, "All children are heartless. They have not grown a heart yet, which is why they can climb tall trees and say shocking things and leap so very high that grown-up hearts flutter in terror. Hearts weigh a lot. That is why it takes so long to grow one." After her meeting with the Marquess during which September agrees to retrieve the Marquess' mother's sword in exchange for Goodbye's spoon, even though she knows this is a bad deal, she finds A-Through-L is not where she left him and thinks to herself, "Of course he hadn't waited.He had known she was weak, that she would give in as soon as the Marquess behaved kindly toward her. He had known her fora rotten, cowardly child. She cursed herself , that she was not braver, not more clever. What is a child brought to Fairyland for if not to thwart wicked rulers?" Even her characters seem to have an internal understanding of the way these kinds of stories are supposed to unfold. And, perhaps in evidence of this, Valente is able to pull off a truly satisfying ending that is complex and believable within this mixed up world she has invented.
Valente also knows her magical creatures from all cultures. There are tsukomogami, items that have reached their 100th birthday and thus become aware and, in The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making, alive and surly. There are so many magical beings, from glashtyns, kobolds and hamadryads to spriggans, pookas and nasnas that I found myself pulling out my copy of A Dignity of Dragons: Collective Nouns for Magical Beasts and consulting the internet often. However, the creatures that Valente makes up herself are also magically entertaining. There is the Great Velocipede migration in which September rides with a wild herd of Victorian high-wheel bicycles as they stampede across Fairyland. There are the Autumn Provinces and the town of Mercurio that seems to have been built by some "mad baker" with streets and structures made from "loaves of thick, moist bread shingled with sugar and mortared with bitter. Heavy eaves of brown crust shaded sweet little dinner-bun doors. . . cakes piled upon cakes, baked dark and fragrant, [rose] up past the tops of the trees. The cobbles of the square were muffin-tops, and all the fountains gushed fresh, sweet milk. It was as though the witch who built the gingerbread house in the story had a great number of friends and had decided to starts up a collective." However, my favorite creation is Pandemonium, a city made entirely of cloth. Entering the city, September and A Through L see that "bright storefronts ran on ahead of them, built with violet crinoline and crimson organdy. Towers wound up in wobbly twists of stiff, shining brocade. Memorial statues wore felt helmets over bombazine faces. High, thin, fuzzy houses puffed out angora doors: fancy taffeta offices glimmered under the gaze of black-lace gargoyles. Even the broad avenue they stood on was a ass of ropy, pumpkin-colored grosgrain." When I read The Wizard of Oz for the first time, it was out loud to my three year old daughter. I was surprised at how different it was and how much more hostile and unwelcoming Oz seemed than in the movie. Although the Marquess is menacing and the story gets dark near the end as September arrives at the Lonely Gaol to rescue her friends, Valente's Fairyland never seems quite as bleak as Oz felt to me. It always remains a place that wants to welcome  children who are lonely, lost or sad, even if it must return them to their real lives before they are ready or willing. There is such a richness of imagination that is inviting and adventurous in Fairyland that danger never feels too dangerous. Despite this, I might wait until a child is older (6 and up) before reading it out loud - unless you have already read Alice in Wonderland and/or The Wizard of Oz to your little listeners and they were entranced. But, whenever you do decide to read it, to yourself or others, be prepared for a magical voyage!


Don't miss the lovely and just a bit haunting book trailer for The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making which is accompanied by the lovely song, September's Rhyme, by Sj Tucker.

2 comments:

Jeremy said...

This looks (and sounds) amazing. We're huge Ana Juan fans around here...

Tanya said...

Hope you like it! I had only seen Ana Juan's book for kids on Frida Kahlo before but I plan on seeking out her other picture books. I wish there was more of her work (and in color) in Valente's book.