Book Review: “The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland In A Ship Of Her Own Making” By Catherynne Valente

Fairies, golems, wyverns, magical swords, talking furniture, flying cats, and evil sorceresses. The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland In A Ship Of Her Own Making has all of these and more, critical elements of a soon-to-be childhood favorite that, I hope, will stand among the classics of the genre.

The Girl Who… seems to me best described by elements of other books. With a female protagonist with all the courage, ill-temperedness, and complexity of Lyra from The Golden Compass, a sea-faring voyage featuring as many odd stops and vicious enemies as The Odyssey, the quirks, gentle humor, and creativity of The Phantom Tollbooth, and the wonder of a created land as vast and mysterious as The Chronicles Of Narnia, The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland In A Ship Of Her Own Making was an adventure the likes of which it’s safe to say I’d never had before.

The Girl in question, the one who built a ship that would cross the tumultuous seas of Fairyland, is named September, and her father has gone off to war and her mother taken a job in the factories, which leaves her, ill-tempered and moderately courageous, bored to tears of washing silly teacups and playing with ‘small and amiable’ dogs.

So when the Green Wind happens by her window and asks her if she would like to go to Fairyland, September has nary a second thought and doesn’t even think to wave goodbye to her parents as the Green Wind and the Leopard of Little Breezes whisks her away to another world. The first chapter, titled “Exeunt On A Leopard” gives you an idea of the glorious absurdity that awaits. ‘You seem an ill-tempered and irascible enough child,’ the Green Wind tells her, citing his reasons for selecting September for the whisking. ‘Oh, yes!’ September responds immediately, for she ‘disapproved deeply of pink-and-yellow teacups and also of small and amiable dogs.’

Thereafter, September meets two witches and a wairwulf, a wyvern who is half wyvern and half library (whose name is, therefore, the Wyverary, in my humble opinion one of the greatest invented words ever created; Dr. Seuss himself would be proud), a golem made entirely of soap, a herd of roving bicycles (named velocipedes, another excellent invented word), many big and fearsome cats, many fairies, Death, and more. But the magic of this book, similar to The Phantom Tollbooth, or even Harry Potter, is that all these magical, invented, somewhat nonsensical and bizarre things, never cross into the realm of being bizarre or nonsensical just for the sake of it. There’s always a purpose, always some learning to be done or some experience to celebrate as September goes about her adventures with all of these nonsensical beings. (They would probably object quite strongly to my calling them ‘nonsensical’, but I’m doing so anyway.)

The book is narrated by an omniscient narrator, who I believe is intended to represent Valente herself, as she occasionally refers to herself as a ‘novelist’. But it chiefly follows September and her doings and dealings, and September is a valiant and bold heroine who deserves to take her place among the most celebrated heroes of children’s literature: Harry Potter, Lyra Silvertongue, Alice from Wonderland, Milo and his tollbooth. September, though brave, falters enough times and occasionally lacks self-confidence in a way that is at once childish and believable. But when she is strong, she is strong and bold and a real, unconventional hero for young girls – and boys – to look up to. One of my favorite parts in the book is when September, having just completed building the ship upon which she is to circumnavigate Fairyland, is searching about for something to use as a sail. She realizes she has nothing except the orange dress she’s wearing. So with aplomb and dignity, September takes it off, hoists it to her mast, and sails proudly out into the Peverse and Perilous Sea absolutely naked.

One of the characters besides September deserve special mention: The Wyverary, who has already been mentioned, is a delight and a joy to read about. He becomes September’s truest friend, some sort of combination of a horse, a dog, a fire-breathing dragon and an encyclopedia that knows everything about the entries A-through-L (in fact, he introduces himself to September as A-through-L), who only wants to impress his grandfather, the Municipal Library of Fairyland. The Wyverary is one of the best characters to come along in children’s fiction, akin in my mind to Lyra’s polar bear friend Iorek, but a good deal less serious and more fun.

Little more needs to be said about this book than that if you like adventures with a side of silliness and all your primary story-telling vitamins – courage, creativity, love, and friendship – served with a bitter brew of evil and cunning to fight against, you’d better rush out and pick it up today. I can’t wait to read the next two installments (I believe there are to be five, but three are currently out) and I know a certain young girl I’ll certainly be gifting this to over the holidays. 

Five stars. A winner, a book that I hope becomes a classic. Catherynne Valente, you’ve created a beautiful world and a heroine for children (and adults) everywhere to look up to and admire.