I’m not sure if you’ve picked up on this yet, but I really love to read. I read pretty much a bit of everything, and any time someone asks me to pick a favourite book, I need them to specify according to genre because otherwise we’d be there all year. But my gateway drug to reading was fantasy, and I come back to that world often. It’s not so much a favourite vacation spot as it is that big comfy chair in the corner that gets just the perfect amount of sunlight and has a blanket draped over the back that just begs to be curled up in.
So this week we’re heading back into my comfort spot. I’m doing so for two reasons: 1 – I’m a big advocate for getting children reading from an early age and this is a perfect book for that, and 2 – I’m a big advocate for getting adults to read the stuff their kids read, and also just for getting adults to read “young people” literature in general, because they are seriously missing out if they don’t. And this book is perfect for that, too.
The book in question, penned by one Catherynne M. Valente, is titled as follows:
The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making
I KNOW, RIGHT?!? Pretty much the greatest title ever. The title alone is enough reason to pick this book up. In fact, that title literally IS the reason I picked this book up. I didn’t have the faintest idea what I was getting into but I’d been browsing the kids section in search of an illustrated addition of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (You know, as you do), spotted this one, read the title and went…yup.
And boy oh man did I not regret it. This is the kind of book that my twelve-year-old self would have lost her mind over. I mean, I almost lost my mind over it anyway, despite reading it for the first time at the age of, like, 27. IT’S SO GOOD YOU GUYS. It’s kind of like Catherynne Valente pulled magic from the fabric of the universe and stitched it together to form this book. And that’s the key reason why I’m recommending this one today and not some other middle-grade fantasy novel: it’s pure magic. Absolutely made of magic. You’ll just have to trust me on that.
Ok, now before I revert entirely back to an awkward, brace-faced, X-Files obsessed, weird little tween version of myself, I suppose I should, like, give you a plot summary or whatever.
On the surface this is very much a fairytale, and like many fairytales, it begins with a normal human girl being whisked away into a magical land, where everything is strange and wonderful and unexpected, and also where something has gone terribly wrong and only the girl can fix it. Our heroine in this case, is September. She’s twelve, living in Omaha while her father fights in World War II and her mother works in a factory building fighter planes. One day, while September is doing the dishes, she is visited by a Green Wind and he takes her to Fairyland. And so, September joins the ranks of Wendy and Alice and Lucy Pevensie and Meg Murray.
You’ve read this story before, in one form or another, but you’ve never read it quite like this. It manages to simultaneously be familiar and yet wholly different from every other version of the “girl in a magical realm” tale. I can’t even put my finger on where the difference is. Maybe it’s that it’s a fairytale told for a modern audience so things feel newer. Maybe it’s the clever twists Valente puts on everything. I’m not sure. I just know that every new development in the story absolutely delighted me.
For example, the first friend September makes is a Wyvern (which is basically a sort of dragon). His name is A-Through-L (El for short) and he believes that he is half-library. He calls himself a Wyverary. This book is full of wonderful stuff like that.
Another huge selling point: The language. This is a middle-grade book (so ages 9-13) but Valente doesn’t simplify or talk-down with her writing. She’s got a vocabulary and she’s not afraid to use it. This doesn’t mean that the language is so complicated that kids will run screaming for the hills, it just means that the author respects the intelligence of her readers and crafts a story that will challenge and teach them. It’s lovely. By the same token, she also tackles some pretty heavy stuff for a kid’s book; things like loss and absent fathers and child abuse. But it’s never heavy handed, it’s never preachy, it just *is*.
I would be entirely remiss not to give the characters some major love, too. El the Wyverary I’ve already mentioned, and there’s the Green Wind and Saturday the Marid, and the evil Marquess, plus a slew of other weird and wonderful fairy-people who are too numerous to name but who are all just perfect. But it’s September who rules here, and that girl is BADASS. She’s exactly the hero that little girls need. She’s smart and capable but doesn’t really find that out until later. She’s brave, loyal, compassionate but she’s also self-centered and stupid and makes mistakes that have real consequences. She is wonderfully human, and there’s nothing better than reading about a little girl who could be any of the little girls you know. September’s is a fairy story and coming of age story all rolled together and watching her grow into someone strong and able is incredibly satisfying.
The long and short of it is adults, children and everyone in between should read this book. In case the super-gushy ramble wasn’t a clue, I love it a million thousand times over (I love the sequel too. Also, while writing this I discovered that there are THREE MORE SEQUELS HOLY POOP IT’S LIKE CHRISTMAS). ** There are moments from this book that have stuck with me, and not in the “oh hey that was cool” way but in the “imprinted on my soul” way. It goes to show that a good story transcends age. It reminds us that magic is real. And while kids tend to buy into magic fairly easily, adults sometimes need a little reminder that it exists. Magic exists. This book proves it.
** Full disclosure, as soon as I finished writing this, I picked up the book again and re-read and yes, it is just as wonderful as I remembered, I’m not just coming over all nostalgic. MAGIC PEOPLE, MAGIC.