Book Review: The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making by Catherrynn M. Valente

Posted October 4, 2013 by Kara in book review, Lyn / 16 Comments

Book Review: The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making by Catherrynn M. ValenteThe Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making by Catherynne M. Valente
Published by Feiwel and Friends on May 10th, 2011
Genres: fantasy, middle grade, retellings
Pages: 256
Buy on Amazon

“One of the most extraordinary works of fantasy, for adults or children, published so far this century.”—Time magazine, on the Fairyland seriesTwelve-year-old September lives in Omaha, and used to have an ordinary life, until her father went to war and her mother went to work. One day, September is met at her kitchen window by a Green Wind (taking the form of a gentleman in a green jacket), who invites her on an adventure, implying that her help is needed in Fairyland. The new Marquess is unpredictable and fickle, and also not much older than September. Only September can retrieve a talisman the Marquess wants from the enchanted woods, and if she doesn't . . . then the Marquess will make life impossible for the inhabitants of Fairyland. September is already making new friends, including a book-loving Wyvern and a mysterious boy named Saturday. With exquisite illustrations by acclaimed artist Ana Juan, Fairyland lives up to the sensation it created when author Catherynne M. Valente first posted it online. For readers of all ages who love the charm of Alice in Wonderland and the soul of The Golden Compass, here is a reading experience unto itself: unforgettable, and so very beautiful. The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making is a Publishers Weekly Best Children's Fiction title for 2011.

This one was a long time coming.  I often saw this book pop up in my feeds, and everyone seemed very enchanted with the story. I feel a bit torn on my final rating. On one hand, it was a very different and beat-to-its-own-drum type of writing. Taking a chance generally scores well with me. However, the lack of pacing for the first part of the book and some characters I could have done without left me feeling a bit cheated.

For the most part, I did have a nice experience with this book. I actually enjoyed September’s bittersweet personality.  It is a rarity to see a book written from a child’s POV and actually feel like you are in the shoes of an honest-to-goodness child.  I appreciated Valente’s hints at some very adult-like occurrences happening inside of September’s world, such as her soldier father and her Rosie the Riveter mother.  The youthful main character seemed to be on the outside while the reader understood the subtle message delivered by the boastful narrator.  Ell, the book-born Wyvern, added a special magical touch to the entire novel.  The colorful descriptions and the oddity of characters was a pleasant reminder of traveling to lands created by imagination and childhood explanations. If you enjoyed The Phantom Tollbooth, then this one is going to be right up the same alley.

I must sadly admit that I did have to struggle through the first half of the book.  While the descriptions and the people were highly entertaining and unique, I did feel that the first part was just a huge, wandering path to nothing in particular.  I wasn’t sure what I was reading, and where the book was going.  I also did not care a bit for Saturday, the emo-role male protagonist.  If he had come in a bit sooner, I think it would have worked out for the better.

I am rushing a bit to my final say, because there is a reason I added a whole star to my rating (yes, I was going to give this book 3 stars, but I changed my mind).  This portion might be a bit spoiler-inducing for some readers, so be warned:


I tend avoid spoiling anything, but I have to get this out of my head onto the screen, or paper, or whatever.

I think the last chapters of the book warrants this to be a possible future classic, because the moral of the story shook me up.  

The reader finds out that the “villain” is indeed a recycled  well-loved hero. The loss of the safety and the enchantment of Fairyland twisted the first good queen’s heart into a thing of darkness and caused her to become the ruin of the land she once ruled with kindness and goodness. The Marquess implemented adult restrictions on the land to bring order and sense to a mad world.

For those of us who lamented that symbolism is dead, then please rejoice this book.  

Who of us here wish to escape back into our old childhood and relive the days when it took so little to be so good and so carefree? As adults, we can try to return back to the past and become immersed in the things and the state of mind that brought us bliss, but we can’t go back.  A trip to the amusement park reminds us all of the steep price of food and the long lines at the rides. Watching cartoons comes with a small voice saying that you have other things to be doing.  Dolls and toys become collectibles living inside the safe plastic homes of packaging. 

Sure, we can try to go back.  But we’re ruined and unwelcomed.  Our adultism has already been set in place. We can’t be carefree anymore. No matter how good or bad, how smart or dim, how obedient or unruly we were as children, it amounts to the same – when our clock runs out, we are kicked out of childhood. Every single one of us. We need jobs and homes and food and love.  Just like Mallow’s clock at the end, we can’t stay forever. We have to go back, and we’re not wanted back.

I cried.

I cried because the heavy burden of a girl with her wonderment ripped out of her hands could be any one of us. A lye (lie) can bring us back, but we’re changed, and we are not the sweet little heroes of our childhood. We’re now the imposing adult figures who clamp dreams and restrict questions. We’re the villains now.

And it stung my heart to understand what the Marquess was feeling. 

Overall – lovely writing, lovely message, a bit slow in some parts.  I hope to read the sequel soon.


16 responses to “Book Review: The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making by Catherrynn M. Valente

  1. I’ve never heard of a person named September or even this book! Going to check it out in a sec. I really dislike it when a book is dragging with plain boringness in the first half, but I’m glad the second half redeemed itself!

    Fabulous review, Lyn! <33

  2. LOVED your review – you should read her 2 volume Orphan’s Tales set. It’s gorgeous (and aimed at adults).

    One thing though – I have heard Valente say that her intentions for the series (to be 7 books long) are to prove that adulthood does not automatically bar you from Fairyland or magical thinking. She wrote a really moving essay on how much she hated how these early 20th-century fairy and children’s stories presented adulthood as this kind of horrid dull death of the spirit – why would you tell children that they’re destined to become boring and useless and dead to magic? She was particularly angry over Susan being barred from Narnia.

    She’s since hinted that she plans to dismiss that idea as September grows with the series. The third book is due out soon. I’m excited!!

    Your interpretation of the metaphor is still spot-on, but I’m wondering how that metaphor will work compared to the rest of the series as it develops.

    • I had to think over this for a while – I had no idea behind the history of the series. Maybe I was wrong about my interpretation, but that is the overall feeling I get. I feel that we haven’t seen the last of the Marquess. Maybe her story is not done as well!

  3. Tatum, my coblogger, has been trying to get me to read this for ages. I think I read a page but I wasn’t in the mood for it. I wanted a thriller or something instead.

    I’m very much looking forward to reading this eventually, though, because I do tend to enjoy books written from a child’s perspective, especially when more adult things are hinted at. It’s sometimes creepy, and often very well done.

    • It takes a while to get into it. You do have to be in the right mood for the book. If you hang in there, then it does get interesting!

      I hope you like it!

  4. I am so glad this one turned around for you. I think I enjoyed this more than you did, I also think the beginning can be the hardest to get through. My sister didn’t even finish – she DNF’d it inside 50 pages.

    “For those of us who laminate that symbolism is dead, then please rejoice this book. ” — I love this for two reasons. “Lament”, maybe? I know you were going for it, but typos are the best. And BECAUSE that sentence is 100% right.

    I remember liking the second about as much as this one. I wonder how you will enjoy it. There’s a third one too! I wasn’t aware until a few weeks ago!

    • Totally fixed that – I kinda suck at that at times.

      I do want to read the second one – I am curious where the series is going to go from this point.

  5. LOVED your review Lyn! I do agree with the meandering feeling of the beginning. This book was written first as weekly installments, and oftentimes, that writing style shows through the editing. My favorite parts of Fairyland were the passages on the heartlessness of children, and strangely, I took away an entirely different message than you did. But I love that you can open my eyes to a new way of looking at this book. Eventually I’ll get to reading book 2.

    Also, I’ve been trying to convince my husband that September is a totally suitable child’s name, should we decide to have kids one day. So far, he’s not buying it.

    • I am happy to know it was written in weekly installments – it explains a LOT.

      The heartless part was highly interesting – I like how the author put a new spin on an old saying.

      I had a friend who wanted to name her daughter December – I LOVE it!

  6. What a lovely review. I have all three books in this series, but I haven’t read the last two yet, and I read the first one so long ago that I probably need to do a re-read… Ugh.

    If you like Valente’s writing style, I highly recommend Six-Gun Snow White. Really, really good.

    Kate @ The Midnight Garden

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