Thursday, June 23, 2011

Calling All Adults! Read The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making

In case I forgot: the illustrations by Ana Juan are exquisite.
Why aren’t you reading The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making?

Do you think you’re too old for fairy tales?

Did you give up Alice in Wonderland and Wizard of Oz when you were ten?

If you go anywhere near the young adult section in a bookstore, are you looking
for vampires or angels or dystopian societies?

Does GWCFSHOM seem too saccharine?  Too little-girlish?  Too fanciful?  Too bizarre?

Is the title too long for your pre-Alzheimers brain to hold onto?

I don’t care about your preconceived notions, your inflexible literary preferences, or your personal limitations: Dammit!  Read this book!

Catherynne M. Valente has dreamed up a kaleidoscope world with vibrant settings, shining characters, and glorious themes – yes, themes.  You probably think this is some flimsy tale of whimsy where the author gratuitously paints with neon words and flashes fantastical images that hold no purpose other than to dazzle.  To be sure, Valente is a lush Dante Gabriel Rosetti with words, who is every bit as linguistically acrobatic as Lewis Carroll.  Yet, her story has heart; it has soul and feel-good stuff that burns off that surrealistically creepy fog that dulls Carroll’s Wonderland or Baum’s Oz.  Fairyland is treacherous and scary but it never devolves into a nightmarish freakshow.  Valente sprinkles the story with revelations about growing-up, loyalty and love, courage and fortitude, longing and loss, and even redemption, and she does it so gracefully that it takes the nasty edge off all that is unfamiliar and strange. 

Here’s what I mean – this is a beautiful passage where a soap golem sacrifices her own finger to clean the twelve year-old protagonist:

“When you are born,” the golem said softly, “your courage is new and clean.  You are brave enough for anything: crawling off staircases, saying your first words without fearing 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.”

Valente’s story begins when September, the heroine, is whisked away from her home in Nebraska by the Green Wind; he flies her to Fairyland on a magical leopard because she “seems an ill-tempered and irascible enough child.”  Upon her arrival, September agrees to retrieve a magical spoon, the property of a very well-dressed witch named Goodbye.  This spoon is in the hands of the evil Marquess who rules Fairyland.  On her way to fulfill this quest, September meets a Wyvern, who is half-library (I won’t try to explain), as well as a sea-djinni (like a genie) whose past and future selves can show up at any time in the present.

Before you make any obvious comparisons to Alice in Wonderland, Wizard of Oz, or Gulliver’s Travels, let me just say: “This ain’t your Granny’s Fairytale.”  Valente gives props to her predecessors of fantastical literature with references to magical wardrobes, boons of fancy shoes (not ruby slippers, but little black heels, mind you), references to winds whisking away waifs from the Midwest (Nebraska rather than Kansas), an evil queen of whom everyone is afraid (although she doesn’t scream “Off with their heads!”), and tiny customs guards who wear huge gargoyle automatons to appear more imposing than they really are (a la the wizard in Oz).

SPOILER ALERT:  Now that we’ve gotten some of the obvious similarities to other stories out of the way, here are some of Valente’s original details:  have you ever heard of beaches carpeted with treasure, entire cities made of cloth or baked goods, a girl whose hair changes colors with her moods, movie screens where the people on the film can see the audience and speak to them, half-people that mix and match with their siblings, inanimate objects that come to life after 100 years, or wild herds of velocipedes?  I could go on and on, but I think I’ve already said too much.

Today I sat at the swimming pool waiting for my kids to work out their overabundance of energy, and I finished the last chapters of the book.  A woman I didn’t know at a nearby table said, “That must have been a good book.  You were smiling the whole time you were reading it.”  If nothing else convinces you that the book will push every wholesome pleasure button in your being, that woman’s observation should.  I must’ve been grinning, not like a Cheshire cat, but like a flying Leopard.

So again, I ask, why aren’t you reading The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making?  I don’t know how this book is being marketed, but I do know it transcends age, gender, cultural preferences, and literary tastes.  Don’t let it languish on a Young Adult or Children’s Lit bookshelf, and don’t compare it to the fantasy tales of your youth.  It’s modern in tone, it’s universally appealing, and it’s an indulgent gift you should give yourself.

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