Wednesday, August 17, 2011

The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making, by Catherynne M. Valente (ages 10 - 13)

This summer I struggled reading a book I was expecting to like very much: The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making, by Catherynne M. Valente. Online friends whose taste I admire had recommended it highly, with comparisons to The Phantom Tollbooth, Alice in Wonderland and the Oz books. I was intrigued by the fact that it was originally published in serialized form, becoming the first e-book to win the Andre Norton Award for Young Adult Science Fiction and Fantasy. And yet, it was not a book I enjoyed. It isn't often that I write about a book I haven't enjoyed, and I want to do so carefully. I admire Ms. Valente's writing in many ways, and know that this is a book that many enjoy. But I'd like to explore my thoughts more fully.
The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making
by Catherynne M. Valente
NY: Feiwel and Friends, 2011
ages 10 - 13
available at your local library, my favorite bookstore, and online at Google Books
Twelve-year-old September is a courageous girl, one willing to fly off on an adventure when the Green Wind (taking the form of a little man in a green jacket) invites her to come with him. They fly to Fairyland, where times are hard under the rule of the new Marquess. At first, September thinks she'll be on a magical lark, exploring Fairyland. But she soon discovers that her help is needed to retrieve a witch's wooden spoon, and she volunteers to set off on a quest. Along the way, September makes new friends, including a book-loving Wyvern and a mysterious boy named Saturday.

Valente has created a magical, imaginative land with inventive creatures. But I never felt completely wrapped up in the story. I admired September, but found it difficult to care deeply about her or her quest. She accepted her mission in an almost off-hand way, but got drawn in as she realized how capricious the Marquess was. Along the way she met many characters that I'll remember - a golem made of soap, stampeding herd of flying Victorian high-wheel bicycles, and a brave paper lantern. The chapters had a bit of a disconnected feel, almost as if I could sense the way that it was written and published in a serialized form. But this reminds me of The Phantom Tollbooth in many ways, as Milo explored the different worlds he encountered.

Unfortunately, September's story never resonated with me; I never emotionally connected with her the way I did with Milo. I admired her pluck and courage, the way she encountered these fantastical creatures with a completely open mind, and especially her choices at the end of the novel. And yet, she seemed distant throughout, somehow.

I enjoyed Valente's language and kept marking sentences that felt meaningful. But I do think the language got in the way of the story and the characters. I spent more time noticing Valente's writing than I did getting emotionally involved. While I appreciate unique, thoughtful writing, I know that most children need a compelling story to bring them through a book.

As Betsy Bird of Fuse #8 has clearly said, this is a book that will generate a lot of controversy this year. Some folks clearly love it. And yet, it is definitely not a book for everyone. I look forward to sharing it with students this fall and getting some children's reactions.

Thank you to the publishers, Feiwel & Friends and MacMillan, and  for sending the review copy.

Review ©2011 Mary Ann Scheuer, Great Kid Books.


  1. This review resonated with me! The "complaints" you express sound very much like comments I have received about my own (unpublished) fantasy novel. Readers have said they don't connect emotionally with the main character, even though the supporting characters are compelling and memorable, etc. Readers have told me my main character is too "matter of fact" when dealing with extreme situations. On the one hand, I'm encouraged that a book with this "flaw" has been published (it gives me a perverse sort of hope...) On the other hand, I really would prefer that readers be able to connect emotionally with my main character. At least I think so. Thank you for posting this review!

  2. Thank you so much for writing this review! I have been seriously struggling through this book, wondering what on earth is wrong with me because everyone else who's read it has written glowing reviews of it. As a teacher of 6th grade, all I could think was how my students were going to get through this book when even I struggled with the language. Your review is more than fair and still respectful of the author. I appreciate reviewers who can write critical reviews and still be respectful. I get tired of reading blogs that write nothing but glowing reviews of a book. They feel phony to me.

  3. Thank you, Scotti & Beth, for your comments. I really appreciate hearing your thoughts. I do hope you have a chance to read this book - I'd be interested in your thoughts once you read it. Good luck with your revisions. I think a lot of it is getting to the essence of what your character is feeling and experiencing.

    Beth, your comment means a lot to me - and, yes, I do wonder how children are going to react to this book. I suspect that some high readers will enjoy its challenge and September's travels. I do work hard to be both critical and respectful; I'm glad that came through.

  4. I agree with Beth -- I kept wondering what was wrong with me as I struggled (and ultimately stopped trying) to read it. I appreciate the fact that your review allows the positives you did find in the book to come through, while acknowledging what didn't work for you. Your tone is respectful of the author's efforts but you are also true to your own reactions. Thank you for validating mine!