The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of her Own Making by Catherynne Valente

September is a girl who longs for more than washing pink-and-yellow teacups in her parents’ Omaha, Nebraska home. Her dad is off fighting a war in Europe, and her mother is always busy engineering airplanes. So as the slightly heartless twelve-year-old she is, September shows no hesitation when the Green Wind comes to her window to whisk her away on his leopard to a place called Fairyland. After landing in the great sea and passing through customs, she makes new friends “A through L”, a library wyvern, and Saturday, a wish-granting boy, as well as discovering why Fairyland is being suppressed by the evil Marquess. It’s clear that only September can set things right, and when Fairyland becomes less welcoming, she realizes that she may miss Omaha after all.

When the first of many glowing reviews poured in for Catherynne M. Valente’s The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making last year, I knew it would eventually find its way into my hands. When it did, I didn’t read more than two pages before putting it down in exchange for lighter fare. What was meant to be however was the chance to read it along with Chachic and Janice several months later. And while it was more demanding than my average plot-driven read, it paid for itself in charm and surprises.

Do you ever find that a certain book necessitates using the word experience to describe it? That’s how I feel about Catherynne Valente’s book. Just reading each carefully selected adjective, noun, or verb was a experience in itself. In the opening pages you’re assaulted by phrases like “green jodhpurs”, “confiscated and smelted”, “aviary locomotion”, “travels widdershins”, “spinster hamadryads”, and “dignitaries and spriggans” to name a few, and that’s only the beginning. Part Alice and Wonderland and part Wizard of Oz, The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship is a thoughtful, imaginative, odd and unprecedented sort of fairy tale in which a young girl is transported to a fantasy world beyond her and the reader’s imagination. As such it requires your full and challenged attention. It may not be an evenly paced page turner, but The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship demands to be read aloud, reread, and film-adapted as only the classics are. Some passages even startle in their singularity. A favorite from September’s visit to the House Without Warning, where she is thoroughly cleansed by the soap golem named Lye:

“This is for washing your wishes, September,” said Lye, breaking off another of her fingers with a thick snap. “For the wishes of one’s old life wither and shrivel like old leaves if they are not replaced with new wishes when the world changes. And the world always changes. Wishes get slimy, and their colors fade, and soon they are just mud, like all the rest of the mud, and not wishes at all, but regrets. The trouble is, not everyone can tell when they ought to launder their wishes. Even when one finds oneself in Fairyland and not at home at all, it is not always so easy to remember to catch the world in its changing and change with it.”

Merely the idea of having your courage, wishes, and luck washed is novel, but then the whimsical and striking way Valente executes it is awe-inspiring. Fantasy writing does not get richer or more inventive than this. Still, The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship would not work half as well if September was actually completely heartless, which thankfully she is not. Her adventures become proportionally more nuanced and demanding until the revealing last pages strike a harmonious balance between resolution and mystery. It’s a good thing that I’m the very proud owner of an ARC of The Girl Who Fell Beneath Fairyland and Led the Revels There. I can hardly wait to read it.

Note: Chachic and Janice also posted a review of the book today. Go here and here to see what they thought.

Second Opinions
Charlotte’s Library review – “This is a lovely book for those who love words, who love pictures made in their minds of wonderful things.”
Good Books and Good Wine review – “Honestly, I really do believe this book will become a classic. I know I could see myself reading it to my metaphorical children someday.”
The Book Smugglers review – “[The Girl] is a small beautifully packaged bundle of perfect JOY … and I highly recommend it to everybody who loves fairytales, awesome heroines and beautiful writing.
The Happily Ever After review – “The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland is an unforgettable fairy tale that would appeal to adults and children alike.”
The Readventurer review – “Ms. Valente certainly does “get to the point” and the point is real, honest, emotion and a gorgeous coming of age story.”
Tempting Persephone review – “Even if you don’t tumble heels over head for this book as I did, I’m willing to lay odds that you will find something that will make you smile or coo, something that you will adore and want to polish and put out for your friends and neighbors to see.”
Things Mean A Lot review – “I did love Fairyland: it’s smart, bold, charming, original yet not afraid to insert itself into an old storytelling tradition, dark in all the right places, occasionally funny, and wonderfully written.”
Wondrous Reads review – “This is fantasy fiction at its best.”

10 thoughts on “The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of her Own Making by Catherynne Valente

  1. Chachic

    Beautiful review, as always! I just kept nodding my head with everything that you said here. But then again, that’s also what I did when we discussed the book on Goodreads. I think Janice nailed it when she said this is the kind of book that would be good to read aloud. And I like how you described it as “heavy.” I do agree that it would make a lovely movie. Who knows, it might happen soon since so many novels are being converted to movies. Had a lot of fun reading this with you girls, maybe we should stick to fantasy reads for our readalong picks. :P

    1. Holly

      Aww, thanks Chachic! I like that we all sort of came to the same conclusions on this one. Fantasy readalongs may be the key for us. Maybe we can do one more before the end of the year?

      And I agree, I would love to see a really well-executed film of this book.

      1. Chachic

        Yes, we should stick to fantasy! I’m game for another readalong before the year ends. :) Now that I have access to a library, I may have more choices. Although I still have the ones that I brought from Manila when I came here a few months ago.

  2. janicu

    You are good at capturing the language of this book in your review. I was having such trouble explaining that in mine. It really becomes an “experience” reading passages filled with Valente’s words. I really think this one is perfect for being read aloud. Good choice to pick this one.

  3. Redhead

    you hit it right on the nose, that reading Valente is an experience. She practically drowns the reader in a hailstorm of the english language, and if you’re not prepared it can be quite the surprise. I look forward to reading a Valente novel, but sometimes i have to prepare myself – make sure there are no distractions, etc.

    I love her Fairyland books. in fact, I’ve adored nearly everything she’s ever written. Some of her earliest short stories are good, but not great, and everything she’s done in the last 4 years or so is transcendental.

  4. Rhia

    Hello there! Just two days ago, I finally mustered enough courage to make my very first book blog. So, yeah, though I know I sometimes write crappy reviews about a certain book that I have read, I still couldn’t help but blog about them :) So I’m looking for a fellow Filipino book blogger wherein I can share some of my book rants with. :)

    If you have the time, please do visit my blog:

    Thanks in Advance!


    1. Holly Post author

      Awesome Rhia. I will definitely go check out your blog. Bytheway I am not a Filipino book blogger but either way I’m happy to. :)

  5. Heidi

    I love this review, Holly! I think you captured this book perfectly. It’s still odd to me to think that this is in no way a ‘light’ read–which is what I normally think when I turn to MG charming fairy tale-esque stuff. But you’re right, it’s more challenging than that. It’s an experience. :)


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