Book Review: “The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making”

ImageTitle: “The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making”
Author: Catherynne M Valente; Illustrations by Ana Juan
Genre: Fantasy/YA
Publisher: Feiwel & Friends
Publication Date: May 10th, 2011
Hardcover: 256 pages
Is There a Pooka in This Book?: Yes

If pookas were creatures who apologized for their misdeeds, I might like to take this opportunity to publicly apologize to the Stoneham Public Library, from which I borrowed this book. Yes, libraries will issue library cards to pookas (with valid proof of residency, of course. How I got my valid proof of residency is another story altogether). I warned you in my last (and first) blog post that pookas will voraciously consume any books having to do with magic. Well, “The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making” is chockfull of magic of the best sort. I tried to take some of the magic for myself but I ended up just taking away a bit of the paper:


But, we pookas do not apologize. We can be heartless.

Funnily enough, “The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland” is a story about a 12-year old girl named “September” (disclaimer: September is not her “true name”) who also starts out quite heartless. When her father leaves to fight “the war in Europe,” she doesn’t even wave goodbye. When the Green Wind comes to her window, spiriting her away to Fairyland while her independent, gender-bending, airplane-engine-building mother is at work making money to provide for her family, September doesn’t even bother to leave a note to tell her mother where she’s gone or when to expect her back. As Valente explains, however, this heartlessness is not a trait particular to September; all children are heartless. This isn’t something they should be chastised or judged for, it’s simply a symptom of their age. “The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making” (henceforth to be known quite ridiculously as “TGWCFSHOM”) is a story about a lot of things. It’s a story about a quest to retrieve a witch’s spoon. It’s a story about endeavoring to defeat an evil Queen (technically a Marquess). It’s a story about making a library proud of you (don’t ask questions). It’s a story about going to Fairyland, the adventures had there, and the journey home. But it’s primarily a story about growing up. And it’s about the right kind of growing up. Valente teaches her readers that if it’s gone about in the proper way, to grow up means to grow a heart.

What Made the Story Totally Worth Eating:
Image1. September. I LOVED September. Here’s why:

a) Her appearance.
I know you’re not supposed to judge a book by its cover (which I almost always do), but the girl’s got an awesome cover (was that inappropriate?). She’s short. She has big, clumsy feet. She wears an orange dress and a green smoking jacket (given to her by the Green Wind), which she observes, makes her “look like a little pumpkin” (p. 7). Who could dislike a girl in a pumpkin outfit? Also, when the situation calls for it, she heroically chops off all of her long, beautiful hair like a modern-day Saint Clare of Assisi.

b) She never conceals her intentions or her emotions and she doesn’t appreciate it when others do. When she’s afraid, she says so. When she’s confused, she lets people know and she asks questions. When someone’s being a jerk, she says, “I think you’re cruel” even if she might be eaten by lions for speaking her mind. When others try to win her over with flattery, she essentially tells them to cut the shit. It seems like a funny thing to say about a little girl, especially a little girl in a land of make-believe, but September doesn’t play games.

c) She loves the sea.

d) She’d rather have a pet dragon (technically a Wyvern and he’s really more of a companion than a pet) over a small, amiable dog. (No way the Wyverary could fit in her purse. Girl doesn’t even carry a purse).

e) She hates princesses.

f) She knows how to cross-reference.

2. The Language.

a) There are some absolutely gorgeous, memorable, insightful passages, filled with truth and wisdom and sparkling prose. My favorite passage comes when September learns that she has to offer some of her blood to Fairyland in order to enter the world. She thinks, “There must be blood… There must always be blood…It will all be hard and bloody, but there will be wonders, too, or else why bring me here at all? And it’s the wonders I’m after, even if I have to bleed for them” (36).

b) You get a vocabulary lesson. I now know the definitions of many new words. At the top of the list are “bathysphere” and “distaff.”

c) The onomatopoeia’s hilarious. Think “sqwonked.”

d) Even when no deep insight is being conveyed, Valente knows how to turn a phrase. One of my favorites is when she’s evoking Autumn, and she writes of “the first whisper of snow blowing through your hair” (98).

3. The Chapter Titles. 

They’re excellent. Here’s a taste:

“Chapter VII, An Audience With the Marquess: In Which September Meets the Marquess at Last, Argues Several Valid Points but Is Pressed into Royal Service Anyway, Being Consoled Only by the Acquisition of a Spoon and a New Pair of Shoes.”

4. The Villain.
The Marquess is no stock bad-guy. She’s a puzzling combination of light and dark, which is just one example of the many truths about our world that can be found in Fairyland.

5. The personification of Death in Chapter XII.

I don’t want to say anything about it because this chapter is the best part of the whole novel and I want every word to be new for you. It’s wonderful. Even if the rest of the novel had been a complete waste of time (which it wasn’t), this chapter would have made all ~250 pages worth it. 

What I Spit Back Out:

1. The Wyverary’s Origin

I like quirky (as I think is apparent). But sometimes Valente gets a little too quirky. In “TGWCFSHOM,” she doesn’t go for the normal cast of abnormals. Instead of mermaids or genies, there’s a Marid. Instead of werewolves, there’s a wairwulf. Instead of dragons, there’s a wyvern. But even having a wyvern is not strange enough. If it were, I’d be happy. (I actually liked the discussion about the difference between witches, sorceresses, wizards, thaumaturgists, enchantresses, stregas, and brujas, for example). But no. September’s first friend is a Wyverary. His mother was a dragon and his father was a library (?). His name is A-through-L (which September shortens to “Ell”), and his siblings are M-through-S, and T-through-Z. As someone working in the library field, I like it when libraries get a good shout-out. But this was a little too much quirkiness too soon. If you’re going to try to suss out how a dragon and a library made babies, you don’t want to have to do it within the first 50 pages.

2. The Alliteration.

I once wrote a paper in college (yes, pookas can also go to college, if they so desire), where I thought it would be funny to write the whole paper using alliteration. I couldn’t do it. It’s hard. Some would say it’s simply so strenuous that you should surely and swiftly surrender! I still thought it was funny, though, so I stuck to it for the introductory paragraph. My professor, however, did not think it was funny. I got back an angry red scrawl, which said something like “Never do this again.” At the time, I thought he was just being a stick-in-the-mud, but after reading “TGWCFSHOM,” I can kind of see his point. Valente seems to be of the same mindset that I was, and it’s not terrible when she describes “the five of them fanned out in a kind of finger-fringed flower that held the face aloft” (79) or the “Marvelous Ministry of Mr. Map” (166), but it is distracting. And I think the telling would be better without it. Perhaps she could have limited herself to just the chapter titles, or character names, or place names. The frequency with which she uses it is overkill.

3. Lye & September’s Bath House Tryst

There’s definitely an undercurrent of homoeroticism running through the text, which I do not take issue with. It’s good for every kind of relationship and love to be represented in  literature, especially in Young Adult Literature when kids are struggling to feel “normal” and accepted and acceptable. What I do take issue with is the way in which September is seduced. Lye is a female soap golem, created by Queen Mallow to be her companion. When September encounters Lye at the bathhouse, Lye is a complete mess. (Granted, a very clean mess, being made out of soap). Queen Mallow, her “mistress,” has left her (she knows not why or where she’s gone), and she is mourning the loss of love. She wants to bathe September (the description of the baths themselves is really fun), and she asks her to take off her dress. September says “no,” pretty firmly, explaining that she “does not like to be naked…in front of strangers” (58). Eventually, after Lye’s continued sobbing, September acquiesces and disrobes, “slowly pulling off her orange dress” because “she only wanted the golem to stop being sad” (59). This sends a really weird message in support of pity sex, and the ability to wear an unwilling sexual partner down by means of persistence.

Despite these last little bits, I enjoyed “TGWCFSHOM” immensely. I can’t deny a heroine that spunky (and pumpkin-y), or the pleasure of reading such lush language (pardon the alliteration). I know it was good because more than once I caught myself doing the thing where I press my paw to the page tenderly after an especially wonderful passage. It deserves every award that it received (of which there were many, the most prestigious being the Nubula/Andre Norton award). I absolutely recommend that you read “The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making,” and I will definitely be reading the sequel, “The Girl Who Fell Beneath Fairyland and Led the Revels There” (“TGWFBFLRT”), which just came out in October. Actually, I’ll probably be reading it next. If you could leave a comment & let me know if you’d like me to review it, or if you’d prefer that I move on and save my next review for something new & different, I’d really appreciate it!

Pooka Rating: 4 out of 5 nibbles.


About pookapicks

I'm a 20-something gal working in Children's Library Services. My likes include googly eyes, coffee, magical realism, leading Story Hours, and forcing my taste in books down people's throats. I have a pet rabbit named Moxie Crimefighter.
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8 Responses to Book Review: “The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making”

  1. Pingback: Pooka Quick Pick #1: “The Girl Who Fell Beneath Fairyland and Led the Revels There” | The Pooka Picks

  2. Vicky Hooper says:

    Oooh this book sounds really intriguing. I’m so glad you enjoyed it, I’m reading it for a book club in August and now I’m looking forward to it even more! I adore magical books and books about magic, and this sounds like it’s both. 😀 Great review!

    • pookapicks says:

      What book club do you belong to where they’re reading Catherynne Valente? That’s excellent! Is it you & your friends, or did you find some fabulous library group or something? Not the usual book group pick! I’m excited for you! (As should be evident by the many exclamation marks I’ve used. Haha. Whoops. At least they’re honest!).

      • Vicky Hooper says:

        Haha, I’m a huge fan of exclamation marks and smilies! The book club is actually an online one, on the Fantasy Faction forums. It’s really good, as it’s a nice size (about 20 people, 10 of whom talk regularly) so it doesn’t get overwhelmed with posts and has a nice community feel. They do votes for which books to read, always in the fantasy genre or with a fantasy theme. There’s a sci-fi book group on the forums too. It’s nice, cos my local book group in my town rarely reads fantasy. If you’d like to give it a try, it’s here:

        July’s book is A Wizard of Earthsea. The Girl…Fairyland is August’s read, and in September we’re reading The Folding Knife by K.J. Parker. October’s book hasn’t been voted for yet.

        I’m pretty excited to read this one! 😀

  3. Vicky Hooper says:

    P.S. new follower 🙂

  4. Pingback: Book Review #18: “The Girl Who Soared Over Fairyland and Cut the Moon in Two” | The Pooka Picks

  5. I loved your review of this book! Although, I must say that I didn’t agree with the things that you didn’t like. Or I didn’t pick up on them. (For example, the alliteration.) I think that it’s easier for me to overlook flaws if the writing blows me away!

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