Wednesday, September 21, 2011

The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland In a Ship of Her Own Making by Catherynne M. Valente

I just realized that this book -- which I read last month -- was due back at the library today -- so I should probably write about it now, before the book's out of the house and my memory gets even worse.

I will type the whole title just once; it's long but perfectly captures what's enticing and glorious about the book, and immerses the reader in Valente's version of that old-storybook style: The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making.

This is a book with a story; it was originally a nonexistent book-within-a-book in Valente's adult novel Palimpsest -- a book she had no real intention of actually writing. But people kept asking about it, and she found herself in a tough financial position -- so common these days, especially for someone trying to work a freelance life -- and so she wrote the book, chapter by chapter, in public, for free, on her website. (A huge chunk -- not the whole thing, anymore, but more than enough to get the flavor of it -- is still there, free for the reading.) It was one of the more successful examples of the new online "tip jar" culture -- it apparently made enough money to help keep Valente's family going as long as it needed to, from donations by readers. And, along the way, it won the Andre Norton Award, for best young adult book, from SFWA. And, this spring, it turned into an actual book, with covers and illustrations (by Ana Juan) and everything.

The story is a very traditional one -- since that's what it was supposed to be, back when it was a piece of furniture in another novel -- in which a girl named September, close to a hundred years ago, is ravished away, very much of her own will, to fairyland by a Green Wind and a Leopard. They, sadly, cannot accompany September into fairyland, so she sets off to have her own adventures. Fairyland turns out to be more dangerous, and tricky, and changeable than she expected, but September is a girl with a strong will and a good heart, so she comes through it all in good shape -- though not unscathed, and not without losing an important part of herself.

It's a very episodic book, as one would expect from a book written in separate chapters, so I don't want to talk about the episodes -- you can just click that clink, up above, and read the first half-dozen of them, anyway. (And I hope you do; Fairyland is one of those books that reads just right, and that you sink into like a warm bath.) Valente does not entirely give up her usual tough and slightly jaundiced view of the world just because she's writing for younger readers, and Fairyland is stronger for the fact that there's plenty of bitter mixed in with the sweet.

I found Fairyland to be inspiring -- it made me want to write a book something like this, about a different young person thrown into a strange and fantastic situation. Not because of any flaws in Fairyland, but because it's all done so well -- Valente makes it look like so much fun that I couldn't help but want to do it myself. This is a lovely, thoughtful, and subtly subversive -- in the way that all great young adult novels are subversive -- novel for young people, probably the best YA novel to come from an fantasist for adults since Neil Gaiman's Coraline.

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