By Casey Wilson
As all mothers know, children travel faster than kisses. The speed of kisses is, in fact, what Doctor Fallow would call a cosmic constant. The speed of children has no limits.
The above quote comes a little over halfway through Catherynne M. Valente’s The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making, one of my favorite reads of recent weeks. I read it in the context of a summer book club with some of my fellow children’s lit grads – including Rebekah, who lovingly compared it to The Phantom Tollbooth – which I appreciate, because I might have missed out on it otherwise.
The story follows a girl named September who flies off with The Green Wind and finds herself in Fairyland. When presented with a choice of directions to follow, she chooses the path that promises she will lose her heart – but she’s still a child, so she doesn’t have much of a heart to lose in the first place. Rebekah’s comparison to The Phantom Tollbooth is apt, I think, because Valente is writing in a well-worn tradition of whip-smart fairy tales: Peter Pan, The Wizard of Oz, The Back of the North Wind, among others. This novel revels in wordplay and cleverness, which can understandably be off-putting for some readers, but I think it is always counterbalanced with genuine heart.
Consider, for instance, one of the first friends September makes in the novel. A-Through-L is a wyvern of very peculiar parentage: his father, he believes, is a library. This lets Valente have her jokes – he can provide information on any subject from the front half of the alphabet but is useless for anything from the back half – and there are indeed plenty of jokes to be had from it. But A-Through-L’s story is oddly touching, as well, because when faced with the prospect of meeting the library he believes to have sired him he becomes reluctant. Perhaps the library will reject him, or perhaps the library isn’t his father at all. Neither option is ideal for our dear wyvern, and by letting those possibilities sit in the air throughout the novel Valente avoids cleverness for cleverness’ sake.
I laughed aloud many times while reading The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making, and I spent an equal amount of time smiling wistfully at the lovely images Valente’s writing conjures. But I think I would have enjoyed it only a fraction as much without a good backing in the many, many classics she references and riffs off of even as she crafts her own version of fairyland. And that pleases me, because it makes me think that the classics are as relevant as they’ve always been, and that happy little texts like Valente’s can help give them new life.
Casey is a PhD student.