"review" · fiction · juvenile lit · Lit · recommend · sci-fi/fantasy · Tales · young adult lit

…in a Ship of Her Own Making

“Am I to save Fairyland, then? Did you choose me to do that? Am I a chosen one, like all those heroes whose legs were never broken?”

The Green Wind stroked her hair. She could not see his face, but she knew it was grave.

“Of course not. No one is chosen. Not ever. Not in the real world. You chose to climb out of your window and ride on a Leopard. You chose [….] You are not the chosen one, September. Fairyland did not choose you—you chose yourself. You could have had a lovely holiday in Fairyland and never met the Marquess, never worried yourself with local politics, had a romp with a few brownies and gone home with enough memories for a lifetime’s worth of novels. But you didn’t. You chose. You chose it all. Just like you chose your path on the beach: to lose your heart is not a path for the faint and fainting.”

The Girl who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making

by Cathrynne M. Valente

illustrations by Ana Juan

Feiwel & Friends, 2011.

247 pages, hardcover.

September is a girl who longs for adventure. When she is invited to Fairyland by a Green Wind and a Leopard, well, of course she accepts. (Mightn’t you?) But Fairyland is in turmoil, and it will take one twelve-year-old girl, a book-loving dragon, and a strange and almost human boy named Saturday to vanquish an evil Marquess and restore order.

Not since Oz has there been a land—or a cast of characters—so rich and entrancing. ~inside cover.

While that last line sentence in the inside cover is a stretch, “Not since Oz has there been a land—or a cast of characters—so rich and entrancing,” the Fairyland and characters in Cathrynne Valente’s The Girl who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making are rich and entrancing. The narrator (third omniscient) lathers it on in the storytelling, so you may want to pace yourself with this one and savor the whimsical imagination of Valente’s telling. Steep a bit in her thick descriptors.

The Girl who Circumnavigated began as an on-line book project where legions of people apparently followed the installments. (I am ever late to these sorts of parties, sigh.) Valente was an author looking for support and expression of her talent while her partner looks for steadying employment. I was delighted to find this reference to its beginnings at “Folk and Fairy:”

This is not only a way to enjoy a really fun story, but it is also a way for you to help out an author and fellow faerie-lover in her time of need.

Catherynne Valente and her partner recently fell on hard times. Though they were able to survive for awhile, jobs are scarce and action had to be taken. They didn’t have enough to last a month! Then, she had a brilliant idea: she would share the story that is referred to in her (decidedly mature) novel, Palimpsest.

It is called The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making. And it is provided for entertainment and in good faith that the donations made to her through this effort will keep she and her partner afloat (it is a ship of her own making! Think of that!) until he finds a new job.

The Girl who Circumnavigated is apparently Valente’s first foray into Juvenile fiction. And while it might be found on Juvenile shelves the novel is sure to be a pleasurable read to those who love tales and fairy lore, and their possible and probable reference. This is especially for those who like the storyteller narrator, and the use of big words. For those who could easily see themselves in Victorian (or earlier) dress sitting near a fire with something covertly alcoholic and telling a story to the wee ones slouching not-so- primly-and-properly on the couch and floor. You would begin with this:

Chapter 1

Exeunt on a Leopard

In Which a Girl Named September Is Spirited Off by Means of a Leopard, Learns the Rules of Fairyland, and Solves a Puzzle.

Once upon a time, a girl named September grew very tired indeed of her parents’ house, where she washed the same pink-and-yellow teacups and matching gravy boats every day, slept on the same embroidered pillow, and played with the same small and amiable dog. Because she had been born in May, and because she had a mole on her left cheek, and because her feet were very large and ungainly, the green Wind took pity on her and flew to her window one evening just after her twelfth birthday. He was dressed in a green smoking jacket, and a green carriage-driver’s cloak, and green jodhpurs, and green snowshoes. It is very cold above the clouds in the shantytowns where the Six Winds live.

“You seem an ill-tempered and irascible enough child,” said the Green Wind. “How would you like to come away with me and ride upon the Leopard of Little Breezes and be delivered to the great sea, which borders fairyland? I am afraid I cannot go in, as Harsh Airs are not allowed, but I should be happy to deposit you upon the Perverse and Perilous Sea.”

“Oh, yes!” breathed September, who disapproved deeply of pink-and-yellow teacups and also of small and amiable dogs. (1-2)

The Girl who Circumnavigated will end quite beautifully as well, and by ending I do not mean the last two-paged chapter. Valente pulls the story together with an exhilarating flourish. I am conflicted by the desire to hear more, and the need for everything to remain as is.


“You’re not a changeling! There’s no poppet or goblin in your bed, taking your place at supper. There’s more than one way between your world and ours. There the changeling road, and there Ravishing, and there’s those that Stumble through a gap in the hedgerows or a mushroom ring or a tornado or a wardrobe full of winter coats.” (186)

Fairyland is necessarily a fantastical place. The narrator and September mind their observations with suitable wonder, and clever wit.

The sun hitched up her trousers and soldiered up into the sky. September squinted at it and wondered if the sun here was different than the sun in Nebraska. It seemed gentler, more golden, deeper. The shadows it cast seemed more profound. But September could not be sure. When one is traveling, everything looks brighter and lovelier. Thad does not mean it is brighter and lovelier; it just means that sweet kindly home suffers in comparison to tarted-up foreign places with all their jewels on. (50)

Fairyland is an adventure through stories, many familiar, but all woven spectacularly with Valente’s own needle. For all the references, this is Valente’s Fairyland, and one of her characters has been up to mischief.

“Before I came, Fairyland was a dangerous place, full of brownies spoiling milk and giants stomping on whomever they pleased and trolls telling awful punning riddles. I fixed all that, September. Do you have any idea how difficult it was to invent bureaucracy in a world that didn’t even know what a ledger was? To earn their submission, even to the point of having their wings locked down? But I did it. I fixed it for children like you, so that you could be safe here and have lovely adventures with no one troubling you and trying to steal your soul away.” (94)

Such may sound like it could come from any number of mouths, doesn’t it? But the above quote is attributed to the The Marquess.  The Marquess is a brilliantly rendered villainous, much more complicated than she seems (not that any character is left flat). And even as you might come to feel some sympathy for her (near the end), her hideous actions are hard to forget. What might appear at first to be a fun little jaunt of a story, to amuse and meander a bit, is actually a well-crafted vessel.* So if there are moments that might feel a bit sluggish or exhausted, do not leave this adventure unfinished. And if you are of some agreement with the above sentiments that Fairylands are a too dangerous for children, you mightn’t open this novel (even for yourself). There is peril and volumes of unpleasantries; and biting criticism. No world can be made safe and ordered without horrible sacrifice, whether in the getting or the having.

September does not have it easy. There are all these choices with consequences with which to struggle. She makes friends whom she comes to love and cannot envision abandoning (and neither can the reader). She is starving and has to eat a raw fish and the blood goes everywhere. September is a fascinating character, “ill-tempered and irascible”–importantly so, but oh, so much more.** September gets to experience the danger of Fairyland, yet not wholly as a cautionary tale. Like any world (our own and Neverland), a realm is capricious and subject to its own rules and rulers. Life is unfair, but you still have choices. You can navigate in a ship of their making, or one of your own.


*although I am a bit unsure about the Key bit. Its treatment reminded me a bit of Jodi Lynn Anderson’s Melancholy Kitty in the first of the May Bird trilogy, only not as good. Still it worked…

** September is (to our good fortune) not Alice or Dorothy or Wendy, more in line with Alexandra Morningside (of Adrienne Kress’ Alex and the Ironic Gentleman), very much like Mosca (of Frances Hardinge’s Fly By Night).

***The first image is from page 39,  Chapter IV: The Wyverary: In Which September Is Discovered by a Wyvern, Learns of a Most Distressing Law, and Thinks of Home (but Only Briefly). The image below is from page 144, Chapter XII: Thy Mother’s Sword: In Which September Enters the Worsted Wood, Loses All Her Hair, Meets Her Death, And Sings It to Sleep.

A link to the book’s site where you can preview some chapters. Valente’s website.

Illustrator Ana Juan’s site. (You may recall she did the beautiful cover of Margarita Engle’s The Firefly Letters.)

5 thoughts on “…in a Ship of Her Own Making

  1. Oh wow! You have read this book already? I have just won it and am anxiously awaiting its arrival. It sounds like it will a be a fantastic book for me, and most likely Elliana. I am seriously excited to read the story AND feast upon the illustrations.

    I will admit, I did not read your review this time because I am trying to stay clear from reviews of this book at the moment. I already know I want to read it so I don’t want any other influence right now. just answer me this, if you will, did you like it?
    Also, do you think this could be a good family read aloud? (with in mind my comment re:family read aloud that I made yesterday)

    By the way, once I am done reading this book, and writing up my thoughts, be assured, I will be back to read your thoughts.

  2. yes, I liked it very much. and I think it lends itself exceptionally well to a family read aloud. it does have those long sentences, fantastic words (a few I had to look up), and a very active storytelling narrator.

    you are a lucky girl to have won this one as it is certainly a ‘must-own.’ looking forward to your thoughts, and Elliana’s take on it, too.


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