Middle Grade Mondays: Circumnavigating Fairyland with Catherine Valente

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HU4q8dpKhDY&w=480&h=360]

Once upon a time, a girl named September grew very tired 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…

Thus begins September’s adventures, whisked away by the Green Wind upon the Leopard of Little Breezes to Fairyland, because she seemed to him an “ill-tempered and irascible child,” where she makes new friends with a Wyverary (a dragon-like creature that is a cross between a Wyvern and a library) named “A-through-L” who travels with her to the fairy city. There she meets the Marquess, Fairylands young dictator, who threatens her and her Wyverary unless she retrieves a “sword” from the Autumn Forest that (for reasons I won’t give away here) only September may retrieve.

A lovely read-aloud book for parents, it has the tone and feeling of a classic fairytale, but with the modern imaginative twist of the author. What I enjoyed about this book is that it reads like a middle grade book (there’s a narrator), the character is a middle grade character, and the plot is a middle grade plot (i.e. one clear adventure, no subplot) but the language is so rich and the writing so lyrical that it never condescends. It’s rare that I’m drawn to read passages in a middle grade book multiple times just to feast on the language. There’s a Phantom Tollbooth quality of word-play in the story, as well, and no shortage of interesting vocabulary.

I am in awe of Valente’s creativity. Her world seems to grow without effort, strangely and surprisingly, but never randomly. Some authors seem to pile on the fey just to put something in their protagonist’s way. Valente’s creatures grow authentically, originally, from someone who in my estimation was born to be a writer. And judging by her education an experience, she’s been steeped in myths and folklore for some time. She probably oozes it from her pores and I’m quite jealous.

Now, this is the kind of story where the protagonist is battered about by the fates and is sometimes not the instigator of her own rescue. It falls into the “non-believable” side of middle grade literature. That would normally not be to my taste, but here Valente has gotten me, and I can’t help but be tickled by her humour and drawn to her world.

“Tell me the rules,” Said September firmly. Her mother had taught her chess when she was quite small, and she felt that if she could remember which way knights ought to go, she could certainly remember Fairy Rules.

“First, no iron of any kind is allowed. Customs is quite strict on this point. Any bullets, knives, maces, or jacks you might have on your person will be confiscated and smelted. Second, the practice of alchemy is forbidden to all except young ladies born on Tuesdays –“

“I was born on a Tuesday!”

“It is certainly possible that I knew that,” the Green Wind said with a wink. “Third, aviary locomotion is permitted only by means of Leopard or licensed Ragwort Stalk. If you find yourself not in possession of one of these things, please confine yourself to the ground. Fourth, all traffic travels widdershins. Fifth, rubbish takeaway occurs on second Fridays. Sixth, all changelings must wear identifying footwear. Seventh, and most important, you may in no fashion cross the borders of the Worsted Wood, or you will either perish most painfully or be forced to sit through a very tedious tea service with several spinster hamadryads.”

And, of course, all these rules are addressed within the story…

I wish this book had been around when I was a child, so I would have had the luxury to read it again and again, becoming part of me like the other books I entered over and over when I was young and impressionable.


  1. Barbara Watson
    Aug 27, 2012

    I’ve heard great things about this one, but I absolutely love the way you describe it as a read aloud. Although my daughter is twelve, we still always have a book we’re reading together. I find it’s such a neat way to connect, and often our discussions springboard from what we’ve read. This is one we’d enjoy together.

    • I’m sure you’d enjoy this one together. I wish someone would read it aloud to me. I think, in particular, because there is a narrator. I’m not very often drawn to books with narrators, but hers is funny and has a voice of her own.

  2. Book Sake (@booksake)
    Aug 27, 2012

    So many people have loved this one, but I had a hard time getting through it. I think it’s due to the lyrical style of writing – my eyes just started to glaze over it all. I can certainly respect it for it’s beauty though!

    – Jessica @ Book Sake

    • Hi, Jessica. I’ve had that same experience of not enjoying a book so many others have raved about. Even when recognizing the author’s talent. We don’t always connect with the same things.

  3. Pamela Thomson Torres
    Aug 27, 2012

    This definitely sounds like one I would love. I’d heard of it but now I believe I will be moving it up on my TBR list! Thanks for reviewing it.

  4. Akoss
    Aug 27, 2012

    I bought this not long ago. I can’t wait to read it. I just wish I could skip books in my tbr pile. But I’m such a linear reader. lol
    Great feature by the way. I’ve read nothing but good stuff about this book.

    • The other day I said to a librarian “I’m behind on my reading.” And then I laughed. Is anyone ever caught up in their reading? What does that even mean? lol. I’m like you – I have a tbr list, and I can only read one at a time.

  5. Joanne Fritz
    Aug 27, 2012

    Haven’t read this one yet, Danika. But I jumped at the thought that the wordplay is reminiscent of Phantom Tollbooth! That’s one of my all-time favorites.

    • I would say the wordplay isn’t quite on the same level as PT, but definitely there. Clever and imaginative.

  6. Jess Haight
    Aug 27, 2012

    I have been captivated by this cover. I loved this review because it made me want to pick up this book. I am a big fan of fairy tales and this sounds right up my alley. I can’t wait to read it!!

  7. Deb Marshall
    Aug 27, 2012

    I am picking this one up as I have the ARC of the second. Must say I am looking forward to reading, esp. after your thoughts on it!

  8. Coreena
    Aug 29, 2012

    I read this one a little while ago. I love the way you describe it – perfect!

  9. Esther Jones
    Aug 29, 2012

    This sounds like the kind of children’s lit I love. Adding to my Goodreads. 🙂


  1. Middle Grade Monday: Best of 2012 | writing to support my teaching habit - [...] A close second was Catherine Valente’s THE GIRL WHO CIRCUMNAVIGATED FAIRYWORLD IN A SHIP OF HER OWN MAKING. If…

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