It’s been one of 2011’s most talked-about children’s novels, Catherynne M. Valente’s The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making. First published online, it was then published by Feiwel and Friends in May 2011 with illustrations by Ana Juan.
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The book tells the story of 12-year-old September, who is whisked away to Fairyland by a Green Wind. September’s help is needed in Fairyland, as the new Marquess, close in age to September, is capricious and stubborn. September must retrieve a talisman the Marquess wants from the enchanted woods, and she sets out to do so with the help of some new friends, including a Wyvern and a boy named Saturday.
For this abbreviated Q&A with Valente, I was joined by two friends and fellow children's-list aficionados, Kate Pritchard and Shannon Stanton.
What were your first few ingredients when brewing this book?
Fairyland began as a book-within-a-book in my adult novel Palimpsest. It was the protagonist’s favorite book when she was a child. I wrote the first paragraph, which remains intact, and then a little more [the rules of Fairyland, etc.] for the ARG we created for the novel. I wanted to hint at a book full of strange imagery and nonstandard thoughts about life and childhood. But it started simply—a little girl and a psychopomp and a magical land for her to escape to. And as my man Tolkien says, the tale grew in the telling.
In creating Fairyland, you use some elements from familiar fairy tales (the warning against eating fairy food, the fairies' aversion to iron) and, of course, plenty of new elements of your own devising (the velocipedes, the clocks, etc.). Which traditional fairy tale elements did you particularly want to keep, and why?
I wanted to keep the resonances with the Persephone myth—so many portal fantasies unconsciously follow that model of the descent into the underworld/fairyland and the return. It is a foundational myth that I wanted to bring to the fore. I wanted to combine folkloric ideas and mythological ideas, the little and the big. I wanted a wicked queen and an animal companion and possibly a magical sword—but I didn’t want any of those things to be clichés, to be received images uncritiqued or deconstructed.
Practically everything in Fairyland takes some aspect of fairy or folktales head on and challenges it.
How and at what point did you decide to use a Victorian style, descriptive chapter headings, Alice-esque quest, etc.?
Oh, from the very beginning. Hence the long, long title.
In the context of Palimpsest, Fairyland was meant to be a pastiche of a certain kind of children’s literature from the late 19th and early 20th centuries, so it always had those arch asides…and surreally witty characters. Although I hardly think a quest is quintessentially Victorian! In fact, I think of Alice as a pure explorer. She doesn’t really have a quest, except to become Queen in the second book. But she’s not a Campbellian hero—she is, in fact, much more like Inanna, heading into the underworld, meeting a terrifying female ?gure there [the Queen of Hearts or the Red Queen] and coming back out again…I love that style, of the old-school children’s classics. I see no reason to think of it as trunked because trends have moved on—on the contrary, I want to use that beautiful, elegant, witty style to tell a story with modern sensibilities.
It seems that you made nods to Alice, Oz, Macbeth, A Wrinkle in Time and the Golem. What were other literary sources of inspiration for this book? And did you get inspiration from Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens?
Some of Barrie’s tone and arch asides were defnite inspirations, and Narnia, especially the ending of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, which always troubled me, was often on my mind. Traditional fairy tales not just from the West but Japan and elsewhere as well and folklore continue to be my biggest sources of inspiration, and there [are] a few jokes about Plato, Milton, my graduate program and John Dee in there as well.
Whenever I write a book, all my current and past obsessions jostle to get in there—Fairyland is packed.
What was it like to see Ana Juan’s illustration work on this book?
When I first saw it, I was blown away. It’s nothing like what I imagined and yet utterly perfect. It reminds me of a combination of Frida Kahlo and John Tenniel. I could not imagine a more perfect artist for this book, and whenever I see a new illustration it’s a total joy.
Julie Danielson (Jules) has, in her own words, conducted approximately eleventy billion interviews and features of authors and illustrators at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast, a children's literature blog focused primarily on illustration and picture books.
The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making. Copyright © 2011 by Catherynne M. Valente. Illustrations copyright 2011 Ana Juan. Published by Feiwel and Friends, New York. Images reproduced by permission of publisher.