You may possibly remember that I’ve mentioned Catherynne M. Valente‘s Fairyland series several times. I may have sounded a little nervous about approaching the actual process of really putting words on the page to actually talk about the books, though. There are a few reasons for that: a) I usually try to keep these posts below 1500 words, definitely below 2000, and talking about a series of five jam-packed novels is a little ambitious for a concise blog post; b) I love all of the books I write about here, but the ones I really love the most are usually picture books from my childhood. In other words, the type of love is nostalgia and sweetness, not a raw, bleeding heart whispering, “Yes, someone gets it! That’s just what that’s like.” The closest I’ve come to that here is when I talked about The Fox and the Star, which I discovered at much the same time as Fairyland. But it occurs to me that there’s real value in talking about the raw, bleeding love books as well as the nostalgic, sweet love books. Maybe someone else will find them and whisper, “Yes, someone gets it!” That would make me happy. So here goes.
As I said, there are five books in the Fairyland series: The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making, The Girl Who Fell Beneath Fairyland and Led the Revels There, The Girl Who Soared Over Fairyland and Cut The Moon in Two, The Boy Who Lost Fairyland, and The Girl Who Raced Fairyland All the Way Home.
Let me start by pointing out a few things. First, if there are any books I’m just hanging around waiting for the Changeling to read when she’s older, these are those books. I can’t wait to talk about them with her. Second, the blog-name “Changeling” for my daughter comes from these books (more on that later). Third, I want to be best friends with September, the “girl” who’s running through these books. That’s not really relevant to anything; I just felt the need to note that right up front.
But maybe you want to know more about September. September is a girl from Omaha whose father is away at war and her mother’s at work. The atmosphere running through September’s Omaha isn’t unlike Neil Gaiman’s Stardust: it’s just old enough to be a little archaic without being alien. But then one day the Green Wind shows up at the window and invites September to Fairyland. She leaves with him on the Leopard of Little Breezes and that’s the beginning of her adventures, including finding her friends Saturday (a Marid) and A-Through-L (a wyvern, and possibly my favourite character). Except, of course, that the adventures she has are all on account of September and who she is, not on account of being a kid plonked into Fairyland. And yet, without Fairyland there would be no adventures. And that’s the fine line on which all the books are balanced: we need Fairyland, but we are who we are with or without it.
Now, what are these adventures? Well, here’s where I find myself in a muddle. I don’t normally mind spoiling the hell out of books over here. They’re picture books, or old books, or some kind of book that doesn’t mind being talked about up and down the block. But these books you really need to read. That said, I can tell you a few things. First and foremost, what’s central to these books is something very traditional in all fairy tales: the Quest. Each book is centred around some form of questing. Either September is on a Quest for an object (the first book), or a mission of some kind (the next two books), or, in the fourth book, the Quest is someone else’s job (but ultimately leads us back to September), or, in the fifth book, it’s a good old-fashioned race… always, always, there’s the Quest. There are even discussions of Questing Physicks. In modern terms it’s really a job to be done, but Cat Valente and Fairyland know the rules, and so does September: there are patterns to a Quest. You can’t just saunter over and clock in at the beginning of a day, do your 9-5 hours, then clock out. A Quest has to be treated with respect and seen through according to traditional rules.
“How dull,” you think, “it’s just another retelling of a fairy tale, then. I may as well pick up The Sword in the Stone and be done with it.” Well, I’d reply, I do hope you will pick up The Sword in the Stone because that’s an excellent book, but don’t write off Fairyland just because I’ve done it a disservice and made you believe it’s just a rote rehashing of fairy tale rules. First of all, I don’t think there can be such a thing as a rote retelling: fairy tales are too tricky for that; you may try to tell the story in a straightforward way, but it will always run slyly around you and turn things upside-down… just ask The Sword in the Stone. Second, Cat Valente’s particular genius is taking the traditional fairy tale format and using it faithfully, generously, kindly, lovingly, and in a completely original, fresh way. No one has done what Cat Valente has done. These characters are new (A-Through-L? I love you.), and the way they respond to the rules are new. More than that, at the heart and soul of all of these factors, there’s no narrator like Fairyland‘s narrator. If you don’t read the books for any other reason, read them to make the acquaintance of the narrator.
Who is this narrator? People like to use words like “intrusive” and “unreliable” for narrators who show the slightest sign of personality. I’ve heard things about Jane Austen’s narrators which would put a basilisk to shame when it comes to words like “venomous” or “murderous,” and it’s always seemed unfair to me. People like her narrative voice, don’t they? So what’s wrong with a little humanity? Besides, “intrusive” and “unreliable” are such mean words. Fairyland‘s narrator isn’t unkind. A little teasing, perhaps (be warned: the narrator has a terrible habit of interrupting particularly exciting moments for a nice chat with you), but even the teasing shows love for the characters and their various plights.
Remember when I talked about the raw and bleeding heart? That was an actual reference to the books. The narrator cares a lot about hearts, about growing a caring, loving, and generous heart; a heart which can feel compassion is important to September, important to the narrator, important to the story Cat Valente is telling. And if you have a compassionate, caring heart, a heart which feels things deeply– as I’m sure you do– then you’re going to feel like you’ve found your home wherever September and her friends are, whether Fairyland, Fairyland Below, the Moon over Fairyland… or in Omaha or Chicago. Welcome, we’re all caring people, we’re all tormented by love and fear and turmoil, we’re all at home and never at home: “No one belongs when they are new to this world. All children are Changelings” (The Girl Who Raced Fairyland All the Way Home, p. 85). (I told you I’d come back to Changelings.) If you ever feel caught between worlds, or like you haven’t found your world, or like you long for adventure but need the comfort of love and friendship, you’ll feel that you’ve found a home in these books.
But here’s the thing: doesn’t that sound like something which could be said of any realist novel? “You can relate to the characters and feel like they relate to you,” I’m telling you. “They feel anxiety and homesickness and all the vulnerability of growing up and developing meaningful relationships.” Judy Blume does the same things. Hell, so does Jane Austen! Well, yes, that’s what I’m telling you. The scenery moves back and forth between Fairyland, Omaha, and Chicago, but people are people no matter where they are, as Cat Valente’s narrator will remind you. You don’t have to be a fantasy or fairy tale fan to read these books; caring about people is quite enough.
That said, as I said above, these books really are deeply rooted in fairy tale tradition. If you love Fairyland already then you’re going to have a lot of fun meeting your old friends (and plenty of new ones) here: wyverns and fairies and, oh yes, a Dodo named Aubergine. If you’re new to fairy tales then you’ll learn the rules fast enough; if they’re familiar then you’ll still find a lot that’s new in your old haunts. And, more than that, being rooted in tradition gives Cat Valente a lot of material to use as she explores questions like “what do I want to be when I grow up?” Well, she ponders, how did the Sibyl choose her job? See what I mean by originality rooted in the traditional? You can’t get much older than a Sibyl, but don’t you want to know what you want to be when you grow up, what your place in this world might be? I know I do.
These are the questions Cat Valente exposes in September’s raw young heart, and, no matter how old you are, I think you’ll find them in your own heart as you read. Some advice, though: don’t rush these books. Read them when it’s a little quiet around you, when you have some time to think. Read them when you need a friend, or want to talk earnestly with someone. The narrator will listen to you and give you something to think about. You’ll feel better. And, through the narrator, you’ll make a friend in September. You can ask the narrator to tell her that you’re glad you found her; I think she’ll be happy about that.
I’ll add one last thing: my Changeling might be too young for these books yet, but we do have an A-Through-L, a red Wyverary we got at the toy store. When we want to go on an adventure, my daughter always wants to bring Ell with us because “Ell likes adventures.”
And, Cat Valente? Congratulations on this series. I’m so glad I found these books. They’ve added something to my life and to my library (A-through-L and beyond), and I can’t say more than that.