Well devil if I know what to do with it.
Never complain that you are bored, ladies and gentlemen. Say such a thing and you might find that the universe has a couple tricks up its sleeve. Let's say, for example, that a certain children's librarian was getting bored with the state of fantasy today. Maybe she read too many Narnia rip-offs where a group of siblings get plunged into an alternate world to defeat a big bad blah blah blah. Maybe she read too many quest novels where plucky young girls have to save their brothers/friends/housepets. So what does the universe do? Does it say, "Maybe you should try something other than fantasy for a change"? It does not. Instead it hands the children's librarian a book with a title like "The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making" and (if she hasn't hyperventilated after reading the title) says to her, "Here you go, smart guy. Try this on for size." That's what being cocky will get you. It'll have you reading a book that walks up to the usual middle grade chapter book fantasy tropes and slaps 'em right smack dab in the face. I have never, in all my livelong days, read a book quite like Catherynne Valente's. My job now is to figure out whether that is a good thing, or very very bad.
When September is asked by The Green Wind whether or not she'd be inclined to take a trip to Fairyland with him, she's so excited to get going that she manages to lose a shoe in the process. Like many a good reader September is inclined to think that she knows the rules of alternate worlds. Yet it doesn't take much time before she realizes that not all things are well in the realm of magic. A strange Marquess has taken over, having defeated the previous good ruler, and before she knows it September is sent to try to retrieve a spoon from the all powerful villain. Along the way she befriends a Wyvern who is certain that his father was a library, and a strange blue Marid boy named Saturday who can grant you a wish, but only if you defeat him in a fight. With their help, Saturday realizes what it means to lose your heart within the process of becoming less heartless.
Divisive. Each year you'll encounter one big children's book that can be labeled as such. Certain books and certain writers can have violent affects on their readers, unsuspected until the official reviews start pouring in. Then suddenly folks with opinions start pouring out of the woodwork. The books are as varied as "Mockingbird", "The Underneath", "The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane" or "The Boy in the Striped Pajamas". One thing's for certain, though. Everyone has an opinion. This year I've only identified two potentially divisive books and one of them is the title you see before you today. I know I've been a little cagey about what I thought of it until now so here's the 411: I like it. A lot. Far more than I thought that I would, particularly after that first chapter. As far as I can determine, enjoying this book means getting through Chapter One. If you read the first chapter and find yourself throwing the book against the wall without restraint, this may not be the story for you. If, however, you feel a vague queasiness that manifests resolves into reluctant curiosity, you may wish to continue. And if you do, you will find a title that really outdoes itself in being . . . well . . . it's own very one-of-a-kind self.
But why is it divisive? It all comes down to Valente's language. Look, here's the first sentence as an example: "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." About ten words into that sentence you had to make a decision on whether or not to continue reading. Here's some advice on going through this book. Step One: Get a grasp on its internal logic.
The "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland" comparison is inevitable. Generally speaking, a person is able to identify a poor debut children's book when the author attempts to make an Alice-in-Wonderland-but-with-a-twist book. The problem with this plan is that just as no band sounds quite like The Beatles, no children's novel ever sounds quite like "Alice". They try, oh Lord they try, but no go. More often than not such books are instead tedious and very poorly done. Most of them think that the lure of "Alice" is strange talking creatures in a world with no rules. This is somewhat true, but it's only a piece of the puzzle. And in all my days as a children's librarian, reading fantasy after fantasy, I have NEVER encountered a book that came as close to "Alice" as this. Not because Valente also throws a girl into a fairyland with kooky characters, but because it is so infinitely clear that she loves to play with language. Logic isn't as twisted up as it is in Carroll's universe, but that's all right. Valente is comfortable weaving her own unique vision, and like Carroll she's not afraid to throw in a little joke for adults once in a while. Would a kid get anything out of reading that the Green Wind possesses a "golden ring of diplomatic immunity"? Probably not and they probably won't care when Saturday enters a delicious looking town that, "was as though the witch who built the gingerbread house in the story had a great number of friends and decided to start up a collective." But it won't hurt the reading experience either.
Of course September is far more active than Alice when seeking out her adventure. In fact, if I were to compare her to any famous children's literary character, she probably bears more in common with Milo from "The Phantom Tollbooth" than anyone else. That was my first thought. Then after a while I decided that September begins as Alice (after all, she lies right at the start about wanting to go home), morphs into Dorothy (girl + faithful companions to defeat the big bad villain), and comes to us by way of Milo (boredom as a storytelling impetus). That's a pretty pedigree. On top of that, this is a thoroughly American fantasy. One where you won't encounter random characters with cockney accents (a current pet peeve of mine). September hails from Omaha, Nebraska and the story seems to take place during WWII. Her father is stationed in Europe while her mother works in the factories at home. Many fantasies for kids eschew placing their stories in such distinctive time periods, but if it worked for Narnia it should work here too.
And Valente gets personalities down rather well too. I heard one complaint that the Marid named Saturday is hardly a fleshed out character. I might contest this, though, since I found him capable of many small touches that rang clear and true to me. For example, at one point he makes a point that is followed up with the notation, "He was still too shy to suggest anything without wrapping it up tight to keep it safe." Likewise the villain of this book is delicious. It takes a while to get a good grasp on the Marquess, but once you get her full backstory then there's a lot to admire here. A mere two-dimensional villain she is not, and for that I was grateful.
Ana Juan, brilliant Ana Juan, could not have been a better person to draw the interstitial illustrations that appear at the beginnings of each and every chapter. This Spanish illustrator specializes in dreamlike worlds on her own time ("The Night Eater" is a perfect example) so it is interesting to see what she does with a book like Valente's. To my surprise, she hones in her talents a bit. The pictures here are most definitely her own, but there's a tendency here to make them a little younger and clearer than I'm used to seeing. There's a darkness to Valente's story that does not replicate itself in the pictures, which is probably a good thing. After all, Quentin Blake's illustrations have always served to make Roald Dahl less frightening at times. Maybe Juan's are doing the same thing here.
In the end, it's all about the language and the inevitable question of whether or not kids will dig the book. It's a worthy question. When a character is sent to a fairyland, even one in dire straits, it is up to the author to make it clear that this is a place you would want to visit. Some fantasies go a shade too dark and because of this inclination do not become beloved by children. Valente, however, mixes some wonderful elements with some horrific ones well enough that I think this book could be fondly remembered by a child years and years later. And when they return to it as adults, how surprised they will be by the wordplay. I won't lie. Some folks do NOT like this book, and I can understand why that is. For me, though, this is just one of the smarter juxtapositions of the fantastical with the tongue-twisted. Here you have an author who clearly enjoys writing. And if that enjoyment seeps through the page and into the reader's perceptions, then here is a book that they'll clearly enjoy reading. A true original and like nothing you've really ever seen before.
For ages 9-12.