Summer Reading: Catherynne M. Valente’s Fairyland Series
Welcome to Summer Reading 2017! I’ve written before about the glorious summers of my childhood, when I could devote long uninterrupted hours to burning through enormous Lord of the Ring-type sagas. I’ve also shared the cautionary tale of a dear friend whose parents made her put down her book and play outside, but I’m sure none of our readers could behave in so dastardly a fashion. (NOTE: I am not entirely against the outdoors and exercise and whatnot, but they made her put down her book. Things like that take years of therapy to get over.) With all that in mind, when Amy asked me to do some Summer Reading posts, I decided I wanted to focus on some of my favorite series for children and young people—but only series that have already come to a satisfactory end, as there’s nothing worse than being stuck with a cliffhanger while you wait for an author to hurry up and write, all the while worrying that before they finish they might die in some sort of freak word-processing accident.
I thought I’d start with my very favorite fantasy series. For decades, if you’d asked me what my favorite series was—the books I’d read over and over, the books I’d have to make sure my own kids read, my desert island books—I would have said the Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis. I was (and still am) a hardcore Narnia-head. As a child, I reread the series every summer. I wrote Narnia fanfiction (before ‘fanfiction’ was even a word). I love these books. (NOTE: I know that not everyone loves Narnia because of the Christian allegorical aspects. I completely understand that, but it’s not hampered my own love of the series because I was raised ‘unchurched’ and didn’t even notice that it was a Christian allegory until I was in my late teens or 20’s. I was <ahem> perhaps not the most observant of readers.) But now, if I had to pick one series to keep me company on a desert island, one series to pass along to my kids, I think I’d pick Catherynne Valente’s Fairyland books.
The Fairyland books, with one exception, are about September, a 12-year-old girl living in WWII-era Nebraska, with a mechanic mother who works in the aircraft factory and a father missing overseas, until—in the tradition of children who get lost in wardrobes and swept up by passing tornadoes—she catches a ride with the Green Wind and his Leopard. They drop her off in Fairyland, ruled by the evil Marquess, where September soon finds herself on a quest to defeat the Marquess and free her friends. These books are for all ages, beautifully written, with a heroine who relies on her bravery, her intelligence, and her friends to save the day. There is little that is black and white in Fairyland: even the villains have complicated histories of good intentions gone bad, and even the heroes can make poor choices under difficult circumstances. I’ve read these books both for my own enjoyment and as readalouds (which is particularly wonderful, as Valente has a gift with language and original phrasing) and I think they belong on every family’s bookshelf.
“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?”
In book one, September visits Fairyland for the first time and meets her soon-to-be-best friends: A-Through-L, a Wyverary, and Saturday, a Marid. (A marid is a type of ifrit or djinn, and a “Wyverary” is the offspring of a wyvern and a library. And honestly, if that isn’t enough to send you out to find this book immediately, I don’t even know what you’re doing hanging around these parts.) Both of her friends are held captive (one way or another) by the evil Marquess, ruler of Fairyland, and September must defeat her to save them.
In book two, September returns to Fairyland to find that its magic is being sucked away by Fairyland Below, ruled by Halloween, the Hollow Queen. September soon discovers that Halloween is her own shadow, left in Fairyland after her previous adventure, and when she reunites with her friends, A-Through-L and Saturday, she finds that they have shadows also.
In book three, September returns to Fairyland with her new sidekick, a 1925 Model A Ford, and discovers that she’s been named a criminal, specifically a “royal scofflaw, professional revolutionary, and criminal of the realm.” On a mission to the Fairyland’s Moon, she must defeat a mysterious moon-Yeti and figure out what actually happened to all of Fairyland’s missing fairies. Unlike the first two books, this one ends with something of a cliffhanger, but that’s okay because you can go straight to book four...
...which begins not with September, but with Hawthorn, a changeling who was born a troll in Fairyland before being spirited away to the human world. I was all set to be annoyed with Valente for swapping out September for another protagonist, but I immediately fell for Hawthorn, who, in an effort to act like a Normal child starts writing a rulebook of Normal behavior (e.g., “Knives and scissors are sharp, but different than swords, and you can only use them to fight cucumbers and onions and packages from the postman, not Ancient Enemies from Beyond Time,” followed by “There are no such things as Ancient Enemies from Beyond Time”). Plus he hangs out with the best wombat ever in the history of wombats. We catch up with September eventually and another cliffhanger leads us straight into the fifth and final book...
...where different teams, including September and her best friends (and Hawthorn with his friends) must compete in a Royal Race for the throne of Fairyland. And really, I don’t want to tell you anything more because you should go out and read these fabulous books for yourself. Happy Reading!