Excerpt from Best-selling YA Author Catherynne Valente: The Boy Who Lost Fairyland

photo of author Catherynne M. Valente
My latest obsession: Catherynne M. Valente

Catherynne M. Valente Is Today’s Lewis Carroll

Catherynne M. Valente is the next Lewis Carroll. Let me explain.

Over the years there have been endless sequels, spin-offs and reboots of Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass. Yet these seldom capture the magic of the original. My hunch is that what makes Alice in Wonderland so magical is that instead of writing a story populated by historical mythical creatures readers already know and love, Carroll created his own bestiary, based solely on the sparks of his own imagination. Playing cards and chess existed, but it was Carroll who decided to bring them to life on the page. The Cheshire Cat, the Rocking Horse Fly and the talking flowers aren’t just new characters, but whole new ideas. While Carroll didn’t invent the caterpillar, his indifferent hookah-smoker is unique to Wonderland. On every page there is something new that didn’t exist in anyone’s mind until Carroll thought it up.

Which is not to say a good yarn based around vampires, dragons, zombies, or other commonplace monsters can’t become a classic. But to stretch outside the bounds of the expected will result in a story that is fascinating no matter where it goes. This is what Catherynne M. Valente has accomplished with her Fairyland books. It doesn’t matter what the story is about, because I am completely captivated by the world she has created, eager to see what new thing she will invent on every page. Like Carroll, she even invents her own words.

The setting of Fairyland isn’t one she invented of course. Tales of girls being whisked to fairyland go back hundreds of years. But with a few examples I think you’ll see what I mean.

Our heroine September (terrific names aplenty) befriends a wyvern in the first Fairyland book, The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making. Wyverns aren’t Valente’s creation either, but this wyvern is of mixed parentage. While another writer might make him half lion or half human or even half eagle, Valente’s wyvern is half…wait for it…library. He is called A Through L, because he has read every book in the library through those letters and is an expert on any item in the library’s first half.

Everything in Fairyland is personified, to the extent that I wondered if Valente favors personification in her adult books too, or if this is a feature of Fairyland only. For example, the coat she is given by the Green Wind: “The sleeves were far too big, but the jacket had learned a drop or two of manners in its many travels and adjusted itself around September’s little body, puffing up and drawing in until it was quite like her own skin…The jacket warmed slightly with bashfulness and with hoping she’d be pleased.” The coat’s character is consistent throughout the novel, quietly eager to please, so that by the end of the novel I’ve grown quite attached to what, in another writer’s hands, would be simply an article of clothing.

Valente’s rich imagination isn’t the only reason to love Fairyland. Her protagonist is fearless and “half-heartless.” She is resourceful, and determined to do the right thing, even when that means breaking the rules or making a fuss. In short, she is exactly the kind of role model that mothers should want their little girls to look up to. September is a fine remedy to princesses who wait in towers for their princes to rescue them.

I could spend all day serving you examples of whimsy and humor from these books.¬†From page 93, “Some magic never bends, even if you tear at it with your own teeth.” From page 138, “But it’s their wedding night!” protested September. “Surely they would like to retire with milk and a nice book!” These are random examples found from flipping through the first book. (I normally mark my favorite passages as I read, but was not able to in this case.) But rather than regaling you with further quotes, I’ve brought you an excerpt from the latest book in the series, The Boy Who Lost Fairyland.

I confess I haven’t read it yet, because I’m still reading through book three. Let me know what you think!

EXCERPT: The Boy Who Lost Fairyland Chapter 1

This is a link to the excerpt. Click to open, or right-click, choose "save as" to save

If you enjoyed that excerpt, it comes from the fourth of five books in the series, which just came out last month. Below are all the books (so far) in order, just as wild and imaginative as their ridiculous titles suggest (click on the image to be taken to the book). Valente has also published a number of books for adults, including Palimpsest, a story unrelated except for the fact that one of the characters, as a child, used to read a book called The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making. The latter title was crowdfunded by the author, and became the first crowdfunded book to win a major literary award (she is now published by a division of MacMillian).

Book 1 in Catherynne Valente's Fairyland series Book two in Catherynne Valente's Fairyland series Book three in Catherynne Valente's Fairyland series Book four of five in the Fairyland series, and the one this excerpt is from.