#CBR6 Review #4 – The Girl Who Fell Beneath Fariyland and Led the Revels There
Profile: Children’s Literature, Fantasy, Fairyland
After Action Report:
Catherynne M. Valente is a sleeper nod for the title of my favorite author. She combines the vocabulary of China Meiville with the storytelling sensibilities of Neil Gaiman and Philip Pulman’s eye for children’s adventure. And in my previous review of her Fairyland series, I compared her favorably to L. Frank Baum, C. S. Lewis and Lewis Carol. But what I think most impresses me about her work is the credit she gives her young readers. The Girl Who Fell Beneath Fairyland is a much darker work than its prequel and deals with the consequences of actions and taking responsibility. Somehow, Valente is able to approach these topics with seriousness in an absurd world, and more impressively, never comes off as preachy.
The Girl Who Fell Beneath Fairyland and Led the Revels There picks up a year after September’s departure from Fairyland in The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland. We gloss quickly over some of the mundane events of her life in Nebraska during World War II before flying off to Fairyland again. This time the trip is colored more by the events of the real world. Magic is being rationed and the wonder of the place is starting to evaporate. September discovers that she is indirectly responsible for the problems, as it is her own shadow who is siphoning off both the shadows and magic of Fairyland to fuel the glorious revels of Fairyland Below. Feeling responsible for this turn of events, September sets off to put things to rights, even though she doesn’t really know how.
Just as The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland drew on classic fairytales to inspire its genre-savvy story, The Girl Who Fell Beneath Fairyland spins its story from the epic poems of the Greeks and Romans. It is a story of the decent to the underworld, fraught with danger, darkness and more than a little uncertainty. It is a quest, rather than a journey of exploration and self-discovery, and September must face the consequences of her actions to repair the damage she caused.
Valente infuses this darker story with elements out of Jason and the Argonauts, The Odyssey and Theseus and the Minotaur as well as some of the darker elements of European folklore, all of which give the book a much more menacing flavor. At the same time, September has a safety net of friends and companions who act to ensure the reader that while the danger is real, things are never as bad as they seem. I give Valente a lot of credit for writing a story for younger reader that still has high stakes and real tension. It is these touches that make the books compelling, because Valente isn’t trying to dumb things down, either in the depictions of danger or the lessons that September must learn along the way. Instead, she uses simple and straightforward language to paint a picture of the way things ought to be, while still acknowledging the imperfections of reality.
Perhaps the best example of this comes not from The Girl Who Fell Beneath Fairyland, but from the chapter preview for the next book in the series. In a brilliant balancing act, Valente’s narrator gently chides September’s need to lie about her adventures in Fairyland, while constructing a logical argument on why lying is an undesirable thing. But she never points fingers. It is a realistic life lesson, rather than an absolute moral. These little filaments of grey, inserted in a story that would have been black and white in the hands of a less honest author, are what keeps me coming back.
Having said all that, if I had to pick out a problem it might be that September seems slightly too competent this time around. It doesn’t feel as if she has to work as hard for her victories, and there is a sense of inevitability to the quest storyline that undermines her strongest traits of perseverance and curiosity. Another minor problem is the return of a character (whom I cannot reveal for spoiler purposes) that feels extremely out of place, and perhaps motivated by a desire to please fans rather than a real narrative need.
I’ve reviewed a number of ‘children’s books’ for the Cannonball Reads now, and if you browse them, I think you’ll find that my overriding criterion is the treatment of the reader as someone who is intelligent and capable of reason. Whether it is like Valente’s tongue-in-cheek narration, or Miyuki Miyabe’s considered treatment of sad subjects, I think that children’s literature should aim higher and expect more from its readership. In my limited experience as a teacher and coach, I’ve found that kids (and teens) have phenomenal capacity if you just give them a task and believe they can excel, rather than trying to dumb down the lesson to what you know they can accomplish. Valente does just this, and I’ll keep reading as long as she does.