Big Idea

The Big Idea: Catherynne M. Valente

Hey, I have an idea: Let’s talk about another fantastic book that came out this week! Specifically, let’s talk about The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making, by Catherynne M. Valente. I could tell you how I feel on a personal level that this is one of the most genuinely magical young adult novels I’ve seen in a while, and how I’d put it up there with The Neverending Story, which is one of my favorite books of this type. Or I could how it’s been garnering tremendous reviews (including a coveted starred review in Publishers Weekly), or I could note that even before the book was conventionally published, it had won the Andre Norton Award for Young Adult Science Fiction and Fantasy.

But then I remembered that in this case, you’re not here for me, you’re here for Cat, to hear her explain her book’s big idea. It has one, and in this case, it involves a very small word.


The biggest idea in The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland, the one that sits at the center of the book like a seed, is saying yes.

I’ve talked a lot about how this book came to be written–what was once a book-within-a-book in Palimpsest became a crowdfunded online serial novel became an Andre Norton Award winner became a print series published by Feiwel and Friends. It’s a great story, but it’s a story about the book, not the story of the book.

The literary purpose of including that little fragment of Fairyland in my novel Palimpsest, of dredging up the protagonist’s favorite childhood novel and creating a new one rather than just making her an Alice in Wonderland fan or a Wrinkle in Time enthusiast, was to talk about saying yes. It’s what November took from that book as a child, to always say yes to adventure and magic and things that seem strange or outlandish. And in our culture, we simply don’t have too many narratives hauling that line.

After all, saying yes is dangerous. It is frightening and unsafe. You never know what might happen. Saying no means nothing has to change, and the outside world can be kept outside.

A portal fantasy goes: a child (or adult, Farscape is also a portal fantasy, though still one about coming of age) discovers or stumbles into a magical world. He or she, while frantic to get home, ends up coming to love the magical world and saving it, often from its own worst impulses or native tyrants.

And the thing is, if at any point in my life, including this one, I found my way into another world, my first impulse would not be to reject it and seek a way home. It would not be, like Buffy, to elevate “ a normal life” beyond all other sources of power and awe. I just don’t know how to tell that story. It doesn’t interest me. As a child, I wanted magic, desperately. I would have given anything for a door to open in a wood and let me out of my life. I never understood the need to end the dream and get home–perhaps because I never understood “home” as a metaphor for “safe.” Not all homes are safe. Not all places of safety are home-like. But I would have run wild through a magical kingdom and never looked back. Talking animals? Yes. Witches and monsters? Yes. Dark queens? Absolutely. Give it right here. I would have said yes to all of it.

There are exceptions, of course. Portal fantasy is enormously popular. The film version of The Wizard of Oz, for example, is an exemplar of this mode, but the later books are altogether stranger and more interesting. But the film is what seizes our culture’s mind–because in it Dorothy would always choose our life over the Technicolor alternative. It butters us up, tells us that our lives are the better lives. Our world and the minutiae of it better than the most beautiful dream. It teaches us to say: no, thank you. Part of the reason fantasy is so reviled, I think, is because it gives us this idea that the world is more than what we’re given, that it can be anything, that the rough material of work and hard going is not the whole substance of this universe. Dreamers don’t make good workers. So you teach them that no matter how miserable, what they’ve got is the best, and the Other is terror and lies.

Well, to be bold, fuck that.

If I was going to write a portal fantasy, if I was going to get my Joe Campbell on and ship a kid to Awesomeland to do deeds of derring, I wasn’t going to roll like that. Especially since I was going to be sending a girl. Too often in books like this, (especially in the classics of the genre) girls are acted upon, rather than actors, their choices are few, reflecting the real world, where a girl’s power is often located purely in her ability to say no: to suitors, to her social inferiors, even to herself. I wanted my girl to choose, to find power in saying yes, to make her own story–and of course her own ship.

Yet September, the heroine of Fairyland, is not particularly “badass.” She’s a kid who doesn’t know who she is yet, as most of us don’t at 12 years old. But she knows what she wants, which is everything wild and magic. In many ways, what Fairyland and Palimpsest are both about is want and the satisfaction of it. Palimpsest is the very adult version. Fairyland is a more universal story, younger, more playful and innocent, but no less canny and feral. September is strong and loyal, and embraces everything she finds, even when it hurts her to do it. Her story is not even particularly about saving Fairyland. If the Marquess’s scheming managed its goal, Fairyland itself would go on. Without spoiling the end, what September saves is the possibility of saying yes, for herself and everyone else.

I wrote a book about a girl who never said no. When she first enters Fairyland, it isn’t because she falls through a hole in the earth or wanders through a closet or chases a rabbit. It’s a choice, and however dark her journey becomes, she never wishes to take it back. The Green Wind shows up at her door riding a flying leopard and asks if she wants to go. If she wants more than she’s been given. If she wants to leave this world and grasp for another, a mad and gorgeous place, sight unseen, results uncertain.

And she says yes.


The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Read an excerpt of the novel. See the book trailer. Visit Valente’s blog. Follow her on Twitter.

By John Scalzi

I enjoy pie.

24 replies on “The Big Idea: Catherynne M. Valente”


I am so psyched for her! Deathless just came out and I’m readin git and it’s awesome. Now this is out and I’ma read it because it’s awesome. She’s getting the mad props she deserves from you, Scalzi, and Boingboing and other places and this makes me very happy.

Cat’s awesome! Everything’s awesome!

If the book is half as well written as this excellent, inspiring post, it’ll be cheap at twice the price! I particularly like this bit:

“Too often in books like this, (especially in the classics of the genre) girls are acted upon, rather than actors, their choices are few, reflecting the real world, where a girl’s power is often located purely in her ability to say no: to suitors, to her social inferiors, even to herself. I wanted my girl to choose, to find power in saying yes, to make her own story–and of course her own ship.”

And for fans of Catherynne M. Valente, I will note that she – along with Carrie Vaughn – will be Guests of Honor at Capclave in the DC area this October (the same wonderful con that will have as Guest of Honor in 2012 a certain Mr Scalzi.)

But wait! There’s more! Capclave will be publishing an original limited edition novella by Catherynne. Details at .

Y’all come!

“The Green Wind shows up at her door riding a flying leopard and asks if she wants to go. “

This admirably describes the effect on me of almost everything you write.

I work in a school with an admirably fantasy-friendly librarian, and have strongly recommended that he installs a big old heart-high cat-flap in his door, any time just around now.

Sweet Jesus, the title alone makes me want to buy this book… and as a women’s studies major in a previous life before becoming a lawyer, who is this Cat person and how do I buy her a beer so we can discuss shit? For me, this was the best “Big Idea” yet. Thanks Scalzi! I don’t know you, Cat, but you *rock*.

A great Big Idea piece!

“If I was going to write a portal fantasy, if I was going to get my Joe Campbell on and ship a kid to Awesomeland to do deeds of derring, I wasn’t going to roll like that.”

That sentence made me smile!

Thanks Scalzi, for once again bringing another writer to my attention–a writer that I should have found on my own, but didn’t. I will rectify that error quite soon!

A fascinating essay, especially on the power of ‘yes’ – but for women specifically, there is very much a positive power in the ability and strength to say ‘no’ as well. So often we are expected to be sweet, deferring, compliant – agreeable. If we DON’T agree, or stand up for ourselves, we’re still often seen at best as prickly or opinionated and at worst as uppity bitches who don’t know our place. Too often we say ‘yes’ when we really want to say ‘no’. That can go for men as well, of course (though they aren’t usually disrespected for being assertive) – I’ve known a few doormats of both genders.

Thanks for making me think about it, Cat. Best of luck with your new book, it sounds fascinating, will definitely check it out for my 11-yr-old girl-child (and for me!)

Cat, I’m pretty sure you sold me on this one with the title alone. Actually knowing what the book’s about just made it better.

On a different note: in the past week I’ve heard more references to Farscape than I had in the last year. I think the universe is telling me that it’s time to give that show a chance.

First off, brilliant essay and I will be shelling out yet more money for yet another book for shelves that are already overflowing – what an embarrassment of riches I have! As someone else noted, the essay alone is worth the price of the book and then some. I wish that there had been more of these books when I was girl.

@10 Elizabeth – excellent point, and maybe we need to re-frame what yes means to us. Perhaps the “no” we women (and men) should say more often is just another form of yes. Yes, I will be doing this my way. Yes, I will be standing up for myself. Yes, I will be deciding that for myself. Yes I am confident of my decisions. Being a doormat – of either gender – seems to me to be a very destructive way to say no to ourselves, while saying yes to everyone else.

#7 Bob: Unfortunately, that scenario plays out more often than most people like to think about. From the time I was a very young child, I had fantasies of “escaping” from my parents. Today, as a 39-year-old adult, I rarely speak to them. But for the fact that my husband’s maternal grandmother was, by his estimation, “a hundred times worse” than my own Maternal Unit (I can’t bring myself to call her a “mother” anymore), I would have found it difficult to explain my relationship (or lack thereof) with the Parental Units. That’s one of the reasons I remained single until my early thirties–erstwhile boyfriends either didn’t believe me, and thought *I* was the one with “issues”, or they believed me all too well, and simply wanted no part of it.

My husband, my inlaws, and my MIL’s extended family have become my “safety net”. I finally have a place to call “home”, and a wonderful man to share my life with.

Here’s to happy endings! *clink*


Dammit, already spent too much on books this month, and after reading that (hell, even just the title and the gorgeous illustrations before I read the Big Idea), I will be going to buy this book today. Sounds outstanding.

I am torn between my desire to go read this book right away and to go work on my own writing, to imbue it with the kind of richness described in this article. I will do both, of course, unfortunately not simultaneously. Sounds absolutely fabulous!

I need to read this book. I don’t think I’ve ever gotten quite so excited about one just from the description as I just did reading this essay. I grew up (and at 23 am still growing up) on fantasy, and with every new ‘normal kid finds magic’ story or movie, I hoped that *this time*, they would stay. The dream would be real, or they would choose to stick around in the magical world they just helped save… and it never really happened. I very much want to read a story about saying Yes, and a protagonist who really owns her actions and her choices.

*bounces off to go look for the book on amazon*

For the record, the author reads the audiobook as well… And hearing it in her own voice reminds me of listening to audio books read by Neil Gaiman. I suspect any of her books I read in the future will sound in my head like her voice reading it. And that is a fine and lovely thing to look forward to.

@12 – That comment by the author caught me as well. I grew up obsessed with reading because it was the only escape from home I received. Homeschooled in the back of beyond, only social contact was at church with mostly older people or a handful of kids who saw in me someone to mock w/o retribution from their parents – books were this amazing world that completely kept me alive through some rough times. I often used to hike through the woods, especially when it was foggy and magical-feeling, hoping desperately (even though I knew better) that some day, *I* would discover a different world.

I love that that Ms. Valente is willing to acknowledge and embrace the notion that some of us would have said “yes, yes, a thousand times, yes!”

Holy cow, this sounds awesome. The title and cover alone got me interested, and then I read the piece and now I am sold. It’s times like this I wish I had a Kindle or the like so I could start reading it RIGHT NOW.

It has bothered me for as long as I can remember that Dorothy actually wanted to go back to her soul crushing farmers daughter life, or that Peter, Jane, Lucy and Edmund fell out of the cupboard and didn’t collapse in tearful mourning for the incredible life they left and instead picked themselves up and said, well that was a jolly smashing adventure, back to the blitz now. So heart warming to know I’m not the only one.

Cat you are like the antithesis of every primary school teacher I had who wrote report cards with phrases like, ‘has potential but head in the clouds’. I like being a dreamer. Will definitely pick this book up for my 8 yr old daughter who has just finished her last Roald Dahl book and is looking for a new novel (and I will probably read it on the sly as well).

N @8, Catherynne is an amazing writer and you should run out and find any/all books of hers that you can! Also follow her blog – she’s just as brilliant there.

I am going to need to pick up ‘Fairyland’, and I have high hopes that now I’ll have another book to give to the slightly-older girls in my life.

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