Plucky Girls in Fairy-lands


Ok, break’s over!

For the Classic Children’s Literature challenge in January, I read Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland and L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (totally original, I know, but this is as good a time as any to catch up on the major classics).  And then I decided to compare them with Catherynne Valente’s The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making.

Also, inspired by Jean from Howling Frog Books, I’ll do a follow-up post on some of the less-well-known stories I grew up with.  Stay tuned for flying pigs and enchanted snakes!

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  • Apparently it wasn’t at all creepy/wrong to take naked photos of young girls in the 19th century.  Carroll just really loved hanging out with the Liddell sisters and telling them stories, and playing totally harmless games like Take Off All Your Clothes and Say Cheese!
  • Also, it’s apparently ok to vigorously shake a kitten, and it won’t cause any damage.

Less disturbing notes from Wonderland/Looking-glass Land:

  • Hey, now I see how that early scene in Labyrinth, where Sarah is standing on a hill and looking out over said Labyrinth before starting her journey, is a reference to Looking Glass!  Neat!


  • The structure of these two stories really matches the way dreams and make-believe games work.   In the first story, there isn’t really a goal or point to Alice’s adventures, unless you count getting to the lovely garden, but if Alice had never gotten there, it wouldn’t have mattered much, would it?

The scenes move from one to the next as they would in a dream – you switch from one surreal situation to the next, maybe without even realizing it.  You might be searching for your college Muggle Studies classroom (except you’re actually in your old high school and you don’t remember registering for Muggle Studies), and then suddenly you’re in a kayak in the gym, trying to steer around all the basketball players who are in the middle of a game, and then suddenly you’re playing croquet with flamingoes instead of mallets, and your opponent is the Queen of Hearts, who keeps screaming “Off with your head!”

As for Looking Glass, it flows just like a game of make-believe.  There may be an overall goal at first (get to that Eighth Square), but on the way you keep throwing in random obstacles and new characters to keep the game going however long you like.

  • I love how Carroll plays with language, like here:

            “And how many hours a day did you do lessons?” said Alice, in a hurry to change the subject.

“Ten hours the first day,” said the Mock Turtle: “nine the next, and so on.”

“What a curious plan!” exclaimed Alice.

“That’s the reason they’re called lessons,” the Gryphon remarked: “because they lessen from day to day.” [1]

And next segment!

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(mild SPOILERS ahead)


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  • It wasn’t all a dream.
  • They were silver shoes, not ruby slippers.
  • Baum says he meant this to be a lovely, wholesome, not-scary fairy tale, unlike the “blood-curdling” Grimm stories; no nightmarish scenes for Baum’s young readers!  …except for the part where the Tin Man chops off an anthropomorphized tree’s limbs, with the accompanying illustration showing the tree’s horrified expression.  And that one scene where the Scarecrow is wringing the necks of a whole flock of attacking crows.  And the one where the Tin Man gets smashed on sharp rocks.
  • How convenient that the Witch is afraid of the dark.  And water.  In Wicked (the book), at least Gregory Maguire implies that Elphaba is allergic to water.
  • I love the way Baum juxtaposes the Scarecrow’s, Tin Man’s, and Lion’s inferiority complexes with their actions.  For instance, the Scarecrow says he’s brainless, and yet he’s the one who usually thinks of a clever way to deal with each obstacle.
  • In the movie, Dorothy is restless and wishes she could leave dreary Kansas for some magical rainbow land.  In the original story, Baum also portrays Kansas as dreary — it’s the kind of place that takes “the sparkle from [one’s] eyes” and turns them “a sober gray,” the kind of place where laughter is startling because it’s so rare.  Baum doesn’t seem to like this place, right?

But then:

            “Tell me something about yourself, and the country you came from,” said the Scarecrow, when she had finished her dinner.  So she told him all about Kansas, and how gray everything was there, and how the cyclone had carried her to this queer land of Oz.  The Scarecrow listened carefully, and said,

“I cannot understand why you should wish to leave this beautiful country and go back to the dry, gray place you call Kansas.”

“That is because you have no brains,” answered the girl.  “No matter how dreary and gray our homes are, we people of flesh and blood would rather live there than in any other country, be it ever so beautiful.  There is no place like home.” [2]

Is Baum using Dorothy as a mouthpiece for what he considers proper American values?  Is he encouraging his child readers to stick to their lot in life, and not be tempted by the beauty and excitement of other places?  Maybe Dorothy’s stay in Oz is just a break, after which she can drudge on with renewed energy.

Or is Baum being ironic here, as he is in his portrayals of the Scarecrow, Tin Man, and Lion?  The story does have a theme re: people’s tendency to believe whatever an authority tells them vs. looking at the world with their own eyes.  Maybe Dorothy’s statement is supposed to seem ridiculous – i.e. see, children, how excessively attached people are to their lot, and how suspicious of any offer to improve their lives?  From this perspective, maybe Dorothy’s stay in Oz is meant to show her what life could/should be like, and she’s meant to bring some of that color and excitement back to Kansas, and teach Auntie Em how to laugh again.

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SEPTEMBER IN FAIRYLANDGirl who circumnavigated Fairyland

How it’s like Alice in Wonderland/Through the Looking Glass:

  • Girl purposely jumps into a magical land with little thought to how/if she’ll get home.
  • Girl almost drowns in a large body of water that appears rather suddenly, before getting washed onto the shore of the magical land.
  • Girl meets many whimsical characters, including a shape-shifting child (a hyena instead of a pig in this case) and a tyrannical queen (well, Marquess, and she’s actually scarier than the Red Queen).
  • Girl must travel across water to get to her ultimate destination (more like Looking Glass, that).

How it’s like The Wizard of Oz (the book):

  • Girl gets taken from her dreary Midwestern home by a powerful wind.
  • Girl must fight the local tyrant and save the land before she can get home.
  • Along the way, girl gains friends who will gain something important for themselves if the local tyrant is defeated.

How it’s like The Wizard of Oz (the movie):

  • Girl has been longing to leave her boring Midwestern home – cue the powerful wind!

What I love:

  • The cheeky meta humor:

“Obviously, the eating or drinking of Fairy foodstuffs constitutes a binding contract to return at least once a year in accordance with seasonal myth cycles.” [3]

And all the other meta-ness, and the funny ways Valente incorporates myth and fairy tale elements.  Like the Persephone Clause, and the idea that changelings are really just part of a “cultural-exchange program.”

  • The concept of the Marids:

“Marids . . . are not like others.  Our lives are deep, like the sea.  We flow in all directions.  Everything happens at once, all on top of each other, from the seafloor to the surface.  My mother knew it was time to marry because her children had begun to appear, wandering about, grinning at the moon…”

“…It’s like a current: we have to go where we’re going.  There are a great number of us, since we are all forever growing up together and already grown.  As many as sparkles in the sea…” [4]

How cool is that?!  SO cool!

  • September.  Her favorite part of Snow White is when the princess is lost in the woods, with all the scary trees and creatures leering at her.  She’s “Somewhat Heartless,” as apparently all children are, as well as delightfully “irascible,” which apparently is necessary in a hero of this sort of story, but also kind and loyal when it matters.

Er…but then there’s this:

  • The portrayal of Saturday, the Marid.  Saturday – get it?  Like Friday from Robinson Crusoe?  Like Friday, Saturday is a slave when we first meet him, and September is the one to free him, just like Crusoe frees Friday.  Of course, September makes it very clear that she thinks of Saturday as a friend only, never a servant – whereas Crusoe frees Friday only to make him Crusoe’s own slave.


But even when he’s free, Saturday acts subservient and insecure – heaven forbid he upstage September by being too strong and self-confident.  In fact, he discourages her from freeing him in the first place, insisting he belongs to the person who caged him.

And the rest of his people, too, are servants to this light-skinned tyrant.  And to top it all off, by nature, they can’t even use their own magic unless someone physically subdues them (“I can only grant wishes if I am defeated in battle; if I am hurt nearly to death” [5] ).

  • Oh, and then there’s the Nasnas.


“…before the Marquess came, we just lay about on beaches and ate mangoes and drank coconut milk and knew nothing about industry whatever!  How gladsome we are, now that she has shown us our laziness!  Now we know the satisfaction of a full day’s labor, of punchcards and taxable income.” [6]

Of course, September suspects that the Marquess made the Nasnas think that way about themselves – but that makes them seem even more weak.  It’s true that all of Fairyland is being repressed, but there are (at least passive aggressively) defiant characters besides September, who don’t just believe whatever the Marquess tells them.  Why, then, are the Nasnas so easy to demoralize?

Oh, book.  You were doing so well!

So, how do I feel about the story overall?

It is a very enjoyable, very clever story overall.  I love the meta-ness and the twists on fairy tale concepts.  And I love the final sentence, as random as that sounds; there’s just something about really effective chapter and story endings, you know?

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[1]  Lewis Carroll.  Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass.  New York: The Modern Library, 2002.  Pg. 84.

[2]  L. Frank Baum.  The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.  Susan Wolstenholme, ed.  New York: Oxford UP, 1997.  Pg 44.

[3] Catherynne M. Valente.  The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making.  New York: Feiwel and Friends, 2011.  Pg 4.

[4] The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland.  Pg. 107.

[5] Pg. 106.

[6] Pg. 185.


  1. I read the first book in the Alice in Wonderland duo, and decided to stop with that. I couldnt much appreciated the dream-like quality of the story, but I DID enjoy Carroll’s word play. The conversation with the mock turtle and the walrus had me in splits! I re-read it so many times, and I’ll re-read it many times again. 😀

    As for the other two books, they really aren’t my cup of tea, although I read The Wizard of Oz when I was very very young, and watched the movie.

    • They definitely don’t read like a typical contemporary Juv/YA novel (the Alice books) — if I hadn’t already known pretty much what to expect, I don’t know how I’d have felt about the structure myself. There really don’t seem to be any serious stakes or conflict; it’s more of a make-it-up-as-you-go story.

      As for the Wizard of Oz, I liked it pretty well until about Chapter 18. Then it seemed like Baum was just rushing to get the witch out of the way, but then instead of actually ending where you’d expect, he keeps going with a bunch more scenes.

      Still, the characters and settings were fun and whimsical, and I may read more of the Oz books sometime.

  2. I can’t believe that I never noticed how well Alice in Wonderland parallels dreams! It makes sense, though, in that those stories really don’t seem to have any sense about them (at least not according to conventional notions). I read a number of the Oz books when I was little, including the original, but I find I really don’t remember them well at all. It may be time to return…

    • I’m curious to read some of the other Oz books, too. At least so I’ll see all the things Gregory Maguire was referencing/twisting in Wicked 🙂

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