There are some books that just bound and determined to keep me from reading them quickly, and this is one of them. To be fair, The first book in this collection, The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making, had the same effect on me. I’m actually amazed I managed to get through that one in two posts.
Let me be clear – this is not at all an issue of quality. Valente is an incredibly gifted writer, and she weaves wonderful stories for her readers. The difficulty for me is that her books are, well, feasts. Visually speaking, she creates such a rich world that I cannot read it at my normal rate. I have to keep pausing to imagine what Alice in Wonderland-esque quirks she’s telling me about. I love it, but it’s also exhausting to the mental eye. I read maybe two or three of these brief chapters at a time and I feel completely full. I need to take time to live in her world before I can go on.
Valente has the ability to make me feel as though I’m a part of this place she’s created, but the price I must pay is speed. I cannot be my efficient, grown-up self if I want to come and quest with her. And I do. I desperately do – who doesn’t? Who hasn’t heard of Neverland and wondered what it would be like to fly through the window one night? Who hasn’t wanted to trade junior high gym class for a letter from Hogwarts? Who hasn’t been willing to take on the weight of the world in exchange for magic and mystery and heroics?
I think we all want it, in our ways.
Of course, our desires don’t all look the same. I grew up loving Anne McCaffery’s Pern and Piers Anthony’s Xanth, so my perspective on another world may look very different from an eleven year old girl who has read The Hunger Games, and Divergent, and Harry Potter at a highly impressionable age. Granted, I’ve read all those books and loved them too, so when I imagine what I might find if I climbed through a wardrobe, it has the elements of years of pages lovingly turned.
What stays the same though, through decades of literature and analytical critique, is that having a child’s open mind and hard heart is a strength. At the end of an adventure, of course, one does well to be wiser, but at the beginning? Not at all. In order to gain entrance, you must shrink down and let go of logic completely. That is not such an easy thing as we get older and struggle with practicalities all day, every day. Our sense of whimsy fades. Our patience for magic wanes. We read too quickly, and we forget to fall down into the rabbit hole of the story.
I’m as guilty of this as anyone. I love stories, and I have to cling to a version of myself that I barely remember when I open a book like this. I try to call back the stars to my eyes, desperately wishing for that sure, bright sight I used to have, but it gets harder every year. Even Wendy had to grow up eventually, the adventures of her youth becoming bedtime stories for new children. I always thought that was a desperately sad thing, that final moment when Peter returns for his friend and she has grown up on him. I don’t feel badly for him though – no – I ache for her, for all those years she told herself those tales so that she could remember what it felt like to taste magic.
In these stories, there are always people who inhabit a magical land, who get to live there forever, and then there are the people who have managed to sneak in, the people we follow just in case, someday, we find our path. Their stories are roadmaps for our secret, questing hearts. We must read them carefully or risk missing the moment when our opportunity flits past.
For more about Catherynne M Valente, visit her beautiful page here.