When I was a child, I was often called “a serious boy” by those who sat on taller seats and more important chairs, with the air of authority puffing them up and giving them the ability to pronounce a simple judgement about the complex workings of my dreams and desires. Yet words have power, and I began to be serious even when my dreams were filled with magic swords and mermaids and castles at the hearts of treacherous mazes. I read books about history and mythology and great literature to trick the big people with their serious expectations into believing that I was as serious as they thought I should be. In reality, I just loved the stories.
After coming home and leaving my serious books and my serious expectations on the dining-room table, I would gather up my true favorites, my secret loves, and hide beneath the bottom shelf in my walk-in closet. I would take with me the tales of Arthur and his knights, the different passages to Narnia, and most belovedly the wondrous tales of Oz. There are children who read because they have to, and ones who read because it’s expected of them, and a few – a very lucky few – who do not read at all but rather swim and dive and drown in reading. To become something and someone else for untold whiles in the thick weight and light breath of true wonder.
I have always tried to keep my secret-self; to remember the paths and byways of fairylands and fantastic places. As the years have grown up around me, I have traded old friends for new ones and discovered others that touch me as deeply as any I’d met before. I also hid my secret well, I have books and tomes and volume after volume about serious things on serious shelves that you would never suspect were filled with sideways paths and slanting doorways to the magic places where my true heart lives.
College textbooks about Archaeology? Images and histories of forgotten things rediscovered.
Volumes of apocrypha and pseudo-canonical religious writings? Wonder Tales from a distant past.
Atlas after Atlas? Maps and pathways that vanished long ago.
A library of history texts that span from the Ancient Near East to the 21st Century? History is the trade secret of fantasy; what has been is the framework of our dreams of yet to come.
(Long Parenthetical Aside: It is not insignificant that the only fictions I aspire to write are fairytales. I have been told I have a talent for writing of myself, and I suspect I could write equally about other familiar things; but my heart simply isn’t in it, and the muse rewards a halfhearted offering on her alter with scorn at best – and utter banishment from her sight if the offering is particularly egregious. Based on my current brief and fleeting intercourse with the muse, I’d guess I’ve offered up some rather egregious things recently.)
When I was ten years old my favorite book out of the hundreds I had already read was “The Road to Oz” By L. Frank Baum. It was a second-hand copy with a spine in lavender and a picture of Polychrome and the Shaggy Man abord the sandboat on the cover. That copy is lost to time, but I do have a three volume set of all of Baum’s writings leather bound with gold-leaf edges and crisp fresh type to replace it. I can’t really say why it was my favorite, it was not the “best” of the Oz stories by any subjective measure, but it struck a chord with me and my favorite it remained. In twenty-five years my tastes have changed, my expectations of characters and plot and style have matured…but nothing has ever quite touched me the way that the Oz stories did. Nothing has physically taken me to different places in the same tangible and all-consuming way.
I have been a fan of Catherynne M. Valente since discovering her “Tales from the Night Garden” books and her short stories on her livejournal. She wrote what had been my favorite short story ever put on paper. I was peripherally aware of her new projects coming out, and bought “Deathless” and “Habitation of the Blessed” at retail when they were released. I knew of her children’s project “The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making” and had even read a few snippets here and there, but it wasn’t really “my thing” as I’m a serious boy, and I have not truly walked down Fairy Paths in many many years.
A few weeks after it came out on Amazon, I read a short story set in the same universe on TOR.com. There have been many things published on TOR.com that I’ve liked, and more than a few that have led me to purchase books from a variety of authors across a range of publishing houses (which is a serious kudo to the people who run TOR.com). But of all those stories, none of them have consumed and altered me the way that “The Girl Who Ruled Fairyland For a Little While” did as I read it. For a long and shattering moment as the last few lines dripped past my eyes I was ten years old again, hiding from other’s expectations in a world beyond make-believe. A world that so captured the words of my heart it felt as though they had escaped onto the page in front of me.
I have all the books I could need, and what more could I need than books? I shall only engage in commerce if books are the coin. Come to my door if you have a book —and a good one, not just your great-aunt’s book of doily patterns— and I will give you an egg or a cake or a pair of woolen socks. I am a practical girl, and a life is only so long. It should be spent in as much peace and good eating and good reading as possible and no undue excitement. That is all I am after.
After writing my simple comment (I post as bookgoblin for any curious souls), I immediately clicked over to Amazon and ordered the novel with overnight delivery. I sat, anxious as a cat in a rainstorm from morning until it finally arrived late that following afternoon. I would say that I read it, but that would be doing it a gross disservice. I swam and dove and drowned in it as though I was ten years old again. I exalted in it, trembled in it, wept bitterly in it, and reached the far shore of it exhausted and spent in ways too wonderful to believe.
And I was afraid; afraid that my heart had deceived me and that I had let myself be tricked by beautiful words and pretty pictures in my mind. So I read it again, studiously and evaluatingly, critically and mindfully; and I was rewarded once again. It was the story of me but not me, and my heart but not my heart.
All children are heartless. They have not grown a heart yet, which is why they can climb tall trees and say shocking things and leap so very high that the grown-up hearts flutter in terror. Hearts weigh quite a lot. That is why it takes so long to grow one. But, as in their reading and arithmetic and drawing, different children proceed at different speeds. (It is well known that reading quickens the growth of a heart like nothing else.) Some small ones are terrible and fey, Utterly Heartless. Some are dear and sweet and Hardly Heartless at all. September stood very generally in the middle on the day the Green Wind took her, Somewhat Heartless, and Somewhat Grown.
A very few times in our lives do we get the chance to see true magic. The magic that binds hearts and loosens tongues and frees souls to be other and better and more. There are writers that appeal to my “serious boy” side that have done that in my life, Neil Gaiman and Jane Austen are my more obvious choices; but the ones that truly altered me at a fundamental level told me stories when I was a child that have stayed with me all of my life, things about Narnia and Oz and a Neverending Story.
Stories have a way of changing faces. They are unruly things, undisciplined, given to delinquency and the throwing of erasers. This is why we must close them up into thick, solid books, so they cannot get out and cause trouble.
As an adult, if you would have asked me what my favorite book was, I would have told you “Pride and Prejudice” or “Fragile Things” or “To Kill a Mockingbird” or “A Tale of Two Cities” and thought nothing of the lie. I am a “serious boy” and I like serious things. Fiction should be serious about being fiction after all, for telling stories is serious work, and we shall have no fairytales in our grown-up list of favorite things.
Now, I have once again walked down fairy roads and met fairy folk and had serious adventures about the most serious thing of all, to be who we truly are.
Fairyland did not choose you-you chose yourself. You could have had a lovely holiday in Fairyland and never met the Marquess, never worried yourself with the local politics, had a romp with a few brownies and gone home with enough memories for a lifetime’s worth of novels. But you didn’t. You chose.
I am slightly terrified that someone will read this and know the truth, that a serious boy loves a child’s fairy story more than any and all other words ever put on paper or spoken aloud. More than the love stories of Jane Austen, more than the intellectual fantasy of Neil Gaiman, more than the broadcasts of Ira Glass, more than the articles of Ta-Nehisi Coates.
I have read hundreds of thousands of pages in my thirty-five years. Some of those things have been important to me, invaded me and let me change myself; but Catherynne M. Valente has written something that already KNEW ME. It was OF ME before I ever encountered it. I picked it up and it spoke my true name, and in that power it changed itself into exactly what I needed it to be.
Like, when your parents call you to dinner and you don’t come, and they call again but you still don’t come, and they call you by all your names together, and then, of course, you have to come, and right quick. Because True Names have power…
As my second time through the story was drawing to a close, I was at first afraid that I too had a clock with my name on it that could expire, leaving me again without fairyland beneath my feet and fantasy truly in my grasp. But I realized that I did not stumble into her Fairyland, and no clock can ever steal me away. I am one of the ravished, and my heart will always half-belong to her magical world.
If you have a child, or know of children, or even were simply a child once in your distant memories of a time before you became a serious grown-up with serious tastes…please share the opportunity to experience these words and ideas, these places and things, these deep tides and heavy waters. These stories will call you by your True Name, and true names have the power to change everything.
My name is Nicholas Karl Rogers, these are the best stories I have ever read, and I don’t expect to ever meet their equal in however many days I have remaining. I am so glad I found them when I did, for my life is richer and my heart dwells again in secret places filled with wonder.
[Word Count: 2050]
All Block Quotes copyright Catherynne M. Valente and are excerpted from “The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making” and “The Girl Who Ruled Fairyland For a Little While” without permission (but cited via a Fair Use expectation).