I just finished reading The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making by Catherynne Valente. What a delightful, charming, original book it is! I can’t recommend it enough. I am definitely looking forward to reading the rest in the series. That said, this is not a children’s book, although it has been marketed as one. More like a fairy-tale for adults, I think. Certainly not something I could have tackled at the tender age of ten. Or even twelve. Maybe that’s just me.
But – quite apart from the fact that much of the language, wit and subtle insights can only be appreciated by adults – when you’re a child reading a book, you yearn to be in the protagonist’s shoes. I wouldn’t want to be in poor September’s magical shoes, who is “Forced to Feed Herself by Gruesome Means” while sailing on the Perverse and Perilous Sea. Who, when she lands on an island hoping for food and drink, is stabbed by merciless swords and thrown into a dark well to die.
No, thank you very much; while the view from the flying leopard’s back must be marvellous indeed, and Wyverary A-Through-L a friend worth risking one’s life for, I’d rather not suffer September’s adventures.
This got me to thinking about my favorite books when I was a child, those long, long years ago, when books were my only escape from the tedium of fractions, grammar and exports. Books where I did long to jump into the pages and lose myself in the worlds they described.
My Family and Other Animals by Gerald Durrell. Although an autobiography and not a fairy tale, it very well could be one. I was ten when I discovered a dog-eared edition in my grandmother’s attic (a veritable treasure trove of old books). I was instantly transported to the magical Greek island of Corfu and the hilarious adventures of Gerry’s argumentative family and numerous pets, including scorpions that invaded the dinner table, and puppies named Widdle and Puke. To say nothing of a boat named Bumtrinket. Gerald Durrell, who died in 1995, was an avid animal collector, zookeeper and conservationist, but he is best remembered for the books he wrote. My Family and Other Animals is one of his most entertaining, and my personal favorite.
The Princess and the Goblin by George MacDonald. Another treasure unearthed from my grandmother’s dusty bookshelves, this book starts out quite obviously as a fantasy or a fairy tale, but becomes quietly stranger as you turn the pages. Princess Irene, her nursemaid and a miner’s son, Curdie, confront the evil goblins who infest the underground mines of their mountainous kingdom. Their best weapon? Loud silly rhymes, which the goblins hate. The goblins plot to abduct the Princess and marry her to their own Prince Harelip. With the help of Irene’s great-great-great grandmother – surely the most fascinating character in this book, since we can never decide exactly who or what she is – the Princess and Curdie must defeat the goblins and save the kingdom.
The Enchanted Wood by Enid Blyton. She is very much out of favor these days, but her old-fashioned adventure books are still popular in many countries like India and Australia. Children still enjoy her books, while adults frown at their “racism” and “sexism”. I must admit that I devoured her books as a child, and I don’t think I’m any the worse for it. But quite the most enchanting books she has ever written have got to be The Faraway Tree series: The Enchanted Wood, The Magic Faraway Tree and The Folk of the Faraway Tree. Three children living near an enchanted wood discover an enormous tree peopled with fairy folk, at the very top of which is a ladder that leads to a different magical land every few days. What’s not to love? I used to pretend that I was Bessie or Fanny and had been invited to eat google buns (possibly the first ever use of the word google?) and pop biscuits by Silky and Moonface.
George MacDonald once said: “I write, not for children, but for the child-like, whether they be of five, or fifty, or seventy-five.” Here’s to the child in each one of us – may it live and read as long as we do!