So here goes!
Karyn: This is a precious book, in both senses of the word: a delightful thing of value, and overly affected.
It’s also a funny thing in terms of audience: this is an adult book, really; it grew out of a tale within a novel by Valente (Palimpsest), and that novel was for the grownups. Then, Valente conducted a rather daring experiment, and published online for donation-based payment, which was (per her website) startlingly successful. And it wasn’t children or teens making those online contributions.
So, okay, it’s a book for grownups, but it’s been craftily disguised as a children’s book (The New York Times review is all about this very issue, in fact). The print version was published by a children’s publisher, who recommend it for ages 10-14. The book contains beautiful illustrations (by Ana Juan). It looks like a kid’s book, and it’s marketed as a kid’s book, but what is it really?
It’s a kid’s book and an adult book, then. And in between the poles of adulthood and childhood, we find teens, which makes this in some ways the quintessential book for teens, occupying as it does that uncomfortable neither fish nor fowl space.
Sarah: Questions of audience have been on my mind lately. The Actual Printz Committee has a recommendation to work with, and the luxury of ignoring appeal…but here, although we mostly stick to questions of literary excellence, we have the freedom (and the duty) to talk theoretically about stories and audiences and whether or not stories have at-heart audience ranges. And whether or not publishers get it right each time. And, more pertinently, whether or not they got it right this time.
Plus, are we not librarians? Do we not feel the need to classify everything so that the people who need something most have the easiest time finding it?
Going back to the questions that elicited all the outrage about where the line falls when we are trying to differentiate between children’s and YA in a book classified as a crossover: This is a book that felt (mostly) teenish to me. September had so much agency. Everything that happens in the story is because September made choices, because she made it all happen. She drove the story, and although she wasn’t quite sure where she was going or how to make it all work, she was the engine. It wasn’t happening to her, it was happening because of her. That shift—to me—is the difference between a kids’ book and a teen book, and so I can see this as a contenda.
Karyn: Let’s talk about humor. The jokes! The potshots at bureaucracy! The beleaguered grad student spriggans! I also found line “Regional folkloric differences” laugh out loud funny (was that just me?).
Sarah: NOT JUST YOU!
Karyn: When September meets the Marquess, she is offered “a silver plate, piled high with wet red cherries…swollen raspberries and strawberries,” which evokes sexuality, and thereby raises questions about what it means to grow up. There is a slim but definite strand throughout about physical and sexual maturity: moments of language, like this, and September’s status as “ravished” stand out; her decision to lose her heart and the parallel to Persephone that comes through at the end (and the implication of adulthood and sex and childbirth that seems to go right over September’s head) plays into this as well.
But that sentence does more than alert the reader to this leitmotif. It references a number of other texts: Rosetti’s “Goblin Market” and the lure of fairy food (a recurrent motif, and tied to the Persephone echoes); Keats’s “The Eve of St. Agnes” (the foods Porphyro brings to seduce Madeleine), and by extension Pamela Dean’s Tam Lin (don’t know that one? You’re missing out).
Sarah: And while I loved reading “Goblin Market” as a teen (and have been on the lookout for glistening and seductive fruits ever since), there are other connections and glancing references stuffed into the text. September’s sword, which is actually a wrench, can only be accessed by the hero (hello, Excalibur!). The woods have glass coffins, which may be conveniently waiting for the Marquess after she puts herself to sleep (and, incidentally, goes from the villain of this story to the maybe-someday heroine of a subverted fairy tale that I now long to read).
Karyn: In terms of sheer literary value, the references to other texts, both those just listed and a wealth of other fairy tale fiction, definitely makes Girl even richer.
The voice is a work of art. The omniscient, arch narrator breaks the fourth wall and addresses the audience directly, in homage to the oral folklore and fairytale traditions (the one responsible for those regional differences). This also allows commentary within the text on the text (hence the Neil Gaiman cover blurb referencing modernism), playing with the very idea of narrative. September’s journey is many things, among them a discussion of storytelling and of choice: “No one is chosen….You chose to climb out of you window and ride on a Leopard.”
Over and over the language and narration play with the tropes of fairy tales and twist them about. September’s mother is in fact a wonderful woman, strong and loving and full of information. September may have been behaving like the woebegotten heroine of a certain type of story, as she eventually acknowledges, but story and reality are not the same and the overlay of the real world onto Fairyland (the factory model for the Nasnas, the industrial revolution metaphor made literal in the application of iron chains to prevent flight) also plays with our assumptions of the real world, providing a sort of satirical lens (this is why the inevitable comparisons to The Phantom Tollbooth and The Wizard of Oz, and Thurber’s Thirteen Clocks should be in the list as well).
Sarah: It’s a very ornate voice, but gilded with purpose; it’s not just lovely language. As Karyn says, it’s a way to play with the idea of fairies and Fairyland and magic. It’s so artificial sounding, seemingly trite and garnished and detailed, that it disguises the blood and sacrifice and sadness within the text.
And like this book, Fairyland is a funny place. On the one hand, magic reigns, there’s wildness and temptation and often, at best, amorality. There’s loveliness, of course, with magical fruits and fantastic meals and treats (and tricks) and delights. There are warring courts and epic quests. But at the same time, it’s a world where rules matter and loopholes count. It’s a world where taxes and lists and factories with shifts fit right in because those epic quests are really very highly structured games. Where Changelings, who have been stolen fair and square, after all, need keeping track of so that no one’s able to “capture them back or pull them off their horses during dress parade.” (heh)
And the overly affected voice of the Narrator is a really amazing way of uniting these two halves into something whole and tied together (and often hilarious, too).
Karyn: In the end, it’s a story full of riches. Real ones, and just as the language disguises blood and sacrifice—and there is quite a bit of blood—some of these riches are disguised as fairy treasure (which of course are really just dust and leaves), suitable for a book that is itself a trickstery fairy tale best suited for an older audience but hanging about the kids section all the same.
I am awed by the way the book comments on itself in parallel to the narrative commenting on the world; it’s all so meta.
So we’re going to say that even if it looks like a kids book, this is in fact a contenda in a way that some of the other crossover titles didn’t seem to be (and yes, we recognize that’s not a universally held opinion!). It’s also likely to be a contentious book: like Chime, this is one where the voice is very strong, and a negative response to that voice could render this nigh unreadable. But even if you hate this one, grit your teeth and push through, because there is some serious literary heavy lifting going on here.
Agree? Disagree? Think we’re changeling bloggers and wish the real Karyn and Sarah would come back? Comments are open!
Pub details: Feiwel & Friends, May 2011; reviewed from final copy.
PS: We barely even mentioned the fabulous art or the rather delightful, storybook-esque design, both of which deserve mention. So let us make it up to you by sharing some of the art. Feiwel & Friends has done a gorgeous page with a trailer, a Bestiary, and lots and lots of art.