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Guest Author (& Giveaway): Cat Valente on Childhood and Growing Up

We are honored and delighted to be hosting Cat Valente today as a stop on The Girl Who Fell Beneath Fairyland Blog Tour. The book is a sequel to The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making which was a rare double 10 and a top 10 book of 2011 for us both.

Please give it up for Cat and her wonderful post about Growing Up, Fairyland-style!

Eighteen or Eighty

One of the most upsetting scenes in literature (or at least upsetting to me) comes at the end of Peter Pan. Wendy, after waiting an entire lifetime for Peter to return for spring cleaning and take her back to Neverland, has grown old. She has children and a house of her own. Peter comes blithely to her window to spirit her off as he promised—and when he sees her age he sees not wisdom or kindness or a life well lived, but is horrified by her, even terrified at her proximity to death, which he will never have to face. Peter throws a small tantrum over the unfairness of it—the unfairness to him that she grew up, as though it was a kind of betrayal, and a far worse one than his broken promise to return right quick. All is made “well” when Peter spies Wendy’s small granddaughter, whom he takes away instead. From the moment the granddaughter enters the scene, Peter does not even look at Wendy. At the girl he made into a mother for all his friends, who he asked to stay home and sew and cook for them while the rest fought pirates. He tells her to stay at home once more, and with finality. He rejects her implicitly, explicitly, and entirely, in favor of a younger, newer version of herself. As though all girls are interchangeable, which of course, for Peter, they are.

All that is quite bad enough. The unfairness of the whole business to Wendy always stung me, even as a child. It made me afraid of growing up. It gave me a horror of the passage of time. It made me think there was nothing worse than being old and undesirable. The small version of me actually cried with rage. There was a small end to my innocence in that ending—it came down like a hammer to say: no matter how many adventures you have, you are going to Get Old and Getting Old is an awful, lonely, bleak country. When you are old nothing will ever be good or magical again.

The sentiment is repeated through a great deal of classic literature for children. Childhood is the only country with any joy or sweetness or magic in it. The instant—the very instant—you become an adult, there is nothing left to love or want or do. Nothing that matters, that is. Growing up is the beginning of the end. There is nothing to look forward to. What a nihilistic message to give to a poor kid! Not to mention, one that assumes all children have idyllic childhoods and all adults are dead in the heart. So few classics of fantastical books for children offer any kind of road map to adulthood—a very important issue for adolescent readers! The story ends when the protagonist comes of age. When Peter, and therefore all of Neverland or Fairyland or Wonderland, doesn’t want you anymore.

It should be clear by now that I hate this message. I think it ill-prepares kids to look on the future as a place worth getting to. The peculiar Victorian fetishization of childhood leads both to a loathing of its opposite and a conviction that children are some sort of quasi-fairy Other, entirely another species. In the Fairyland novels, I have, and will continue, to try to argue another way. Childhood is a lovely place, or at least it can be, but to me, there is no age limit on magic. September began her adventures at the age of twelve. She will be sixteen or seventeen by the end of the series. That’s not really an adult yet, but past puberty, past the age of Wendy’s granddaughter, not a child anymore by any means. And at seventeen she will still go to Fairyland. Like many things—even the Fairyland novels!—she will experience the same things one way as an adolescent and another as an adult, understanding on new levels and with new knowledge. But at no point will I ever turn to her and act the part of Pan.

September’s newest adventure, The Girl Who Fell Beneath Fairyland and Led the Revels There, brings her back to Fairyland a year older, affected deeply by her time there, a little wiser, but also a little angrier and more independent. She has begun to grow a heart, a new, untried, teenage heart, which does not know its own strength. She will travel to the underworld of Fairyland, where eventually all heroes must go. She will meet her shadow there, a selfish, covetous, wild and gleefully rule-breaking version of herself, pursuing all the desires September could never confess to in her underground kingdom. It is a book about growing up—if only a little bit. It is a book that brings up for the first time the enormous issue of work and vocation. There are first kisses and the capacity for forgiveness down there in the dark.

Throughout all the novels, the idea of a heart as a thing that must be tended and grown slowly, not a thing one is born with, has been a strong thematic note. That is the process of growing up, to my mind. A metaphor that shows the state of maturity not as a thing to be feared, but a country with its own magic and pleasures and adventures, merely different than childhood, rather than a dried up unmagical consolation prize.

In portal fantasies, the magical world often stands as an uneasy parallel to adulthood. Full of incomprehensible rules, people doing whatever they please with the snap of their fingers or the flick of a wand, vague intimations of wealth and power and sexuality barely graspable. So often those worlds are rejected by heroes, especially female heroes. Dorothy and Alice want to go home. They look at the fearful wonder of the other world and say no chance. September, to me, has always been The Girl Who Said Yes. To every adventure. And as I guide her along the weird paths of the heart, I hope to be able to give younger readers that roadmap in all its complexity, beauty, hurt, peculiarity, physical change and hardcore emotional honesty Feelings are hard. But they make us human. And being human is the work of a whole lifetime.

All any writer can do is share what they know. In September and her friends, I am trying, just as hard as I can, to say with honesty and fairy dust, the few things I know about being human on this planet. And one of the things I know is that spring cleaning can come whenever you want.

Thanks, Cat!

And now for the giveaway:


We have ONE paperback copy of The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making and ONE hardcover copy of The Girl Who Fell Beneath Fairyland and Led the Revels There to one lucky winner. The giveaway is open to US and Canada addresses ONLY and to enter, use the form below. The contest will run until Saturday October 13 at 12:01AM (EST). Good luck!

a Rafflecopter giveaway

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  • Jamie
    October 5, 2012 at 1:52 am

    My favorite story about growing up is Lyra’s in His Dark Materials, OF COURSE. It’s so . . . just right, and towards the end, when she begins to enter her adolescence, you can see the beginning of a remarkable woman, and it’s so beautiful and sad and perfect.

  • Bookgazing
    October 5, 2012 at 2:12 am

    Such a great essay 😀

  • Missie
    October 5, 2012 at 4:14 am

    My favorite story about growing up is probably Plain Kate by Erin Bow. Or the first Fairyland book (honestly!).

  • Paige
    October 5, 2012 at 7:44 am

    I think I’d also have to go with Plain Kate by Erin Bow — but I also thought a lot about Patrick Ness’s Monsters of Men trilogy. And of course, His Dark Materials is wonderful!

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  • Dawn Emry
    October 5, 2012 at 10:34 am

    I absolutely loved tGWCFiaSoHOM 🙂 Can’t wait to continue the story of September. Thanks for the giveaway!!

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  • April Books & Wine
    October 5, 2012 at 1:09 pm

    Oh my goodness, I love this whole guest post. The whole Peter Pan thing makes me sad/angry too. But, I kind of think Peter is a jerk after reading Tiger Lily (ALL OF THE FEELS, yo).

    Also? That bit about more books in the series and September growing up THRILLS me to no end. I am glad Cat is crafting books for us to love dearly.

  • jenmitch
    October 5, 2012 at 1:48 pm

    Thanks for this awesome guest post!! I think this is my favorite Book Smugglers guest post ever. Cat Valente is such a lovely writer reading this post just completely resonated with me.

  • Linda W
    October 5, 2012 at 5:53 pm

    Can Cat Valente do no wrong? My goodness! What an essay! Her first Fairyland book was outstanding. Her other books are brilliant.

  • Heidi
    October 8, 2012 at 2:48 pm

    I love each and every one of Cat Valente’s pieces that I’ve read thus far for this tour. They’re all amazing and have made me think on things I didn’t necessarily put my finger on before. Like just why I adamantly disliked the story of Peter Pan. The same could be said about a number of places you can’t go to once you grow up–like Narnia. I much prefer her Fairyland. 🙂

    My favorite story about growing up would be Howl’s Moving Castle. I suppose Sophie isn’t exactly a child in the beginning, but she does some major growing up all at once regardless.

  • Gem
    October 10, 2012 at 10:32 am

    Growing up is the beginning of the end.

    I never realized that most growing up stores I’ve read had this message until I read this essay (oblivious me I know). No wonder I always leave these books with bittersweet feelings! Why does growing up have to suck? Why does the magic have to go away the minute you see teen after a number?!

    I guess that’s why His Dark Materials and Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book are close to my heart. Although the characters “lose” the magic, they actually look forward to what’s around the corner.

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