Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Book Review: The Wishing Spell


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I must confess: I am a huge fan of all things Glee.  And one of my very favorite things about Glee is the character of Kurt Hummel, who is played by the wonderful and talented Chris Colfer.  So when I learned that Colfer was not only a actor, singer, and dancer, but also an author, I simply couldn't wait to get my hands on his first children's book, The Land of Stories: The Wishing Spell.

In this imaginative tale, twelve-year-old twins Alex and Conner Bailey have had a rough year.  Their beloved father has passed away, and their now-single mother is having a hard time making ends meet.  Both twins are struggling at school--Conner academically and Alex socially.  For their twelfth birthday, their grandmother visits and gives them the most well-loved symbol of their childhoods: a large book called The Land of Stories, full of all the fairy tales that their grandmother and parents read them nightly when they were young.  These stories were not the "Disney" versions of the fairy tales, but rather the original Brothers Grimm versions, with the "real" endings that few of their peers knew about.

Shortly after the twins receive the book, it begins to hum mysteriously, becoming louder and more insistent as the days go on.... until when examining it, the twins fall through its pages and are transported into the Land of Stories, which turns out to be a very real place.

They are fortunate enough to begin their travels by meeting a frog-man with a kind heart, who offers them shelter and fills them in on the basics of the world into which they have fallen.  He also tells them about the Wishing Spell, which will require them to go on a difficult quest to collect a list of famous fairy-tale items (including one of Cinderella's glass slippers, a lock of Rapunzel's hair, the spindle on which Sleeping Beauty pricked her finger, etc.).  Once assembled, these items will activate a powerful spell that will grant them the desire of their hearts--which, in the twins' case, is to go home.  Conveniently, the Wishing Spell has been used once before, and Froggy is possession of the journal of the man who used it.  He gives the twins the journal to guide them on their quest, and he also supplies them with other useful items, such as a map of the local kingdoms, gold coins, blankets, and food.  And thus the twins set off on their quest.

Along the way, they run into many dangers, such as being pursued by the Big Bad Wolf Pack, being captured by trolls and goblins, and having to make multiple quick escapes after stealing collecting the famous items for the Wishing Spell.  They also get to meet many of the fairy tale heroes and heroines they've heard about for their entire lives and tour some amazing sites.  Throughout these adventures, they prove themselves to be kind, honest, noble, and pure of heart.

Unfortunately for the twins, they have a competitor in collecting the items for the Wishing Spell.  The Evil Queen (Snow White's stepmother) has recently escaped from prison and is also collecting items, aided by her Huntsman and his daughter, her Huntress.  The Wishing Spell can only be used twice ever (and remember, it's already been used once), so not only is it bad enough that the Evil Queen is trying to eliminate the twins.... but if she succeeds in activating the Spell first, the twins will be stuck in the Land of Stories forever.

When I started reading this book, I was immediately drawn in by the Prologue, in which Snow White pleads with the Evil Queen for some kind of explanation for her cruelty.  But then, in Chapter 1, the story switches to Conner and Alex, and my attention soon waned.  But when my eight-year-old daughter asked me what I was reading and I started describing the story to her, she was captivated, and I found myself getting excited at the description. 

While rearranging some shelves at work at the library one day, I also listened to two chapters of the audio version of The Land of Stories.  I'm so glad that I did this--it definitely increased my appreciation of the book.  Chris Colfer, the author, narrates his own work, and it is definitely an experience not to miss.  Colfer originally achieved fame as a television actor, and he is at his best when providing the voices of this wide cast of characters.  I loved hearing the difference in personalities that he brought out between Alex and Conner, not to mention the inflections that he gave to Bobblewart the Troll, Trix the Fairy, and others.

Chris Colfer's Land of Stories displays a vivid imagination.  The traditional fairy tale characters take on lives beyond what we've always known; for example, Goldilocks has become a tough, sword-wielding outlaw, while Little Red Riding Hood has become a scantily-clad, self-absorbed, self-styled queen.  Cinderella did not have an easy time adjusting to monarchy, but she now looks forward to the birth of her first child.  I loved the descriptions of the layout of world; the inclusion of details like Mother Duck Pond and Jack's rapidly-growing beanstalk are evidence of both Colfer's imagination and attention to detail.  I also liked the relationships that created between the characters.  How was it that Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, and Snow White all married Prince Charming?  Why did Goldilocks go into the three bears' house in the first place?  How did the Little Mermaid's story really end?  And, of course, what made the Evil Queen so evil?

In short, huge kudos to Chris Colfer for his fantastic imagination, development of detail, and child-appropriate plotline that was also clever enough to interest an adult.  There was nothing questionable or risqué in this book; it was an nice read and I would not hesitate at all to recommend it to a young reader.  But--and I really hate to say this because of my deep love for Chris Colfer, but I cannot tell a lie--I was really not impressed at all with the writing.  The style itself was very simplistic.  There was a lot of "he said, she said, and then."  An actual child reading the book might not be slowed down by this, but as an adult reader, I found that the clunky style really impaired my enjoyment of the book as a whole.  Colfer clearly has fantastic ideas, but I think The Wishing Spell would have benefited from some writing workshop courses or some heavy editing.  Of course, how Colfer found time to write a novel with the breakneck pace he keeps for Glee is a mystery to me, so I'm frankly impressed that he pulled it off at all.... but that being said, I also don't think I'll be rushing out to pick up the sequel.

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