Thanks to my friend Alexandra Tiller for writing this!
Chris Colfer’s first novel The Land of Stories: The Wishing Spell arguably came out at the perfect time. With TV shows like Once Upon a Time and movies such as Snow White and the Huntsman, fairy tales have reemerged into the world of media.
But unlike various TV shows and movies and books that have come before,The Land of Stories doesn’t try to completely challenge the notion of the fairy tales contained in its pages. Snow White is still a beautiful woman who lived with dwarves after her stepmom tried to kill her; Cinderella still wore glass slippers to the ball; in fact, except for Goldilocks, most every single character’s story remains true to the source material, including the Little Mermaid’s original less than happy ending.
The fairy tale characters, however, aren’t the main focus of the story. The book closely follows fraternal twins Alex and Conner Bailey. A year before the book starts, their father, a man with a fondness for books and fairy tales, died in a tragic car accident. Their mother now works double shifts as a nurse in an attempt to make ends meet and the two are so used to being left alone that they don’t even wince when their mom is forced to work throughout their twelfth birthday.
They get a birthday surprise in the form of their Grandma, their dad’s mother, visiting. Along with all the gifts she brings, she also gives them her special fairy tale book her and their dad read from when they were younger,The Land of Stories.
Soon after, the two get sucked into the book and find themselves in the middle of the Dwarf Forests in the actual land of stories. The only way they see to get out involves having to go through a very Into the Woods style quest and put together several items from the fairy tale world—such as Cinderella’s glass slipper and a chunk of Red Riding Hood’s first basket—and make a wish to go back home. With a guide from the only person who used the wishing spell, the two set off across the various kingdoms to find the items. But, as it turns out, there is another person set on getting the items and using up the second and last time the spell can be used.
At over 400 pages, the book is quite long for a children’s book, and much of it probably could’ve been edited out and polished. Since he had to write this in between his performances in Glee Live last summer, it makes sense the book seems less than polished, but an editor really could’ve helped limit some of the word choices and unneeded plot points and dialogues.
As a children’s book, however, it reads well. Some reviews have complained about it being too detailed and not leaving much to the imagination; one argued, for example, that it was unnecessary for a character to point out to Alex that there are three Prince Charmings in the Land of Stories who married three different princesses. But seeing as most any prince in most any story is named “Prince Charming”, the explanation of the princes all being brothers with the same last name seemed needed for both the reader and the kids in the book to understand.
Although the book was rough and needed a bit more polishing, each character was very well written and voiced, particularly the twins, with whom the reader spends most of the time. Alex is a bookworm and a know-it-all, a girl who isn’t very well liked at school and has used books and fairy tales as her way to have friends. Conner is a bit of a loudmouth who barely manages to stay awake in school as hard as he tries, but he’s well liked because he can make people laugh. Conner constantly makes jokes in that same dry, sarcastic wit Chris uses constantly (my favorite is probably when the twins go into a lake and he exclaims, “It’s so cold, I think we might be twin sisters now!”). Alex is the side of Chris that constantly tells his cast mates about historical facts whether they want to hear it or not. The voices of these characters read true and fleshed out, as if you were reading a completely platonic version of Ron Weasley and Hermione Granger.
Meeting Chris’s version of fairy tale characters is also quite a treat. Since the book takes place after the “Happily Ever After”, he took the opportunity to show the natural consequences that would take place after the stories. Goldilocks is on the run from the law for breaking into a house; Jack’s beanstalk has to be cut down everyday because it keeps growing; Sleeping Beauty’s kingdom has trouble staying awake because it slept for a hundred years yet she can’t get herself to fall asleep; and Cinderella had to earn respect because she was a peasant before she was royalty. It’s not a frozen happily ever after like we think of as children where nothing ever changes and all is well and good, but it’s not the dark Into the Woods ending where nothing is as happy as it seems, which is a fair balance for a children’s book.
All in all, for a first novel attempt, Chris rocked the book. He got to showcase his talent for making quotable quotes and his understanding of the world (such as the Queen’s line, “The world will always choose convenience over reality…it’s easier to hate, blame, and fear than it is to understand. No one wants the truth; they want entertainment.”) and he got to show off his ability at writing unique character voices. The book is charming and will appeal to any child with a love of fairy tales.
Let’s just hope he has a bit more time for polishing (and sleeping) for the sequel.