Celebrity memoirs can be a guilty pleasure. A bit more highbrow than a supermarket tabloid, but possibly just as titillating, celebrity memoirs consistently make the bestseller lists. But what about celebrities that aspire to be authors of fiction, rather than having a ghost writer help them hash out their life story? The only celebrity fiction authors that quickly spring to my mind are Carrie Fisher and Jamie Lee Curtis. And let’s face it, Postcards from the Edge (Fisher) was reportedly based on Fisher’s own experiences. And Curtis’ very respectable entries in the world of fiction are picture books written for the elementary set.
So my experience with the celebrity-as-writer-of-fiction is limited, which is why I was very intrigued to see The Wishing Spell by Chris Colfer on the new books shelf at my local library. Colfer is the very talented actor who has risen to fame firstly on the strength of his performance as Kurt Hummel on the television show Glee, and then through his activism, particularly through his very personal message to teens shared on The Trevor Project. I find him very inspiring, and extraordinarily charming on screen.
Colfer credits his grandmother for inspiring his deep love for story, and dedicates The Wishing Spell to her. He’s definitely a fan of traditional fairy tales – so many traditional tales like Cinderella, Snow White, Goldilocks, and Jack and the Beanstalk feature prominently in his tale. Colfer uses the familiar tales as a background for the main story of Alex and Connor, girl and boy twins that accidentaly travel to the Land of Story not long after their father dies.
Alex and Conner want to get back to reality, and find a journal describing the Wishing Spell. They decide that using the spell is the only way they’ll be able to get back home, so they undertake the arduous task of assembling its ingredients, which include Cinderella’s glass slipper, and a piece of the basket Red Riding Hood carried to her grandmother. Finding these elements requires them to travel all over the Land of Story, a journey made even more difficult by the pack of wolves that are pursuing them, plus the servants of the Evil Queen who are also chasing down the ingredients to the Wishing Spell.
The fairy tales are all pretty familiar, with some amusing fractures, such as Goldilocks’ portrayal as a persecuted vigilante. The main plot device of assembling the ingredients for the Wishing Spell is very similar to the plot of Into the Woods, the Broadway musical written by Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine. The main characters, Alex and Connor, step into fairly stereotypical roles. Alex is bookish and brainy, with no close friends, and Connor is brawny and popular, and hates school.
The Wishing Spell plays it safe, not overly stretching the reader with anything difficult. Where the story does gets interesting is in the original fairy tales Colfer includes and refers to in the novel, intriguingly titled the tale of the Walking Fish, and the tale of the Curvy Tree. Unfortunately, these tales are not explored as deeply as the familiar tales. Hopefully, Colfer will return to these original tales in the sequels he has planned.
Colfer’s prologue to the story is also nicely done, challenging the young audience to rethink their ideas of a villain. Snow White visits her stepmother in prison (no death by hot shoes in this version) to try and get some answers on the Queen’s motivation for targeting Snow White. The Queen offers this:
But what the world fails to realize is that a villain is just a victim whose story hasn’t been told. The Evil Queen, The Wishing Spell, p9
Colfer is not an especially gifted writer of dialogue. In fact, much of the dialogue reads like a Disney sitcom and made me grimace. You can just about see the double-takes and camera mugging. But, I am not the intended audience. I know that this type of dialogue, with silly retorts and putdowns, is considered very funny by the third grader in my house.
I would recommend this novel to a child who enjoys familiar fairy tales, particularly the prince and princess-y stories. Late elementary grades are probably the best audience – I would say third grade to sixth grade would probably be the most entertained. There are some incidental illustrations by Brandon Dorman that add to the mood of the novel. The illustrated map is particularly well done.
Colfer’s first outing as a novelist hasn’t broken any new ground, but it is entertaining. Hopefully the next installments in the Land of Story series will improve upon the first, and I’m hoping that Colfer’s original fairy tales take a greater role.