Venture Forth: A Review of ‘The Wishing Spell’ (Land of Stories #1)

 “Every person’s life is a fairy tale written by God’s fingers.” –Hans Christian Anderson

Reading Level:

Grade 5 [The text could likely be read independently by a student whose reading skills are at the level of a typical fifth grader.]

Interest Level: 

Grades of 3-8

Review and Comments:

The Wishing Spell is a story about a brother and sister named Alex and Connor Bailey, twins who are individually quite unique.  Alex is an intelligent and resourceful girl who spends a great deal of time reading alone and isolating herself from those who consider her different.  Connor, on the other hand, is a very popular boy who finds school a challenge and sometimes feels that no matter how hard he tries he just doesn’t measure up. He has trouble staying awake in school because, well, most lessons are just not interesting or relevant. The twins do share two very important things in common however.  They love fairy tales.  Their father and grandmother have been telling them fairy tales since they were very young.  Those family times are some of their best memories.  Alex even wonders what it would be like to live in a fairy tale of her imagination. The twins also share a great sorrow.  Their dad was killed in an accident and even though it was a year ago they still grieve so much that “sometimes they expect their sadness to swell out of their bodies”.

Their effort to live a normal life again without their dad takes a toll on them both.  Then, on their twelve-birthday, their grandmother gives them a gift that changes the entire normal world they have been trying so desperately to live in.  She gives them The Land of Stories, the family “heirloom” storybook that was read to them since they were very young.   Of course Alex keeps the book close.  She soon learns that the book is very peculiar – alarming actually. She witnesses the book hum and the pages glow.  Eventually she shares this secret with Connor.  She has to really because the two of them share “twin-tuition” and secrets like that just cannot be kept hidden.  After great difficulties at school and some experimentation with the book, the twins literally jump into the Land of Stories!  They soon realize they have entered a magical world that is populated with renowned good and evil characters.

The first fantasy character they meet is Froggy.  He explains how things are set up in this fairy tale world.  There are nine kingdoms altogether, and the kingdoms are ruled by the traditional princesses and a Fairy Council.  He not only gives them vital information about how to get home using a Wishing Spell, but he hands over a map and a very detailed journal written by a man from another world. The journal explains that they need to collect eight items for the spell:  a lock of Rapunsel’s hair, Cinderella’s glass slipper, a piece of Little Red Riding Hood’s original basket, a fairy tear, King Troll’s crown, the spindle from Sleeping Beauty’s spinning wheel, jewels from Snow White’s coffin, and a saber from the deepest sea. And so begins “the greatest scavenger hunt of their lives”.

They set off on their quest and not only encounter very familiar and loved fairy tale characters but immediately confront the wicked side of fairy tales. The Evil Queen has escaped from prison and is at large.  She is also seeking the items for the Wishing Spell with the aid of a fearless Huntress.   She is not the only “bad guy” the twins must face however.  There is also: the witch from Hansel and Gretel, a pack of wolves lead by Malumclaw (the son of the original Big Bad Wolf) who has made a pact with the Evil Queen, a troll under a bridge, the Huntsman and his daughter the Huntress, and slave seeking Goblin and Troll.  All of these characters cause great complications and sometimes life threatening situations for the twins – one right after another.  They must use their most creative problem solving skills and bravery to overcome these obstacles while searching for and obtaining the eight items.  Along the way the twins begin to suspect that their father and maybe even their grandmother are from The Land of Stories.

The culmination of all their adventures occurs when the wolves deliver the twins and the eight items for the Wishing Spell to the Evil Queen. Before she initiates the spell, she reveals her history and the reason she has a stone heart – a tale that will touch the heart of the reader.   The Queen activates the Wishing Spell but has a tragic end, as most evil characters do in fairy tales. Returning home seems impossible now.

The twins are rescued from the wolves and then taken to the Fairy Godmother. The Fairy Godmother, the same Fairy Godmother they have read about for years, is in reality their very own grandmother.  She answers all their questions about herself, their father, and The Land of Stories.  The twins feel that just “knowing that their dad was from the fairy-tale world was the most meaningful part of their adventure.”  With the magic of the grandmother, aka Fairy Godmother, the twins return to the other world. It is by no means their final farewell.

The Land of Stories is definitely a book of good versus evil mingled with a few flawed characters that drift between the two groups.   The Evil Queen is the controlling presence on the evil side and her actions throughout the story seem to justify her sinister reputation.   A prologue suggests that her story is more complex than any fairy tale thus far has revealed, but the reader must wait until chapter 20 to learn about her life before the evil chapters began.  The princesses in the story are the influential leaders of all that is good.  They are generous and kind and always try to do what is right and honorable for their kingdoms.  Then there are other characters whose contradictory actions blur the lines of good and evil.  The story of Goldilocks and Red Riding Hood is intermingled with the twins’ adventures.  Sometimes their story is humorous and other times it is fierce.

Chris Colfer’s descriptions are striking and give a real sense of the atmosphere surrounding every scene and a vivid appearance to each character.  The reader will not find it difficult to imagine each suspenseful adventure of Alex and Connor.

The suggested reading level of fifth grade and a bit older is a good range for this book.  As with some very wonderful stories, there are several additions that I wish were not included. In my opinion, these do not add anything of value to the well written story by Colfer.  Parents should decide what is appropriate for the maturity of their child.

Possible Concerns:

  • [Alex asks Connor what he thinks the moral of Sleep Beauty is.] “Don’t piss off your neighbors, I guess…”
  • [Connor talks to Alex.] “At first I thought you were just having girl issues- “
  • [The singing harp tells the twins that Little Miss Muffet married Georgie Porgie] “…..but, as everyone knows, he has had countless affairs, but that’s another story-“
  • [The twins hear Little Red Riding Hood having a dream.] “Oh my, what big strong arms you have, Jack. Oh my, what soft lips you have, Jack.” Then Conner says they should leave her room before they hear her describe anything else!
  • [Connor remembers a portrait of Red Riding Hood.] He points “to a portrait where Red Riding Hood was barely clothed, with only a wolf skin coat to cover her.”
  • [Jack in the Beanstalk meets his love Goldilocks at the city gate.] “….they kissed.  It was passionate, pure, and long overdue.”  Connor says, “Good thing those bars are between them.”
  • [The twins had to travel across Swan Lake, and it was unbearably cold.] “Wooo!  It’s so cold, I think we may be twin sisters now,” he said through rattling teeth.
  • [Goldilocks dragged Red Riding Hood to the Thornbrush Pit.] “Oh, shut up, you red-hooded harlot!” Goldilocks said. “I said silence, you basket-carrying bimbo!”
  • [Goldilocks fights the Huntress while trying to save Jack.] “…..kicked the Huntress in the stomach.”
  • [After Goldilocks was found alive in the rubble of the castle, she and Jack reunited.] “They shared a kiss so passionate that a few of the soldiers blushed.”

Further Discussion:

  • Country origins of familiar fairy tales:
    • Cinderella – French
    • The Boy Who Cried Wolf – Greek
    • The Three Billy Goats Gruff – Norwegian
    • Snow White – German
    • Sleeping Beauty – French
    • Rapunzel – German
    • Little Red Riding Hood – French
    • The Little Mermaid – Danish
    • Jack and the Beanstalk – English
    • Hansel and Gretel – German
  • The descriptions beg for some kind of follow up such as an illustration or diorama of a favorite location or character.
    1. Write a paragraph explaining why a particular location or character was chosen.
    2. Include the direct description from the story on the picture or diorama.
  • Pick a new vocabulary word. Teach the word to others.
    1. Draw a picture.
    2. Dramatize the meaning.
    3. Make a video visually showing the meaning.
    4. Make a list of synonyms and antonyms.
    5. Write a short story or poem defining the word.
    • The Land of Stories series by Chris Colfer includes: (Click on any image for more information.)

Catholic Resources:

  • Alex refers to the apple on Snow White’s castle as a “symbol for the kingdom” similar to the cross in a church.
    • Guide to Catholic Symbols: These are undoubtedly the most recognizable symbols of our faith and an indicator that the wearer is a Christian. The difference between the terms is that a crucifix depicts Jesus crucified. Catholic Churches display crucifixes behind the altar rather than a simple cross in recognition that it is in Jesus’ suffering and death for our sins that we have our salvation. A simple cross is still a powerful image, especially to early Christians, as it claims a symbol associated with torture and humiliation for the conquering of death.
  • The Evil Queen asks the twins what made them good. They respond that it was their wonderful parents.
    • CCC 2207 The family is the original cell of social life. It is the natural society in which husband and wife are called to give themselves in love and in the gift of life. Authority, stability, and a life of relationships within the family constitute the foundations for freedom, security, and fraternity within society. The family is the community in which, from childhood, one can learn moral values, begin to honor God, and make good use of freedom. Family life is an initiation into life in society.
  • Some characters in The Land of Stories have lost all hope. The feelings of discouragement and abandonment overwhelm them so much that they become selfish and arrogant.
    • CCC 1818 The virtue of hope responds to the aspiration to happiness which God has placed in the heart of every man; it takes up the hopes that inspire men’s activities and purifies them so as to order them to the Kingdom of heaven; it keeps man from discouragement; it sustains him during times of abandonment; it opens up his heart in expectation of eternal beatitude. Buoyed up by hope, he is preserved from selfishness and led to the happiness that flows from charity.
  • According to Christian tradition, Sts. Cosmos and Damian were twin brothers. Their feast day is September 26.

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