The Wishing Spell is the first book in the Land of Stories series, a six-volume work written for the young reader, and very popular it is, too.
The book of Ecclesiastes tells us that there is nothing new under the sun, and this certainly applies to the literary world. All writers must work within their culture and environment, and draw on its resources for their work. That said, and creativity being a difficult chore, it is tempting to take the work of past masters, tweak it a bit, deliver it to a new audience, and voila! The book is done.
This can be seen, for instance, in the works of Rick Riordan, another very popular author who takes Norse, Egyptian, and Greco-Roman mythology as the basis for his work. This consists of using these myths as the template for the creation of his fictional universes, but grafting on to them a veneer of whatever young people of the present culture find timely, appealing, or familiar. It has proved to be a very successful formula.
Chris Colfer, author of the Land of Stories series, adopts the same modus operandi.
In his case, he takes the stories of traditional European fairy tales as the template for his universe, but gives them leading characters who act as representatives of today’s young people with whom the reader can easily identify.
Alex and Conner Bailey, children of a single mother struggling to make ends meet, are the heroes of the book. Already, one can see the nods to the concerns and preferences of today: Alex is not a boy, but a girl, there is not an intact family, but a single mother without a husband. It should be pointed out that the husband and father is not the missing link in a divorce, but instead died tragically in an accident. The nod to a normal family’s bonds is a refreshing novelty in the world of children’s fiction.
The children’s grandmother gives them a book of fairy stories, a family heirloom that is magical in nature. The children fall into the fairy tale world through the book, and the rest of the book involves their adventures as they attempt to make their way back home.
Enough “refreshes” to the fairy tales are applied to appeal to a modern audience:
Goldilocks is a warrior maiden who lives in the woods and has a price on her head; the Evil Queen (Snow White’s stepmother) is evil, but fundamentally just unlucky in love, and misunderstood; the Big Bad Wolf appears as an animal equivalent of leader of a criminal gang (the Big Bad Wolf Pack); Alex and Conner outwit the evil witch in the Hansel and Gretel story and turn her into a vegetarian, and so forth. The author manages to retain enough of the underlying fairy stories to amuse the reader, while the updating of the characters should overcome a modern reader’s reluctance to read a simple book of fairy tales.
The story holds the reader’s interest, to be sure. Numerous critics have pointed out that the writing is somewhat pedestrian. True, this book is no classic work of children’s literature, but it wasn’t intended to be.
The message of the book is fundamentally a tried and true one that we have heard in another fairy tale: “There’s no place like home!” Loyalty to friends, the importance of family, the triumph of good over evil in the end, are all themes of the book.
It is a book that young readers greatly enjoy.
Good, not great, and harmless overall. Not a small thing in the world of modern literature.