Newberys Read This Year: 13
Newberys Left for Goal: 2
Newberys Left for Total: 16
Book: The Wishing Spell by Chris Colfer
The celebrity culture we live in today is a pretty sorry thing, in my opinion. Sometimes it can be rather innocuous, such as populating cooking shows on my beloved Food Network and Cooking Channel with celebrities rather than professional cooks. Sometimes it can be rather terrifying, such as having a misogynist, racist, uninformed, egomaniacal celebrity bully as a major political party’s nominee for president (yes, my Republican friends, I’m taking a swipe at Donald Trump) rather than someone who understands the political process. Sometimes it’s merely frustrating, such as when celebrities without a gift for writing get published rather than people who actually know how to write.
This final example is, of course, what I’m talking about with this book. Chris Colfer may be able to sing beautifully, and maybe he did a great job on Glee (admittedly, I lost interest in the show after the first season), but he is not a writer. At least, he is not a skilled writer of children’s books.
His premise for this book is intriguing. Twins Alex and Connor have recently lost their father in a car accident, and as a result spend little time with their mother who must work double nursing shifts to make ends meet. Alex is a whiz at school, reveling in reading, especially her beloved fairy tales. Connor struggles in school, but more due to lack of interest rather than poor ability. After a disappointing birthday, Alex becomes intrigued with their gift from their grandmother, The Land of Stories, a book that is a collection of fairy tales. Much to their surprise, the kids literally fall into the book. They meet several fairy tale characters as they collect items for The Wishing Spell, the only way they can get back to their own world.
Interesting premise aside, the execution is rather abysmal. When I first began reading it, the word that kept coming to my mind was amateurish. You know, not bad, but just not polished. By the time I was done (and I was so thankful to be done with this book) I knew it was worse than that. It was just bad writing.
How do I dislike thee? Let me count the ways.
First of all, there is the description. There is entirely too much of it. Not that there are long, flowery passages, but rather just about every thing and every action has a modifier. This is actually what made me think the work was amateurish. At first the over-description was annoying, then tedious, and finally just plain awful. Most people do not think and talk with so much attention to detail, so reading writing like that made me think that too much effort was put into the how of the writing than the actual storytelling.
Speaking of too much attention to detail brings me to my second point. There is also too much attention to time. What I mean by that is that it seems like just about every waking minute of the main characters’ time is accounted for. We as readers don’t really need to know every action the kids do, especially when the actions don’t advance the plot or character development. Edit, people! All that results is a book that is much too long, much too tedious (again!) and much too fussy.
And that fussiness brings me to my next point. Kids, in general, are not fussy. They’re messy, they’re disorganized, they’re off-kilter in many ways. Neither Connor not Alex are like that. How they speak and act do not resemble, well, any kids I know. The adults in the story are also just off-balance when it comes to the way that most grown-ups act, especially when dealing with kids. The thought I kept having was that the author either doesn’t really know kids, is not comfortable with them, does not really spend much time with them, or some combination of all of these. This may not be true of Mr. Colfer, but that is the way his writing comes off. Mr. Colfer chose a third-person unlimited point of view to tell his story. Usually, when an author does this the reader still gets the feeling that the “narrator” is a part of the story. Here, I felt that the narrator was detached. That is not the best way for an author to engage readers in his story, particularly child readers.
I suppose what Mr. Colfer does to engage his readers is to try to submerge them with exciting action. Except if that is what he was doing, using such a plethora of television/movie clichés might not be the best way of going about it. There are so many that I cannot recount them all, but the two that stand out most are the tree-trap and the underwater drama. You know, the tree trap. You’ve seen it hundreds of times when the good guys are walking through a forest, step on something, and trigger a huge net to sweep them up and leave them hanging from a tree. And the underwater drama—when two characters are trying to sneak somewhere by swimming, dive under some type of barrier, and one of them gets caught on it and is saved by the other just in the nick of time. These are images we’ve seen over and over and get another opportunity to experience them in Mr. Colfer’s book.
Side note—I mentioned that the clichés are from movies and television. Because of this, I felt like I was watching the story rather than reading it. Certainly when I read I visualize the story, but it doesn’t feel like I’m watching TV program. I consistently had that feeling when reading this book. I did not enjoy the juxtaposition of media.
The final point I want to make about my dislike of this book is its take on bullying. This has become sort of a hobbyhorse of mine, and I don’t mean to harp on it, but bullying is so prevalent in kid society, and when I see what is likely well-meaning writing that inadvertently adds to the problem I can’t seem to keep quiet. The Evil Queen, unsurprisingly, is a bully. After an intense conversation (a conversation in which she imprisons, tortures, and manipulates) our main characters feel sympathy for her. They realize that she had to deal with some horrible things in her past which caused her evilness. This was even foreshadowed in the prologue of the book. I get it. Bullies are often made. But in the real world, simply having sympathy for a bully doesn’t undo the pain and humiliation they cause. Ideally, showing sympathy and compassion for a bully will lead to the bully having remorse and deciding to change her ways. When writing for kids, you need to represent life like it is and realistically model what it can become. This has the potential for such power when dealing with bullying. But here, the bully shows no remorse. The fact that she physically cannot (she turned her heart into stone many years ago) does not matter to me. A huge takeaway from this book about bullying is: victims, feel sorry for your tormentors and bullies, we know it’s not your fault so it’s OK. However, it’s not OK. Whatever horrible things have happened to you does not excuse the choice you make to take it out on others. If it were OK, in our stories why don’t our good-guy characters who are bullied (who have horrible things happen to them) end up as bullies themselves? Right—because it’s not OK.
Okay. I’m getting off the hobbyhorse and getting out of this review. This is a terrible book. It’s amateurish, cliché-ridden, and has a horrible message. It only got published because the author is famous. The publishing profession does not have the courtesy to care more (or at least equally) about the quality of its products than the quantity its profits.