Thursday, December 19, 2013

The Land of Stories

What if the fairy tales you grew up hearing were, in fact, simply the history of another world?  What if you favorite characters like Snow White and Cinderella were real flesh-and-blood people?  What if all the fantasies you know and love were actually real?

And what if you could hop between your world and theirs and visit them?

This is the delightful premise of Chris Colfer's The Land of Stories.  Alex and Conner Bailey, twin 12 year olds who have grown up hearing fairy tales read to them from their grandmother's book of stories.  Upon their 12th birthday, their grandmother gives them the book as a gift, and Alex makes a startling discovery:  the book can become a magical portal to another world.  A world where fairy tales are real, with princesses and evil queens and wolves that speak.  After they accidently fall into that world, they must go on a quest to gather the items necessary to make their way home.  Along the way, they discover that not all is what it seems, and there are secrets to be uncovered everywhere they go. 

This book was recommended at an education conference I attended, and the premise intrigued me, so when it came up on my daughter's book order for a few dollars, I grabbed it.  I am so glad I did.  The book is fun, fast-paced, and opens up some interesting perspectives on well-worn stories.  Colfer's take on the way things could be is enjoyably refreshing.  The language itself is nothing startling, and by about 2/3 of the way through it, I started successfully guessing what was going to happen next.  None of that kept me from dropping everything for an evening to try and finish the book (after all, I had to figure out if I was right or not!).  The idea of fairy tales being real is not a new one, and neither is the concept of characters having different back stories than originally intended.  However, Colfer paints an interesting picture with his take on the tales, and it's worth reading the book to see where he takes the characters.

One fascinating - and controversial - topic addressed in the book is the idea of motives.  The Evil Queen from Snow White is given a history that explains why she did what she did.    Some have felt that by giving her a history, it is excusing the fact that she tried to kill Snow White multiple times.  As I read the book, I did see the author excusing the behavior, but merely explaining it.  I also think it gave the read something to ponder about news stories they read or gossip they hear - there is always more to the story at hand, good or bad.  Understanding someone's history does not have to whitewash their behavior - but it can help one see that not everything is black and white, villains have feelings too, and situations are usually more complex than is seen on the surface. 

I also appreciated the fact that Colfer chose to relate his stories with the original fairy tales.  He does not mention the sanitized versions of stories unless it is to scoff at them - instead, he uses the old tales, such as The Little Mermaid turning into sea foam because she would not kill the prince, or the Evil Queen making four different attempts on Snow White's life.  When we "clean up" these tales to make them "appropriate" for children, we lose the message of the original story as well as pieces of the culture from which it came.  Colfer's choice to stay as true to the Brothers Grimm or Hans Christian Anderson is one I was glad he made. 

I plan to use this book soon with my students to talk about point of view and compare/contrast, so it has value on an educational level.  It is also valuable for the pure enjoyment of it.  Read The Land of Stories and travel to the place and time of the fairly tales of your childhood.  It's a ride that is worth your time.

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
What I'm Reading Now: Becoming Myself by Stasi Eldredge

Top 5 TBR:
The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
Shooting Victoria by Paul Thomas Murphy
A Prophetic Calendar by Jill Shannon
Forgotten God by Francis Chan
The Lightening Thief by Rick Riordian

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