Thursday, January 23, 2014

The Wishing Spell, by Chris Colfer

Title:  The Wishing Spell
Author:  Chris Colfer
Publisher:  Little, Brown Young Readers
Year:  2012
Pages:  438
Genre:  Fantasy
Themes:  Sibling Rivalry, Family, Dealing with Loss, Fairy Tales, Adventure
Age Range:  3rd through 6th Grade

Alex and Connor are twins.  They live with their mother in a small house in a small town.  Their father died the year before, and they and their mother are trying to figure out how to move on with their lives.  Their grandmother comes to visit, and among the gifts she brings them is a beloved book of stories.  But this book is no ordinary book-it is a portal to the fairy tale world, where their favorite story characters are real, and where beanstalks really grow and wolves really gobble up little girls.  Alex and Connor get trapped in this world, and in order to get home they must collect the items needed to do the Wishing Spell.  But this task is not an easy one-some of the items include Cinderella's glass slipper and Little Red Riding Hood's basket.  And they are not the only ones looking-Snow White's stepmother, the Evil Queen, needs to spell to take revenge on her stepdaughter and regain her throne.  Alex and Connor go on the adventure of a lifetime, and learn about the power of love an perseverance in the process.

I wanted to love this book.  I really really did.  I am a big fan of fantasy stories in general and fairy tales specifically, and the author is the actor who plays Kurt Hummel on Glee, one of my favorite television shows. So I tried really hard to like it.  Sadly, I just couldn't.  I didn't hate it, but there are some major issues with it that I just couldn't get past.

The story itself is promising-two young people from the 21st century who fall into fairy tale land and have an adventure.  But Colfer tried too hard to fit in something from EVERY fairy tale couldn't turn the page without another random character from some story or other turning up.  Sometimes this moved the story along, sometimes it seemed gratuitous, and that was when I took issue.  The book is quite long for a story aimed at intermediate school-age kids, but at the same time some of the events happened in a flash, so fast that there was no time to really get emotionally engaged with whatever drama or danger was happening to the characters.

Colfer actually did a pretty good job with the main characters.  Alex was a lonely girl who loved to read and was very good in school.  I identifed with her the most, since I was a lot like her myself in elementary school. Connor was a good kid, but school was hard for him, and he preferred playing with his friends to reading.  Even though he wasn't a mean kid, he was often in trouble at school for falling asleep in class or not completing his work.  As a teacher, I know plenty of real-life kids who are just like them, and I honestly did care about what happened to them.  Unfortunately, I don't feel like the rushed pace of the story did much to develop them much beyond where they start.

Like many first authors, and especially young authors, Colfer's writing feels immature.  There were parts of the story that read awkwardly, and parts that felt incomplete.  This book is designed to be the first in a series, and I will probably give the second book a try, even though I was not too happy with this one.  I feel like I owe it to one of my favorite young actors to see if he can develop as grow as a writer.  Younger readers will not take issue with some of the things that bothered me, so I'd say this book is worth having in a classroom library.  And MAYBE for use as a read aloud if you are teaching a fairy tales unit.  But I don't see enough quality writing to make it worth using for guided reading or literature circles.

Thursday, January 9, 2014

Nathanial Fludd, Beastologist: Flight of the Phoenix

Title:  The Flight of the Phoenix (Nathiel Fludd, Beastologist #1)
Author:  R.L. LeFever
Publisher:  HMH Books for Young Readers
Year:  2009
Pages:  138
Genre:  Fantasy
Themes:  Family Tradition, Adventure
Age Range:  3rd-5th Grade

Summary:  from Goodreads

Nathaniel Fludd’s life has taken a turn for the worst. With his parents lost at sea, he lands on the doorstep of a distant cousin—the world’s last remaining beastologist. Soon Nate is whisked off on his first expedition, to Arabia, where the world’s only phoenix prepares to lay its new egg. When disaster strikes, Nate quickly finds himself all alone.
       Will he be able to see the phoenix safely hatched, keep his accidental pet gremlin out of trouble, and rescue his guardian from the Bedouin? If he fails, nothing will stand between the world’s mythical creatures and extinction.

I have always been a fan of fantasy novels. Ever since my parents gave me the Narnia books for Christmas when I was 10, I have loved being swept away to imaginary lands full of rare and mysterious people and creatures.  As such, I had high hopes for this series.

Nathaniel is definitely a sad sort of boy.  Left behind while his parents went on an expedition in the arctic, stuck in the care of a woman who cares less for him than for the money she gets for taking care of him, Nathaniel longs to be old enough to accompany his parents on their journeys.  When news comes that they have been lost at sea, his caregiver wastes no time in dumping him on his only remaining relative-a cousin he has never met-in fact, never even knew existed.

But in cousin Phil (short for Philomena),  he discovers a rich source of family lore, and discovers that he is the last in a long line of Fludds who did the most dangerous and most important of jobs-caring for the mythological beasts that most of the world believes to be imaginary.  And it isn't long before he gets his first taste of adventure, as Aunt Phil whisks him off to Arabia to guard over the birth of a new phoenix.  Of course, flying there in her two seater plane, accidentally adopting a gremlin, and having to rescue his aunt from an angry Bedouin chieftain was more than he bargained for.  Even so, Nathaniel rises to the challenge in true Fludd style.

As narratives go this one moves pretty quickly.  There is very little in the way of character development or backstory when it comes to anyone other than Nathaniel.  That said, I enjoyed it almost as much as I'd hoped.  It reads a bit like the Series of Unfortunate Events books, though without the caustic narrator that made those books so unique.  While the book does deal with the loss of Nathaniel's parents and his general fears and anxiety, it doesn't really lend itself to serious discussion.  Mostly it is an enjoyable romp through an alternate past, and as the first of a series promises many more romps to come.  I think it would make a great addition to a classroom library, especially for those kids that are fascinated by mythical creatures.