The Land of Stories: When the fourth wall is a doorway

In many ways, I am the worst possible person to review Chris Colfer’s The Land of Stories. Not only am I not a middle grade reader, I often loathed books appropriate for my age group even as a child because I felt they were too overt in the lessons they were trying to impart and the narrative tricks they were engaging in to do so.

“Oh look, another book about some girl who communes with wolves that will teach me about the importance of self-reliance, algebra, and offering loving respect to my parents,” I would start monologuing each May when faced with my annual the summer reading list requirements. That stuff made me bitter.

I can’t tell you that Colfer’s book necessarily avoids content that stirs that reaction in me, but I also can’t tell you it should. After all, not only was I cantankerous about these sorts of books as a child, I am certainly not a middle grade reader now, nor am I the parent of one.

But, aside from the necessary content and structural oddities of book designed for this age group, there’s a ridiculous amount of interest in The Land of Stories. Some of it, such as the sure to be endlessly quoted “unicorns don’t have rabies” discussion, is mostly just hilarious, even if I can’t help but link the discussion of one-horned magical creatures and disease to the use of “unicorn” as a way of discussing Kurt Hummel’s queerness on Glee and finding a witty, and unfortunately necessary, indignance in the remark.

Much of it, however, is overtly poignant not only in the context of the book, but unavoidably unsettling in the context of its authorship. One of the first, and most crystalline examples of this comes in the protagonists’ meeting with Queen Cinderella:

“What was it like?” Alex asked Cinderella. “What was it like to go from being a servant to being a queen? What was it like to be saved from a horrible situation? Your life is literally… well… a Cinderella story.”

A sadness came to Cinderella’s face.

“I never thought my life would change so drastically, so I always made the most of what I had,” Cinderella said.

“… living a public life is a difficult thing to do, and even now I still find it a bit overwhelming. No matter what you do, you can never please everyone. And that was the hardest lesson to learn. In fact, I am still learning it.”

The actual passage is several times the length of what is quoted above, and is not necessarily even the book’s most startling moment. In fact, each interaction with the queens of the storybook world can arguably be read on two levels, one of which is fixed outside of the narrative of the novel. In case you’re curious, the kings Charming (they’re brothers) fare less well as attractive and largely interchangeable cardboard cutouts.

The Evil Queen’s remarks on ambition are perhaps the other, most precise moment of double vision the book provides:

“Every driven person comes from a mountain of pain they wish to keep hidden,” the Evil Queen said.

Certainly there is something sly and uncomfortable about the queens of a series of storybook kingdoms serving as the clearest representation of the authorial voice, when that author is the one in question. If this is intentional on Colfer’s part, it’s a delightful and pointed play on expectation and underscores the allegorical queerness in a book that isn’t really queer at all (except perhaps when Conner tells us he really, really can’t let the guys at school find out about his newly discovered ancestry). And, if it is unintentional on Colfer’s part, the reader response to it makes for a no less compelling conversation.

It’s statements like Evil Queen’s on ambition, however, that also make the book interesting regardless of authorship. Among other things, I wonder what it would be like to read that sentence as an eight-year-old. What does that sentiment — which rings very true to me — impart to a person of that age? It doesn’t seem like all those boring lessons about wolves and algebra and loving my mother at all.

Where The Land of Stories excels as literature is in the voices and dilemmas of its adults. Colfer’s ability to juggle multiple narrative voices is interesting, and I probably shouldn’t be surprised that as an actor he clearly has the most fun with the parts of the narration that come to us in the first person.

Much like Struck by Lightning, Colfer’s freshman film effort that I believe will be in general release soon, the adult stories which we see in passing through the eyes of children with bigger concerns linger because Colfer suffuses the adult relationships with loss and longing, knowing that in his fairytale book the ending everyone craves — happily ever after — is innately boring.

Ultimately, while I am reasonably sure that The Land of Stories is a clever, competent, and viciously funny middle grade book that will be deeply pleasing particularly to children who feel peculiar because of how their intelligence manifests, The Land of Stories impressed me for the way in which it emphasizes and exemplifies the infinite nature of story telling: A young man who is living what some would call a fairytale writes a novel about two children who fall into a fairytale and then navigate that world through the journals and stories of others, while the reader, upon noticing these layers of narrative, unavoidably also extends the story in ways that were, if not surely unintended then are, at least, intentionally unacknowledged.

If nothing else The Land of Stories is a unique entry in the annals of transformative work as the narrative performs multiple functions and extends multiple stories for several, often disparate audiences, simultaneously.

5 thoughts on “The Land of Stories: When the fourth wall is a doorway”

  1. Now see, I would have thought unicorns DID get rabies, because horses do. You saved me getting my unicorn an unecessary shot!

  2. This is really interesting. I mean, God I’m dying to read this book, and it’s only fortunate that John Irving happens to have one out right now that’s keeping me sane, but the stuff about success and living in public — I wonder how much of this is new and how much of it is old — what was going through his head in Clovis? It sounds like it’s teaching different lessons, and that’s helpful — and I’m not surprised that Colfer’s female characters draw focus. He seems very focused on feminine strength in a way that makes me do a double take every single time he starts listing the strongest superheroes and doesn’t mention a single male superhero, or mentions his idols who are all women. And talks about his mother and sister and grandmother and the cafeteria ladies and … women. I’m guessing TLoS passes the Bechdel test with flying colours?

  3. I am now wondering what you think of The Little Prince. We give it to children to read, but I think you have to be much older to feel that way about love.

    For the record, there’s a lot of Middle Grade Fiction that isn’t like that. Our summer reading lists were “advanced,” so I read my way through a couple Middle grade libraries on my own, only reading stuff that interested me, which meant things like House of Stairs, by William Sleator. (Five Children in a giant skinner box, basically. They are being trained to do horrible things. Two rebel.) I’m not saying you should go out and read Middle grade or Ya. I just wanted you to know that there’s more variation than your education exposed you to.

  4. (Tangent: Oh, gods, House of Stairs is like the pre-Hunger Games. I read that the same summer as Interstellar Pig and it was a very memorable experience. William Sleator is *warped.*)

    I’ve been dubious about reading Land of Stories largely because I’m the irritating sort of person who refuses to buy most Apple products because they’re overhyped, but as a writer whose likely eventual audience is similar and who has an equal fascination with fairytales, I have been wondering if I really ought to read it anyway. Your review has convinced me I should. (Like that Storyboard article about recappers, I love book and theater reviews for the same brain-stretching reasons.)

  5. Your insights, as always, leave me speechless and star-struck. Except to say I would pay money to put you and Chris Colfer in a quiet room, one on one, for an hour. He must be dying for some decent questions from someone who has not only read his book, but actually thought about what he might be trying to say.

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