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Children are very fond of sweets, and will indiscriminately enjoy both thyme honey and treacle. But that children enjoy sweets indiscriminately does not—or should not—bar adults from also being able to enjoy sweets; it only means that we will, or should, discriminate in our choices. Too many “children’s books” are goop: low-quality treacle, marketed for the child’s supposedly equally indiscriminate literary sweet tooth (a phenomenon in whose existence I myself believe a great deal less than apparently do most publishers). On those precious few occasions when we find an author who is turning out the literary equivalent of thyme honey for children, we can and should freely please ourselves with the product.
Frank Baum wrote entirely and explicitly for children. His works, however, are very much more of the thyme-honey sort than the treacle sort, which is why they have—clichéd but true—captured the hearts of generations of readers, and received high praise from those from whom praise is much to be valued. Those who know no more of Oz than the dreadful movie (well, it was perhaps pleasant enough, but it was wildly unfaithful to its source) can scarcely appreciate what joys they have awaiting them. Moreover, Baum created many other delightful tales, now sadly forgotten owing to the dominance of Oz but still, in several important cases, in print.
Oz! What can one say of Oz? A very great deal or a very little: those are the only two options. If I, or anyone, really knew what accounted for its excellence we’d be selling it in bottles in drugstores instead of writing web pages. Oz is magical, literally—a place where pretty much anything can happen. And, generally speaking, anything and everything is what happens. In most hands, that would be a recipe for disaster; Baum somehow brings the thing off with nothing clearly visible up his sleeve.
It is, I suppose, a nice balancing of the infinite possibilities with the need for at least a little coherence in the narrative. (Say that three times, very quickly.) Baum seems to have a profound sense of what he can and can’t get away with. He sets bizarre propositions, but then follows them out, at least more or less. He apparently grasps or intuits the exact point at which a small child might say “But why do they do that?” or “Why couldn’t they just…?” and goes that far and no farther.
Oz appeals to the child because the terrors of the place are well matched to the child’s ability to manage fears. There are assuredly evil witches and gnomes and suchlike; but, under the prevailing magic of Oz, all there (native or, like Dorothy and later many others, immigrant from our reality) are immortal. None are truly killed or horribly hurt. Friends and enemies alike can be and frequently are literally taken apart and put back together again with no pain or ill effects. The wrongs done by the wicked are usually the usurpation of rightful authority, occasionally the imprisoning of the innocent. That is the point: no evil in Oz is ever final; there is always time and opportunity for ultimate relief and succor.
Also, and I think this important, the small children in Baum’s tales (and there are many besides Dorothy) are always real children—they are not adults in pint-sized bodies—yet possessed of a definite gravity and dignity. They may cry on occasion, but they don’t squeal or run away screaming or make “childishly” foolish choices or otherwise embarrass themselves.
The books appeal deeply to children: that is indisputable historical fact. That they also appeal to adults is due in good part to their being something for which a term has only recently been coined (for “children’s” TV cartoons aimed as much as or more at adults): bi-modal—capable of simultaneous appeal, but on different planes, to children and adults. For example, Baum is fond of puns, many of which appear to have been (like some other elements) tossed in with a wink and a nudge to the adults in the audience to enliven their visit.
“Go slowly, for now there is no danger of pursuit,” said Tip to his steed.
“All right!” responded the creature, in a voice rather gruff.
“Aren’t you a little hoarse?” asked the Pumpkinhead, politely.
The Saw-Horse gave an angry prance and rolled one knotty eye backward toward Tip.
“See here,” he growled, “can’t you protect me from insult?”
(Notice that there are two puns in that.) I think that now all there is left for me to do is to give you a quotation—as usual, pretty much randomly selected—to present the flavor of Baum’s writing. I will make it a little longer than the usual snippets because here one is standing for all.
“I am completely ruined!” declared the Scarecrow, as he noted their astonishment. “For where is the straw that stuffs my body?”
The awful question startled them all. They gazed around the nest with horror, for not a vestige of straw remained. The Jackdaws had stolen it to the last wisp and flung it all into the chasm that yawned for hundreds of feet beneath the nest.
“My poor, poor friend!” said the Tin Woodman, taking up the Scarecrow’s head and caressing it tenderly; “whoever could imagine you would come to this untimely end?“
“I did it to save my friends,” returned the head; “and I am glad that I perished in so noble and unselfish a manner.”
“But why are you all so despondent?” inquired the Woggle-Bug. “The Scarecrow’s clothing is still safe.”
“Yes,” answered the Tin Woodman; “but our friend’s clothes are useless without stuffing.”
“Why not stuff him with money?” asked Tip.
“Money!” they all cried, in an amazed chorus.
“To be sure,” said the boy. “In the bottom of the nest are thousands of dollar bills—and five-dollar bills—and tens, and twenties and fifties. There are enough of them to stuff a dozen Scarecrows. Why not use the money?”
The Tin Woodman began to turn over the rubbish with the handle of his axe; and, sure enough, what they had first thought only worthless papers were found to be all bills of various denominations, which the mischievous Jackdaws had for years been engaged in stealing from the villages and cities they visited.
There was an immense fortune lying in that inaccessible nest; and Tip’s suggestion was, with the Scarecrow’s consent, quickly acted upon.
They selected all the newest and cleanest bills and assorted them into various piles. The Scarecrow’s left leg and boot were stuffed with five-dollar bills; his right leg was stuffed with ten-dollar bills, and his body so closely filled with fifties, one-hundreds and one-thousands that he could scarcely button his jacket with comfort.
“You are now,” said the Woggle-Bug, “the most valuable member of our party; and as you are among faithful friends there is little danger of your being spent.”
Well! Even in that little passage, we can find plenty of food for thought. Note first that for something from a “children’s book,” the passage has a pretty rich vocabulary. Note next that, in a very unostentatious way, the prose is quite clean and literate; there are lots of “adult” fantasies being published today with less euphonious (and even less grammatical) writing. Then there is the sustained tone—possibly above children’s heads, possibly not—of gentle irony (as, for example, with the decidedly lively Scarecrow bidding an oratorical farewell to his fellows). There is the little matter of knowing that even in Oz—magical, marvelous Oz—there is the almighty dollar to be reckoned with. And there is the acceptance of the small child as an equal partner in all the adventures (a status his perspicacity shows he deserves). And, as so often, there is the punning.
There are fifteen Oz books by Baum (fourteen novels and one short-story collection); my reckoning is that the entire series is well worth reading, but they are perhaps not quite all on a par. There is a general common excellence in the first five books. The fifth ends with a stupendous gala party to which Baum sends every fictional character he had ever created, in or out of Oz—from his version of Santa Claus to John Dough, the gingerbread man; all in all, it looks very much like an envoi to the series. It wasn’t, but the sixth book is perceptibly weaker in some respects than its predecessors, somewhat forced, and at the end of that one, Baum announces that Oz has been forever magically sealed off from our world—so no more Oz stories. Like Conan Doyle when he threw Sherlock Holmes over the Reichenbach Falls, Baum had tired of being considered a Johnny One-Note, and wanted to move on to other projects; but, again like Conan Doyle, he was eventually obliged to un-end his definite ending and carry on. The ensuing books are, on the whole, perhaps not quite as inspired as the first five, but all are pleasing. Get the lot: read them all. Again and again.
After Baum’s death, the Oz series was carried on by many different authors. Ruth Plumly Thompson was the next “Royal Historian of Oz” and produced nineteen tales, more than Baum himself; after her, seven others produced seven more “canonical” Oz books—books accepted by Oz devotees as “real” parts of the history of the place—and many, many more produced books of widely differing tone and quality which are not “canonical" (including some by Baum’s great-grandson, Roger Baum). Ms. Thompson’s facility might lead the unwary to assume that the trick was an easy one to learn, but see how quickly the art ended after her; we, the English-speaking world, were just very lucky in her.
By the way, lest you think that my rating Baum and Oz so highly is just some idiosyncracy of mine, be aware that not a few people with reasonable entitlement to literary opinions have also found Oz highly praiseworthy (not the least of them being Gore Vidal).
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Baum shares with some other writers the disability of having created a work or cycle of works so immensely popular that other often equally praiseworthy works by him are quite lost in the glare (or—pick your metaphor—in the shadow) of the famous work. Baum wrote dozens of other books; like the Oz books, they are somewhat variable in quality, but the best are at least as good as Oz and the weakest no worse than any Oz book. Had Baum never written of Oz, he would likely still be remembered and read today.
Particularly noteworthy, I think, is The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus, which manages to put the Santa Claus legend into a coherent—and moving—whole, explaining many of the old fellow’s now-famous characteristics and adjuncts with a surprising degree of logic (which yet remains readily accessible to a child’s understanding) and of emotion. Here is a brief sample, which I think you will find quite different from most Santa Claus pap:
“Who are you that call on us?” demanded one, in a gruff voice.
“The friend of your brothers in Burzee,” answered Claus. “I have been brought here by my enemies, the Awgwas, and left to perish miserably. Yet now I implore your help to release me and to send me home again.”
“Have you the sign?” asked another.
“Yes,” said Claus.
They cut his bonds, and with his free arms he made the secret sign of the Knooks.
Yes, it is not Homer; but for a children’s book on Santa Claus, it is surprisingly fine.
Books also noteworthy are The Magical Monarch of Mo and Queen Zixi of Ix (as you see, Baum had a fancy for two-syllable characters in one-syllable lands); the latter tale is, though original, a classic fairy tale with all the protean elements well displayed.
Also do not overlook The Sea Fairies and Sky Island, books distantly related to Oz (some common characters), or the charming tale of The Enchanted Island of Yew.
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First off, there are some dedicated sites:
Next, there are numerous pages about Baum and his works; here are some:
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Here are some books about Baum and Oz:
Also: although it is nominally listed here as another edition of The Wizard, the reality is that The Annotated Wizard of Oz “centennial edition”—annotated by Michael Patrick Hearn, though that irrepressible annotator Martin Gardner did write a preface for it—is an invaluable illuminator of Baum and Oz; the book is so large that its title work, The Wizard proper, is only a small fraction of it.
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