Top 100 Children’s Novels #41: The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum
#41 The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum (1900)
Oz is too overwhelming for a single post. Indeed, there are whole websites, blogs, and societies out there solely dedicated to its existence. With that in mind, here is a quick overview of the title and its impact on America at this point. I can’t include absolutely everything, so consider this a taster’s sampling.
L. Frank Baum did not come to write the books of Oz until he was well into his middle age. In American Writers for Children, 1900-1960, Michael Patrick Hearn writes that, “On 15 May 1900, Baum’s forty-fourth birthday, his most enduring work, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz , was printed. The new book, a full-length fairy tale, again illustrated by Denslow, matched the great success of Father Goose, His Book . The immediate novelty of the book was its pictures; even today the first edition of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz is an impressive piece of bookmaking. Again responsible for the cost of the plates, Baum and Denslow insured the inclusion of twenty-four color plates and countless textual decorations in an alternating color scheme, making it one of the most elaborately embellished children’s books in American publishing history.”
According to Selma Lanes in Through the Looking Glass, “Despite The Wizard’s immediate success, Baum gave no thought to sequels. He was ready to move on to other tales.” So much for that plan. His fans insisted and four years later out came The Marvelous Land of Oz. This does explain why the first book is such a perfect little book, though. With no intentions of continuing the story, it is self-contained. Later there would come sequel after sequel. And when a book had a lot of sequels, it was technically a series. Fun Fact: Guess what libraries of the early 20th century loathed? That’s right. Series.
To be blunt, libraries weren’t always pleased with the books. Most notably, my very own children’s room. As Lanes tells it, “By 1930, the Children’s Room of the New York Public Library had removed the entire Oz series from its shelves, and other library and school systems followed suit.” It is true. Look in our reference section today and you will find few Oz first editions. Fortunately we carry the books on our shelves now. And do they go out? Oh yes they do. Boys in particular love Oz, thereby trumping the old line that boys won’t read stories about girls. The heck they won’t!
Men are some of the biggest fans too. In Everything I Need to Know I Learned From a Children’s Book, cardiothoracic surgeon Dr. William C. DeVries offers a short but deeply felt note on the book. “In the book, the Wizard of Oz talks to the Tin Woodman about whether or not he really wants a heart. The Wizard believes that having a heart is not a good thing: ‘It makes most people unhappy.’ But the Tin Woodman says, ‘For my part, I will bear all the unhappiness without a murmur, if you will give me a heart.’ In my work, I have thought about those lines many, many times.”
I had a lot of fun looking over the various critical essays on this otherwise simple little story. Articles with names like “From Vanity Fair to Emerald City: Baum’s Debt to Bunyan” or ” ‘Aunt Em: Hate You! Hate Kansas! Taking the Dog. Dorothy’: Conscious and Unconscious Desire in The Wizard of Oz” or even ” ‘There lived in the Land of Oz two queerly made men’: Queer Utopianism and Antisocial Eroticism in L. Frank Baum’s Oz Series.” Heavens!
In Novels for Students, Jennifer Bussey has a particularly enjoyable critical essay of the book in which she pretty much summarizes all the discussions of the title. “Over the years, L. Frank Baum’s children’s classic The Wonderful Wizard of Oz has been interpreted from virtually every angle. Feminists, populists, Marxists, historians, economists, political scientists, and Freudians and other psychologists have all interpreted the characters and events of the novel in terms of their particular points of view. The book has been looked at as a commentary on American life and as a statement about New World ways replacing Old World ways. Presidential scholars have considered the possibility that the Wizard of Oz represents Benjamin Harrison, Grover Cleveland, William McKinley, or a combination of the three. Still other scholars interpret the novel as a fable about substitutions: Dorothy lives with substitute parents; she returns to a substitute farmhouse; a common man has substituted the identity of the Wizard for his own; and the Scarecrow, Tin Woodman, and Cowardly Lion are all made happy with substitute charms.”
For me, I’ve always loved the Wizard of Oz gold standard conspiracy theories. You’ve heard of these, yes? I actually first read about this theory in my high school history textbook. Out of a vague sense of devil’s advocatism, I once asked Oz scholar Michael Patrick Hearn his opinion on the topic and he regaled me with the ridiculousness of it all. So I suppose it isn’t true, but it’s still fun to consider.
I have mentioned that there are two books on this Top 100 list that have been turned into amusement parks. This book almost became a third. In his lifetime, Baum would purchase Pedloe Island off the California coast in the hopes of turning it into a “real-life land of Oz.” He was pre-Disney, this guy.
The New York Times said of it the book at the time that it was “ingenuously woven out of commonplace material” and that “It will be strange indeed if there be a normal child who will not enjoy the story.”
- Read the book here.
- See the video that argues that Dorothy was our first feminist role model.
- In 2011 there were eleven competing Wizard of Oz projects. Today? I don’t remember seeing any of them come out.
There was also this series of selections from the 1910 version of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.
I’ll spare you the various crazed television animated television shows. There was the Japanese anime version (though the French intro is undoubtedly the best), the American 80s one, and an odd little 60s series called Tales of the Wizard of Oz. Tales actually comes off looking the best of the lot.
High-budget commercials have apparently taken great advantage of the movie version over the years. There was this oddly Tinman-free Minolta commercial in the 80s and, more recently, this Fed Ex bit o’ weirdness.
No, when it all comes down to it, maybe the best thing I found was this simply charming Shirley Bassey rendition of Somewhere Over the Rainbow.
Filed under: Best Books, Top 100 Children's Novels (2012)
About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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