Archives for August 2009

What We’re Reading Wednesday Special Edition: The Wonderful Wizard of Oz

This week for What We’re Reading Wednesday, Wesley Jeanne is sharing some thoughts on the a classic piece of American literature – The Wizard of Oz:

woo1Yesterday, August 25, 2009, marked the 70th anniversary of the premiere of the much beloved film The Wizard of Oz. So it was a happy coincidence when a dear friend recently gifted us with a thrift-shop find of a beautifully illustrated (by Michael Hague) 1982 edition of the L. Frank Baum classic on which the film is based: The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. My five-year-old daughter Owen had never read the book, seen the movie, or even–gasp–heard of the story. Her much, um, older parents had seen the movie many times but had never actually read Baum’s original story. So we were able to discover its magic together.

In his introduction, Baum pays homage to the fairy tales of the brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Anderson, and then asserts that his story “was written solely to please the children of today,” calling it “a modernized fairy tale, in which the wonderment and joy are retained and the heartaches and nightmares are left out.” Little did he know that his tale (written in the “modern” year of 1900) would mark the beginning of a number of books (14 written by Baum himself and numerous others written by followers), a hit play (written by Baum), and a movie that would make this one of the best known stories in all of children’s literature.

The book begins with a simple description: “Dorothy lived in the midst of the great Kansas prairies, with Uncle Henry, who was a farmer, and Aunt Em, who was the farmer’s wife.” Baum’s writing is simple, without being simplistic, and his descriptions quite lovely, evocative of a mood that feeds the plot. For example, in describing the land, he says: “When Dorothy stood in the doorway and looked around, she could see nothing but the great gray prairie on every side. Not a tree nor house broke the broad sweep of flat country that reached the sky in all directions. The sun had baked the plowed land into a gray mass, with little cracks running through it. Even the grass was not green, for the sun had burned the tops of the long blades until they were the same gray color the been seen everywhere.” Even Aunt Em and Uncle Henry are gray, faded by the harsh life on the land, so that they “looked at the little girl with wonder that she could find anything to laugh at.

Very soon this bleak landscape is interrupted by a cyclone. Uncle Henry rushes off to tend to the livestock, and Aunt Em heads for the storm cellar, but Dorothy and her dog, Toto, find themselves inside the house, being carried along by the twister. After many hours (and a nap), they land with a bump in a strange land populated by strange peoples who are awed and thrilled to find that Dorothy–or at least her house–has inadvertently killed their feared oppressor, The Wicked Witch of the East. As a reward Dorothy receives the Wicked Witch’s silvery (not ruby) shoes, some advice, and magical kiss of protection from the Good Witch of the North. And so Dorothy and Toto’s adventure, and their journey home, begins.

wizard-of-oz-hagueYou know the rest of the story…or at least you think you do, for Baum’s tale is far richer and more complex than the movie. You will still find the yellow brick road, the scarecrow who longs for a brain, the tin woodsman who desires a heart, the lion who lacks courage, even Dorothy’s blue gingham frock. But the trip to the City of Emeralds is longer, the challenges more numerous, and many more opportunities for demonstrating skills already possessed. There are deep ravines, tiger-headed bears (oh my), a broad river, helpful field mice, a country of dainty china. And there is intelligence and heart and courage.

Oh yes, and the happy party is not being pursued by the Wicked Witch of the West, but instead the travelers seek her at the behest of the Wizard of Oz. The flying monkeys (the terror of my young life) are not exactly horrid henchmen but oppressed slaves under a spell and helpful friends once the witch is dead and the spell broken.

So, even if you think you know the story, even if you are anxiously awaiting the DVD release of the still wonderful 70-year-old movie (scheduled for Sept), do yourself and your children a favor, find a copy of the book, and read it. Read it aloud, as a family, a little every night. Trust me. It’s magic. It’s wonderful.