One of the stories my parents like to tell about me is how I read The Wonderful Wizard of Oz all the way through, all by myself, when I was in kindergarten. That may not seem so impressive now, but back then, most kids went into kindergarten not even knowing how to read. So I was definitely an anomaly.
It can be hard, when you have a kid who reads so fluently so early, to find books that hold their interest writing-style, and yet don’t tackle subjects that are beyond their comprehension. Baum’s books were perfect in this regard – the writing was sophisticated, yet the stories were simple enough that even an over-sensitive six-year-old like myself could read them without being scared or confused, or even simply overwhelmed with concepts beyond my ability to understand.
Baum has been criticized considerably for “sugar-coating” Oz too much, turning it into a place where nothing truly bad could ever happen, and while I understand that criticism, there was (and still is, really) always something very comforting about taking a trip to Oz.
(Never mind the fact that as it was HIS creation to begin with, he could do anything he wanted with it, and people still wouldn’t have had the right to complain. After all, if you don’t like it, don’t read it, but don’t act as though the author is somehow presenting a false impression of a real place when it was all from his head to begin with. Ahem. Small rant over.)
One of the other great things about Oz was that there was enough humor for small people, but the puns and plays on words are sheer adult amusement. I rarely, even to this day, get through an Oz book without a surprised and delighted snort at something that went completely over my head as a kid.
I have heard the theory that Oz was meant to be a metaphor on communism or capitalism or something political. Maybe it was. But I know that it can be read without any kind of political background, and enjoyed as sheer good story-telling, and that is how I prefer it. I would much rather not see a possible political background to a good story than misread a grand yarn as a thinly-disguised treatise on capitalism.
So, how had Baum inspired me? Well, aside from being, as I mentioned at the beginning of this post, one of the very earliest writers I ever read alone, and quite possibly responsible for my lifelong love for fantasy, from Baum I learned the sheer joy of world-building, of creating a place that exists quite independently from the characters, and has its own history and inhabitants and can quite happily sustain any number of stories, just as this world can.
From Baum, too, I have learned the fun of playing with words, of subtle humor, of inside jokes between the writer and reader, at the characters’ expense. I tend to be more of an invisible narrator, telling my stories solely through the eyes of my characters, but I always enjoy taking a break from that role once in a while and trying that omniscient narrator bit that Baum does so well.
And, of course, Baum was a master at creating realistic children, spunky heroines and heroes who frequently found themselves in scrapes, but by using ingenuity and courage always worked their way out. Dorothy is beloved by so many, I believe, not just for her staunch loyalty to Uncle Henry and Auntie Em, but for her wit and spirit, and for the fact that even after she came to Oz permanently and became closest companion to the ruler of Oz, she still maintained her independence and practical outlook on life. In some ways, she was wasted in such a happy land as Oz. She would have made a wonderful explorer and adventurer in this world, as well as a great righter of wrongs. Alas! She is safe in Fairyland, and it is up to we other writers to create our own characters to right those wrongs, and have those adventures.
Perhaps, if we are very fortunate, one or two of them might in time be as well-loved as brave little Dorothy Gale.
Are you a frequenter of the land of Oz? Do you enjoy it, or do you find Baum’s stories too safe for your taste? Who is your favorite “spunky girl heroine” in children’s and/or YA literature? And what was the first chapter book you can remember (or others remember about you) reading on your own?