By Dale D. Dalenberg, M.D.
March 27, 2013
Editor’s Note: Oz the Great and Powerful was strictly OK, but the source material is legendary and we’ve got a lot of it in the library. We’ll be taking a look at other Oz books and films over the next few weeks, including the lesser known pre-1939 films, starting with the original text: The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.
Most people these days come to the Oz stories via the 1939 MGM musical. But there was a time before the movies when the annual Oz book was an obligatory child’s Christmas present. This annual tradition continued many years after Baum’s death with his estate and his publisher designating a handful of authors as “Royal Historians” of Oz, officially approved to carry on the “canon” as it somewhat mock seriously came to be known. Eventually, there were 40 books admitted into the Oz canon. Therefore, something like two generations of children were weaned on Oz before the 1939 movie was even created. The Oz books dominated the children’s literature landscape until the advent of Dr. Seuss as a children’s book author in 1937.
After various reversals of fortune and unsuccessful business ventures, L. Frank Baum was already in the process of reinventing himself as a teller of childrens’ stories — with two modestly successful books under his belt — when he wrote The Wonderful Wizard of Oz in 1899.
I read the text of the book in my younger days, and I found it to be mildly amusing. But I was more impressed with the second and third books, because of the way Baum expanded on his fantasy world and created an ever-widening canvas with each succeeding book. It was difficult for me to appreciate the attraction of that first book, or figure out what made it such a hit, until I handled the real book. Thankfully, it is possible nowadays to get your hands on the real thing without going broke buying a scarce antique. Charles Winthrope & Sons, specialty publishers, have gone to great lengths to reproduce every nuance of the original Baum editions in meticulous facsimile.
In some ways, this is even better than owning weathered, child-worn, antique editions, because owning these new facsimiles approximates what it was like to encounter the books anew starting in 1900.
The Wonderful Wizard of Oz is a charming children’s novel, ahead of its time, incorporating seamless integration of drawings and text, and featuring a number of splashy color plates as well. Baum’s prose is simple and sparse and the pictures therefore take on a big role. You get the sense that he worked closely with his illustrator to craft the book, so that the pictures complement the text and vice versa. On many pages, the text is printed over an illustration in the background. On other pages, the text is wrapped around a picture. The chapters have title pages that are picture pages. And the initial letter of each chapter’s opening paragraph is blown up and illuminated with a picture. And all of those features are in addition to the beautiful full-page color plates that are sprinkled throughout the book.
Baum and illustrator Denslow’s visual sense carries over to the 1939 movie with its famous transition from the black & white of the Kansas scenes to the Technicolor of the Oz scenes. The preliminary pages after the main title page, and opening chapter, are done with tan-brown illustrations and Baum uses the word “gray,” or some form of it like “grayer,” eight times (to my count) in the first chapter; but right away in Oz, he uses words like “green” and describes “gorgeous flowers” and birds of “brilliant plumage.”
This book begs to be read to a child who is sitting on your knee, because you both need to look at the page to comprehend the full story. It is a visual delight.