NPR's Backseat Book Club
6:25 pm
Mon April 15, 2013

Following The Yellow Brick Road Back To The Origins Of 'Oz'

Originally published on Thu May 23, 2013 5:24 pm

It's safe to say that most Americans are familiar with the classic film featuring a stumbling Scarecrow, a rusted Tin Man, the Cowardly Lion and Dorothy, played by actress Judy Garland, clad in gingham and braids.

Over the years, The Wizard of Oz has been a popular and profitable franchise, producing toys, Halloween costumes, ruby slipper replicas and several Broadway and Hollywood spinoffs. A new retelling of the classic story hit theaters in March — Oz the Great and Powerful is a Disney film meant to be a prequel explaining how the Wizard found the Land of Oz in the first place.

NPR's Backseat Book Club is going back to where the Yellow Brick Road began with the original book that started it all, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. First published more than 100 years ago, it was an immediate hit.

The author, L. Frank Baum, was a jack-of-all-trades businessman who lived all over America. And he loved telling bedtime stories to his children.

Few know more about Baum and his Oz books than children's book historian Michael Patrick Hearn. Among other things, he is the editor of The Annotated Wizard of Oz, a special centennial edition of the book that looks at the history, the trivia and the personal story of L. Frank Baum.

Hearn says the Oz books — the title of which came from a label on one of Baum's filing drawers for letters O-Z — immediately captured his imagination.

"The strange characters, the strange things that happen, but it always was from a child's point of view," he says. "You always saw what happened in Oz through Dorothy's eyes. So you're traveling with that child, and seeing all these wonders as she's discovering them."

A group of second-graders from Cottage Hill Elementary School in Grass Valley, Calif., read the book and tagged along on Dorothy's adventures. Afterward, the students posed a few questions for Baum, which Hearn takes a stab at answering. First up: Why didn't Toto talk?

"L. Frank Baum later explained that in Tik-Tok of Oz, the seventh Oz book, Toto was actually asked why he never talked in Oz," Hearn says. "And he said he had nothing to say. Of course, Oz is a place where animals talk — the Cowardly Lion has no problem speaking. You know, it's also possible that Toto was born in America, and dogs in America don't talk."

Another question from the second-grade class was, why does the "wonderful" Wizard of Oz turn out to be such a "humbug"?

"I think that Baum was dealing with irony ... but he was emphasizing self-reliance," says Hearn. "You see that with the Scarecrow, too, and the Cowardly Lion. They all have the gifts that they seek, they just don't have a tangible symbol of what they want. ... And I think Baum's emphasizing this: that you have the powers within you all along. You just have to test them."

Dorothy's tenacity and self-reliance make her "probably the first typical American girl" in children's literature, says Hearn. "She's very assertive, nothing dissuades her, she knows what she wants to do and she goes out and gets it." In the early 1970s, Oz was the oldest book featured on Ms. magazine's Stories For Free Children list, Hearn says. The magazine also published a feminist analysis of the book. "Ever since, The Wizard of Oz has been considered an important landmark in feminist children's literature," Hearn says.

The Oz stories were modern in more ways than one — and if you read the preface, you can see that Baum knew that he'd written something special.

"[Baum] wanted to create a new, modernized fairy tale," Hearn says. "... He wanted to eliminate the stereotypical 'genie, dwarf and fairy,' as he said, that you find in [the] Grimm [brothers], [Hans Christian] Andersen, and other traditional fairy tales. He wanted one based on American materials."

Dorothy's world, fantastical as it was, had distinctly American elements: "You have a little girl from Kansas rather than the Black Forest or from London. And Dorothy meets all sorts of things that she would have met living in the United States: a scarecrow, a man made out of tin — a mechanical man. A lion, she'd probably see in the zoo or a circus."

Even the wicked witches are different from those in European fairy tales, notes Hearn. "The Wicked Witch of the West carries an umbrella — and of course we know why that is: It's much more practical — if you're going to be melted [by water] — than carrying around a broom."

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Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

And I'm Melissa Block. It's time for the Backseat Book Club, our regular feature for our youngest listeners and the adults in their lives. Every month, we ask kids to read a book along with us, but before we get to that special book, we first have to spend some time acknowledging a very special movie based on this month's pick. Our colleague Michele Norris explains why.

MICHELE NORRIS, BYLINE: We're going to spend some time with the big screen first because that's usually what comes to mind when you mention "The Wizard of Oz."

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM "THE WIZARD OF OZ")

JUDY GARLAND: (As Dorothy) (Singing) We're off to see the wizard, the wonderful Wizard of Oz. We hear he is a whiz of a wiz if ever a wiz there was. If ever...

NORRIS: It's safe to say that most Americans are familiar with the classic film and the image of the stumbling scarecrow, the rusted tin man, the cowardly lion and Dorothy, played by the actress Judy Garland clad in gingham and braids. Over the years, "The Wizard of Oz" has been a popular and profitable franchise, producing toys, Halloween costumes, ruby slipper replicas and several spinoffs, including a film called "The Wiz."

(SOUNDBITE FROM FILM, "THE WIZ")

DIANA ROSS: (As Dorothy) (Singing) Come on and ease on down, ease on down the road. Come on ease on down, ease on down the road. Don't you carry nothing that might be a load. Come on ease on down, ease on down, down the road.

NORRIS: That 1978 Motown musical was an urbanized version of Dorothy's visit to the land of Oz, featuring an all black cast and music by Quincy Jones. The Backseat Book Club is going back to where the Yellow Brick Road began with the original book that started it all. First published more than 100 years ago, it was an immediate hit. The author, L. Frank Baum, was a jack-of-all-trades businessman who lived all over America. And he loved telling bedtime stories to his children.

And few know more about Baum and his Oz books than Michael Patrick Hearn. Among other things, he is the editor of "The Annotated Wizard of Oz." He joined us from New York to tell us more about why he's so obsessed with all things Oz.

MICHAEL PATRICK HEARN: Oh, I think it was just the sense that a child can go to this other place where all kinds of adventures and you never know what's going to happen next. It just captured my imagination. The strange characters, the strange things that happen, but it always was from a child's point of view. You always saw what happened in Oz through Dorothy's eyes. So you're traveling with that child, and seeing all these wonders as she's discovering them.

NORRIS: Why Oz? Why the word Oz? Because if it was the wonderful wizard of Id or the wonderful wizard of, you know, anything else, it just wouldn't have that kind of magic. Oz is just perfect.

HEARN: Well, that was really an accident. Baum himself said that he was trying to find a name, trying to find a name and nothing came to him. He was looking around his study and he looked at the filing cabinet and there were three drawers, A-G, H-N, and O-Z and that's where the word came from.

NORRIS: Isn't it amazing where inspiration can come from?

HEARN: Exactly.

NORRIS: Many people will easily migrate toward the film because it's everywhere. Why is it worth it to go back to the original book and read "The Wizard of Oz?"

HEARN: Well, there's so many adventures that happen in the book that are not in the motion picture. The motion picture concentrates primarily on the Wicked Witch. I mean, the threat of her all the way through. But Dorothy has a lot of other dangers to overcome and even after the wizard disappeared in his balloon, Dorothy goes south to see Glinda so there are a number of chapters, more adventures that she goes through, to find Glinda who will then send her back home.

There's still another phase of it that is not covered in motion picture.

NORRIS: We have a group of second-graders from Cottage Hill Elementary School who did go back and read the book. They said they loved it and they said if they could speak to Mr. Baum, they would ask him a few questions so I want you to have a chance to answer some of the kid's questions. So let's listen to a few of them.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #1: In this story, I was wondering why he didn't make Toto talk.

HEARN: Well, L. Frank Baum later explained that in "Tick Tock of Oz," the seventh Oz book, Toto was actually asked why he never talked in Oz. And he said he had nothing to say.

NORRIS: How easy is that?

HEARN: Well, of course, Oz is a place where animals talk. You know, the Cowardly Lion has no problem speaking. You know, it's also possible that Toto was born in America, and dogs in America don't talk.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #2: I was also wondering if the book is called "The Wonderful Wizard of Oz," why does Oz turn out to be such a humbug?

HEARN: I think that Baum was dealing with irony, of course. I mean, there's irony throughout the book. But he was emphasizing self-reliance. You see that with the Scarecrow, too, and the Cowardly Lion. They all have the gifts that they seek, they just don't have a tangible symbol of what they want. Dorothy also has to go out and seek what she wants.

And nothing stops her. She's probably the first typical American girl in children's literature, in that she's very assertive, nothing dissuades her, she knows what she wants to do and she goes out and gets it. And I think Baum's emphasizing this, that you have the powers within you all along. You just have to test them and discover them for yourself.

NORRIS: I didn't think about that, that Dorothy was a real first in that sense.

HEARN: Well, what's curious is, you know, Ms. Magazine, when they were first founded, published a reading list called Books for Free Children. And the earliest published one on the list was "The Wizard of Oz" and Ms. Published the first feminist analysis of "The Wizard of Oz," and ever since, "The Wizard of Oz" has been considered an important landmark in feminist children's literature.

NORRIS: The second graders from Cottage Hill Elementary School sent in great questions. I'm going to add one more. When L. Frank Baum wrote this book, did he know that I would have legs, that it would be a smash success?

HEARN: I think he knew it was a special book because if you look at the preface, he said that he wanted to create a new modernized fairy tale. He thought he was introducing something very new to children's literature. He wanted to eliminate the stereotypical 'genie, dwarf and fairy,' as he said, that you find in Grimm, Andersen, and other traditional fairy tales. He wanted one based upon American materials.

So you have a little girl from Kansas rather than the Black Forest or from London. And Dorothy meets all sorts of things that she would have met living in the United States: a scarecrow, a man made out of tin, a mechanical man. The Cowardly Lion, a lion, she'd probably see in the zoo or a circus. And even the wicked witches are different from what you find in European fairy tales.

For example, the Wicked Witch of the West carries an umbrella and of course we know why that is: It's much more practical if you're going to be melted than carrying around a broom.

(SOUNDBITE FROM FILM, "THE WIZARD OF OZ")

MARGARET HAMILTON: (As the Wicked Witch of the West) I'm melting, melting. Oh, what a world, what a world.

NORRIS: Michael Patrick Hearn is a children's book historian and editor of "The Annotated Wizard of Oz." I'm Michele Norris.

BLOCK: Our next Backseat Book Club book is "Lunch Lady and the Cyborg Substitute," by Jarrett Krosoczka. And kids, if you're reading along, please send questions our way at BackseatBookClub@NPR.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.