First off, here’s wishing those of you who celebrate Christmas, a very merry Christmas! My husband and I are off today to sunny warm Southern California. Gifts are bought, I have the next 9 days off work, and I’m looking forward to some days of doing not much at all.
Christmas is a bit of a strange holiday for me because I didn’t grow up with it. I celebrated my first Christmas eleven years ago, the first year my husband-then-boyfriend brought me to visit his family. I thought Christmas was pretty overwhelming then, and sometimes I still do. While it’s a holiday that’s not-quite-mine, in a lot of ways that’s nice. We’ve incorporated Hanukkah into our holiday traditions, and my husband and his family get to celebrate their holiday together each year without any interference from me. (Well, I try not to be difficult, at least.)
This week there are two “memes” that work well together for me. The first comes from Booking Through Thursday, and asks, “What is a book that changed your life?” The second is the Literary Blog Hop from The Blue Bookcase and asks “What is a book you wish more people knew about?”
On these types of questions, the answer that pops into your head is usually the best one, and so while I’ve thought about it at some length, I’m going with that answer, which is not a single book but the Oz series by L. Frank Baum.
How many people actually know that L. Frank Baum wrote more than one book? Not many, judging by the people I talk to. And it’s unfortunate, because while Wizard of Oz was a classic and a favorite book of many, few people seem to know there are 13 books that follow. He also wrote other fantastic books of fantasy like Queen Zixi of Ix, but that’s another story.
Baum’s prose has some weaknesses — he could be sloppy with his plotlines at times, and his characters may seem a little dated. But then I read these books sixty or seventy-some years after they were written and adored them. Of the 14 there are some misfires, like Dorothy and the Wizard of Oz and The Magic of Oz. But then there are the ones that make up for all that: The Land of Oz, Ozma of Oz, the Patchwork Girl of Oz, the Scarecrow of Oz, the Lost Princess of Oz, Rinkitink of Oz, and my favorite, Glinda of Oz. I’ve read each of these more times than I can possibly tell you.
How did these books change my life? I guess in the same way JRR Tolkien and JK Rowlings have changed the lives of children everywhere, by opening up a whole new world for them. For me, these were fourteen books that opened up a place full of amazing creatures, wondrous adventures, and even, a whole group of friends. For those who weren’t, or aren’t fantasy readers, this may sound weird or pathetic, but it didn’t feel that way to me. Even if these friends were imaginary — Dorothy, Ozma, the Scarecrow, the Patchwork Girl — they were there for me every time I needed them.
If you’re a parent of girls, you have a lot more options today of strong girl characters in children’s literature. But I remember as a girl feeling desperate for courageous, strong girl characters. Baum provided them. In the world of Oz, the girls ran things, while the men — the Wizard, the Scarecrow, the Tin Man — were trusted friends and advisors. Girls in the Oz books never shy away from adventure or danger, and it’s the girls, not the men, that turn Oz into a utopia.
Unfortunately you have to read book 2 in the series, The Land of Oz, to know that. And most people haven’t.
If I’d become the children’s author I meant to be, these books would have been the reason. Even still, these books shaped who I am and even influence the work I do every day. These books, and the gorgeous art that went with them, fill my house, and it’s the image of Ozma that graces this blog. Today I try to collect the originals, and my favorite ones have an inscription inside from some loving relative to some eager child.
So, if you love fantasy and children’s literature but never read these books, I encourage you to pick them up. Most people don’t even know they exist. You should know they change dramatically after the first one, which wasn’t really intended to be the start of a series. In fact, Baum found himself sort of trapped in the world he created. From 1900 to 1920, these books were so well-loved, and so anticipated each year, that he tried to write other books and his readers and publishers wouldn’t let him.
Thanks for letting me walk down memory lane a little… and what are the holidays for if not that? My best wishes to all for a safe and happy holiday and New Year. Drop me a line and let me know what you’re reading.