The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum

Apr 8, 2015

I've mentioned before some of the classic books I somehow missed out on as a child: Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, the Little House series, The Chronicles of Narnia, etc. In a home that did a lot of reading, that's kind of some surprising holes right there. But one that I didn't miss out on was the Oz series.

My mom read The Wonderful Wizard of Oz out loud (and I remember loving it), and then I found most of the other thirteen books for 99 cents apiece at Wal-Mart. Thereafter, they were my go-to books when I couldn't find anything else to read, and I delighted in the adventures of Ozma, Rinkitink, Tik-Tok, and a whole host of new and familiar characters.

You can't begin with a chapter called "The Cyclone" and not have my kids' immediate and rapt attention. They were enthralled from the first page on.

I can't imagine you're unfamiliar with the story, but here's a brief recap anyway:

Dorothy lives in Kansas with her Aunt Em and Uncle Henry where everything, including her aunt and uncle, are dull and gray. Dorothy herself would probably be sad and gray too if not for the companionship of her dear little dog, Toto. One day, a cyclone comes up unexpectedly, and before Dorothy can make it safely down into the cellar, she and Toto are carried away in the house and dropped down in the middle of a strange land (on top of the Wicked Witch of the East, no less). The Munchkins are thrilled to have been so miraculously delivered, but Dorothy is anxious to return home.

The Witch of the North tells her to go to the Emerald City where the great wizard will surely be able to help her get back to Kansas. And so Dorothy follows the (now iconic) yellow brick road and makes several friends along the way: the Scarecrow, the Tin Woodman, and the Cowardly Lion, who have their own requests to make of the wizard. They meet with many adventures along the way and even once they get to the Emerald City, they find that their journey is far from over. Early in the story, Dorothy says, "No matter how dreary and gray our homes are, we people of flesh and blood would rather live there than in any other country, be it ever so beautiful. There is no place like home." It is this belief that gives her the courage and determination to persevere even in the midst of almost insurmountable dangers.

If you have seen the classic 1939 movie with Judy Garland but haven't read the book, don't expect the two of them to be same. Even though I've seen and read both, I was still surprised at the differences I'd forgotten about. For example, the winged monkeys are not the slaves of the Wicked Witch of the West, but bound to her by a charm that she can only use three times. And speaking of the Wicked Witch, instead of being the villain for the entire story as she is in the movie, she takes up a brief thirty pages in the middle of the book. Also, after Dorothy misses her chance to go back to Kansas with the wizard, there's a whole other adventure as Dorothy and her trio of friends try to get to the Land of the Quadlings.

Luckily, many of the much-loved details are the same: Oz is still "a very good man," but "a very bad wizard," the Wicked Witch of the West's downfall is still water, and Dorothy still wears magic shoes (although they're silver, not red).

I held off reading it to my kids until now because I couldn't remember how scary it was. Quite recently, Maxwell was begging me not to read any more of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (even though he was loving it) because the White Witch was absolutely terrifying. We did finish it (but not until I had spoiled the entire ending for him), and he has since listened to the audio probably a dozen times, but I didn't know if we'd have a similar experience with Oz.

But the boys loved it, and really, the only part that scared Max was when the Cowardly Lion had to fight off the giant spider. I honestly think that fear came more because it was almost the end of the book, and by that time he had grown quite fond of the lion and couldn't imagine anything bad happening to him and less because it was actually a scary scene. In fact if I had to make a comparison, I'd say The Wonderful Wizard of Oz is quite tame next to The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.

My biggest problem with the book actually had nothing to do with the story and everything to do with the edition. I checked out two copies from the library, one with the original illustrations by W.W. Denslow and a newer edition with full-color illustrations by Michael Foreman. I wasn't happy with either. Some of Denslow's illustrations were so bizarre--particularly of the Wicked Witch (maybe I've just been tainted by the movie, but there's no description in the book that warrants her three pigtails or horrendously mismatched clothing). And while I liked Foreman's illustrations just fine, the book was a collector's edition, so the size was unwieldy and not really practical for bedtime reading. Doesn't some publisher want to put out a new edition, with all fourteen books matching and newly illustrated? I'll buy it.

One of the themes I really loved this time through was the idea that we are so much more than we think we are. The scarecrow thinks he needs brains, the Tin Woodman thinks he needs a heart, the Cowardly Lion thinks he needs courage, but the reader can easily see that it is the Scarecrow who is coming up with all the brilliant ideas, the Tin Woodman who cannot bear to even accidentally step on a beetle, and the Cowardly Lion who is fighting off such beasts as the ferocious Kalidahs. I just wonder how often we think we are incapable of something when we actually have the very skills that we need.

I have long wanted to dress up as characters from The Wonderful Wizard of Oz for Halloween. My family did it when I was about six (and I went as the Wicked Witch), and it is still one of my favorite costumes we've ever done. However, I didn't think I could convince my kids to go along with it since they didn't know the story. But midway through the book, I casually asked what they thought about Oz costumes for Halloween. They were thrilled with the idea (too bad it's only April) and immediately began planning out who would be who. I hope I can maintain this enthusiasm for six months, and if I do, I'll definitely post pictures. In the meantime, I'm trying to decide if, as Dorothy, I should wear silver or ruby slippers?

Have you read this book? Did you like it or the movie better (I actually might lean towards the movie)? Have you read any of the other books in the Oz series?


  1. I haven't read the book in many, many years. But my daughter and I were just talking about giving the audio edition a try when we're in the car (I mentioned it as one of the titles I have on my MP3 player).

    I had a few of the titles as a kid, and am still sad about my copy of the Scalawags of Oz, which was ruined by a sibling...

    1. I never had the Scalawags of Oz. I'm feeling like I missed out!

  2. The timing of this post is really great! We just found a condensed version of the Wizard of Oz at a garage sale while visiting my in-laws. My mother-in-law read it to my kids on the long drive back home. (Then we read it again to my oldest who stayed home to help his dad with some big projects.)
    I love the illustrations of this one we found! They're by Charles Santore. It looks like it was originally purchased from Kohl's.
    It seems like I have read more of the series, but it must have been a very long time ago, because I can't remember a thing about it!
    My kids loved it! I want to find a full version sometime and see how it compares.

  3. And speaking of books and movies where I like both but they are very different - have you or your boys ever read "How to Train you Dragon" and the rest of the series. We love the audio books especially. The reader for them is amazing.

  4. My first comment I must have accidentally deleted. I also grew up on Oz. I found them in my elementary school library and fell in love. I looked forward to birthdays and Christmas as a child because I knew I would get a new Oz book. Interestingly there are over 100 books written about the land of Oz, although most of them are fan fiction. Only 14 were written by Frank Baum, but he wrote several plays about the land of Oz as well. His biography was very interesting. My favorite thing about them now is the little comments that would be so politically incorrect now, but no one would have batted an eye in 1914.


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