Happy birthday, Mr. Baum

Today, the inestimable Anita Silvey on her wonderful blog discussed The Wizard of Oz, and instantly, and I felt my heart give a great leap.

I don’t know about any of you, but I was an obsessive Oz fan as a kid – like in a wild-eyed, trembly-hands, gotta-have-it-now sort of way. I was an addict. I read those books over and over and over again, sometimes staying up late into the night just so that I could plunge straight from the ending back to the beginning, without coming up for air. In fact they were the first books outside of fairy tale collections and Compton’s Encyclopedias that I read with any kind of voracity or fervor (I was late to books as a child, preferring to listen to recorded books on my Fisher Price record player, or just pretend that I was reading than actually read – like, with my eyes). L. Frank Baum changed that for me.

L. Frank Baum built me into a reader.

In fact, you can’t scratch very deep into my work to see the thumbprints of Mr. Baum on my odd little brain. People swallowed by trees. Children transformed into a cloud of locusts. A boy made of roots and vines. A razor-toothed demon child pressed tenderly to the breast of its chosen mother as it eats out her heart. I don’t think I would have written those things had I not been enamored by all things Baumian as a child – that giant, insufferable bug, for example (who continues to lurk in my dreams, dear fellow!). Or the man made of clockwork. Or the boy who transforms into a girl – though she still is referred to as “father” by one of her creations. Or the man made of sticks and a pumpkin head (an idiot, of course, but a beloved idiot). Or the desert that will transform you to dust. Or a tin man in search of his long-lost head. Or a group of people made of tubers (who just need to be planted if you accidentally cut them in half, which is a useful trick if you think about it). These things have taken root inside of me, and they will never go away.

Mr. Baum has indelibly weirded me.

I remember running into a girl I knew from school at the library. She was getting a stack of Sweet Valley High books. I never read any of them – still haven’t. Not from any kind of book-snobbery, mind you. I am egalitarian and ominvoracious when it comes to my reading habits. Instead, it was that those books smacked of a clique that I was not invited to join. I was too awkward. Too funny-looking. Too odd. For me at that age (and still now, kinda), the Sweet Valley High books represented what I would never be. Pretty. Popular. Aware of social norms and behaviors. And what have you.

I was an Oz kid from the start.

And because of that, I was a regular at the library. The house I grew up in was five blocks from the local library, and I was allowed to walk it by myself – and I did so quite a bit that summer. On the day in question, I had my stack of Oz books in my arms (most of which I had read already) and she had her stack of blonde twins in matching tennis outfits giving sidelong glances to hunky football players. We nearly ran into one another headlong. Startled, I dropped two books on the ground. She looked at me for a moment, deciding whether to speak to me (she often didn’t). She blew out her breath in a long, slow stream, as though extinguishing a candle. Finally, she spoke:

“Are those books for you?” she asked.

“Yes,” I said.

She decided to give me a chance. “They’re not for anyone else? Like your baby brother, maybe?”

“No,” I said. “I like these books. They’re really good. This one has a girl who’s made of-”

“Thanks, but no.”

“Okay,” I said.

She sighed and turned away. “Can you go five minutes without being completely weird?” she asked over her shoulder.

She didn’t wait for a response, and I didn’t give one. We both knew the answer anyway. I brought my books home and enjoyed them prodigiously.

Since many of Baum’s books were out of print, my Oz obsession also taught me about the magic of inter-library loans. Now that is a useful tool for a dorky, off-putting and vaguely unpleasant child (which, let’s be honest, is what I was) to learn about. Transformative, even.

It’s a funny thing, too, as a children’s author – one who once was the type of child who just didn’t fit – to realize the potential impact that the weird stories that I fuss at and labor over might have on the developing brain of a child that I have never met.

Will that child, like I was by Mr. Baum, be permanently weirded? Is weirdness a virus? Or a curse? It gives a girl pause, I’ll tell you what.

Or perhaps it is something else entirely. Perhaps instead a book is a tool for validation. Perhaps it is an open, honest, unblinking eye. Yes, says the eye, I see you. I see your weird notions and your strange imaginings. I see the way you stare too long and laugh too hard. I see your turns-of-phrases and your lingering dreams and the beautiful places in your head how you wish and wish-  with everything in you- that they  were real. 

We are the same, whispers the eye.

We are the same, whispered the Woggle-Bug and the Patchwork Girl and the Nome King and the forgotten and ill-tempered head on the shelf. We are the same, whispered the military force armed with knitting needles and the flying couch and the girl who lost her rainbow. We are the same, the author told me. And I believed him.

And this is what I tell you, right now. Kids, grownups, whatever. In your oddness, in your weirdness, in your bits that don’t fit. We are the same.

Happy birthday, Mr. Baum. And good on ya.

9 thoughts on “Happy birthday, Mr. Baum

  1. I remember reading many of his works more that half a century ago. The people across the street from us had many early, though not first, editions and we read them all, talked about them and they figured in our play for a while. I’m sure they aren’t responsible for my off kilter thinking, but they sure fit in. Today, most of my reading is from the kiosk at the library where the librarians put little known but well written works. I have found and enjoyed many more off kilter works that way. Come to think of it, that’s where I ran across Violet and her adventures.

  2. Walt Disney dreamed of an animated version of The Wonderful Wizard, but MGM made its own movie first. In 1985 the Disney studios produced an eerie sequel, Return to Oz, directed and co-written by the eminent film editor (Apocalypse Now) and sound designer (The Conversation) Walter Murch. Ten-year-old Fairuza Balk played Dorothy, whose mother listens to the girl’s muttered dreams of Oz and decides she needs a dose of electroshock therapy! The land Dorothy returns to is closer to a Dust Bowl Kansas: the Yellow Brick Road is gray rubble and the Emerald City a scarred ruin, where citizens have been turned into frozen statuary. A child’s nightmare of solitude and mortal threat, Murch’s movie was less a follow-up to the MGM film than its bitter antidote; yet it remains one of the few original visions of the Baum universe. It’s sort of the Evil Dead of Oz movies.

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