The Wonderful Wizard of Oz
by L. Frank Baum; ill. W. W. Denslow
George M. Hill Company, 1900
(Numerous contemporary editions are available, including a beautiful centennial edition issued by HarperCollins and an annotated edition issued by Norton.)
MGM’s 1939 film The Wizard of Oz is so ubiquitous–such a cornerstone of American pop culture–that it’s easy to forget there’s a book behind it. But L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz is what started it all, not just the classic movie (and a slew of other film and stage adaptations) but also a long series of books that carry the story of Oz well beyond Dorothy’s initial visit.
If your only exposure to Oz is MGM’s movie, you may be wondering why I would review Baum’s novel for this blog. While MGM did a fine job tracing the basic trajectory of Dorothy’s story and portraying the visual richness of W. W. Denslow’s illustrations, the movie pretty much misses the boat when it comes to capturing the spirit of Baum’s book.
For starters, Judy Garland’s weepy, trembling Dorothy is a far cry from Baum’s spunky, matter-of-fact little heroine. Baum’s Dorothy, though very young (Denslow’s illustrations show a girl of about 7), is strong-minded and courageous. She handles the cyclone with aplomb: while her dog Toto runs around in a panic, Dorothy calmly considers the ride “quite easy” and simply sits on the floor and waits to see what will happen.
She accepts daunting quests–to find the Wizard and, later, to defeat the Wicked Witch of the East–bravely, but not unrealistically so. We do see her worry over potential dangers, but she always masters her fears so that she can encourage and rally her traveling companions.
And, speaking of her companions, it’s clear throughout the book that Dorothy is the leader of the group. She is often the one to come up with clever solutions for seemingly insurmountable problems, she skillfully draws out the best in each member of the group, and she is the one who keeps everyone moving when everyone else is ready to give up.
At the same time, the book’s inspiration is broader than just Dorothy-as-capable-heroine. The relationships that grow up between her and the Lion, Scarecrow, and Tin Woodman are deep and authentic. Despite occasional squabbles, they all become devoted to one another; each genuinely seeks to use his or her own particular gifts in service to the group (even when that means risking life itself).
They also excel at playing to each other’s strengths. When one member of the group is clearly best suited to tackling a challenge, the others step back and encourage instead of trying to lead for personal glory. So the fierce Woodman tackles the wolves and swarms of bees sent by the Wicked Witch, and the powerful lion drags the others across a river barring their way.
When I read this book with my daughter (she was about 5 at the time), it gave her a real sense that girls can be brave but compassionate leaders. She loved that little Dorothy gamely tackled challenges that would terrify any adult, and she was touched by the supportive, dedicated friendship between the travelers.
It’s somewhat rare to find a book of this vintage that depicts girls as capable, smart doers–but The Wonderful Wizard of Oz proves that such books do exist. Whether you read it to your preschooler, or your older girl reads it on her own, give the girls in your life a chance to see that classics can be inspiring for them, and to gain some clear encouragement to be good leaders and friends.