Thursday, December 08, 2011

My Early Years in Oz

And we all wonder, "What happened?"
I was introduced to Oz at a young age when I saw the MGM musical The Wizard of Oz on television. To this day, I have a love of fiction, be it literature or film, that's either fantasy, grittily realistic, surreal, or just plain weird. So it was no wonder that Oz caught my eye.

To be sure, I can't honestly remember too much about the film after I first saw it. The image that stuck with me the most was Dorothy and her friends venturing into the Witch's forest. Not Munchkinland, not the Emerald City, not the poppy field, not the yellow brick road, not even the Witch herself or the Flying Monkeys. It was a little girl, three strange looking companions, and a dog going somewhere dangerous and spooky. (I also love stories that scare the heck out of me with something besides gore.)

We lived in a little house that was across the street from an elementary school. We had a big back yard with two big trees and a garage my dad kept his stuff in, aside from our lawnmower, bicycles, and the garden hose. (It was more like an oversized shed with a dirt floor.) Even though our parents objected, we'd often look through dad's boxes. They contained many, many books and comics. I'd learned to read during the first grade, and over the summer developed it independently. And two things that really helped were a few things I'd fished out of the garage.

I wasn't sure what the story in these books was, but I could see they had the word OZ in them in big letters. Looking at the title a bit harder, I could make it out better: Return to Oz. There was a coloring book and a comic book. Later, I found a copy of Return to Oz: Dorothy in the Ornament Rooms in the back of our van. These were lots of fun to look through.

At some point, our school showed us Dorothy in the Land of Oz and MGM's The Wizard of Oz. I looked in the school library to see if there was a Wizard of Oz book. It was years before I realized which edition I was holding. It was a long book with lots of odd-looking pictures of little people all in black and white. The front cover showed the Scarecrow and Tin Woodman carrying Dorothy through the Poppy Field, while the Cowardly Lion wiped a tear from his eye with his tail on the back. I know now that it was a "white edition," with illustrations by Denslow with a lot of art adaptation work done by Dick Martin.

One day, my grandfather had my dad and my brother and I over as he was moving and he was turning some more of dad's things over to him. I recall one book as it was packed up: a Grosset and Dunlap Illustrated Junior Library edition of The Wizard of Oz. I looked at it all the way home. Sometime later, I fished it out of the garage. After looking at Evelyn Copleman's lovely MGM-influenced art, I eventually put it away.

One day, we were at the library and my dad asked if there was a video I'd like to check out. Well, I hadn't seen the MGM film for a year or so, so I asked for The Wizard of Oz. When we told the librarian, we were presented with a videocassette in a plain black clamshell. I was so excited and clutched it tightly until we got home. Then, I opened it eagerly.

Imagine my dismay when my brother read what was written on the videocassette: Installing Kitchen Cupboards And Cabinets. The next week, we returned it and informed the librarian of the mistake. We placed a hold on the tape and it eventually came in. There was no mistaking this one: there was Margaret Hamilton, all in her green wickedness, with a flying monkey and her crystal ball.

We were going to watch it one Saturday afternoon, but we got to Munchkinland and suddenly, the VCR broke. After we established it'd be awhile before we could fix or replace it, I was a little disappointed. Going to my room, I looked through my books and found dad's copy of the book. I opened the book and went to the first page. I'd already read The House at Pooh Corner, so I felt sure I could do this.

"Dorothy lived in the midst of the great Kansas praries..."

I recall it took me awhile to get through the book. But I finished it during the Thanksgiving drive to our grandparent's house in the country. Shortly after, my dad spent a dollar at Wal-Mart for Aerie paperback editions of Ozma of Oz and The Lost Princess of Oz. I ate up Ozma, but I didn't read Lost Princess for a long time. My mom was impressed as she read Ozma afterward and placed it at a 7th grade reading level. (I'm not sure if that's accurate...)

Starting with third grade, my mother decided she'd homeschool me along with my brothers. (She felt my oldest brother wasn't being educated properly.) One day, she took us to the library during the afternoon, and I wanted to see if the library had any other Oz books. Mom found me the second Oz book, which was a Del Rey copy of The Land of Oz, and a copy of Who's Who in Oz. (Yes, it was the late 1980s reprint.)

I recall reading The Land of Oz with a flashlight at night, and skipping the chapter "The Tin Woodman Picks A Rose" because it didn't sound interesting enough. I later discovered what a great mistake that was... (Thanks, Flo Gibson!)

My Oz collection wasn't big or notable. It was supplemented one Christmas with a big box of Aerie paperbacks: The Land of Oz, Dorothy and the Wizard in Oz, The Road to Oz, The Emerald City of Oz, and Rinkitink in Oz. (To date, I have been unable to discover if any other books were issued in these editions, aside from Wizard.) I read these, supplemented by Del Rey editions of The Patchwork Girl of Oz (which I took with me to my grandparents where I stayed for a few days in the summer one year), The Scarecrow of Oz, and The Tin Woodman of Oz, thanks to the library. Later, I got library editions of Mister Tinker in Oz and Dorothy and Old King Crow from library book sales, as well as Return to Oz: Dorothy Returns to Oz.

My dad turned a copy of the Classics Illustrated Junior Wizard of Oz over to my collection, and I collected a lot clippings and a read along book and tape by Disney of the first Oz story.

I drew lots of Oz pictures, even in my Aerie editions, since they didn't have interior illustrations. One Sunday afternoon, my dad and I took a huge piece of butcher paper and drew a scene on the yellow brick road. There was a big gap in the road, just like in the book. I vividly remember my dad's Cowardly Lion, chewing his claws nervously as the group pondered how they'd get across. The Emerald City was in the background. (Don't ask.) The Wicked Witch was flying on her broomstick, the Wizard was in his balloon, and Glinda was ... also in a balloon. (It was more fun than a bubble.)

My dad later found a paperback Ozma of Oz and gave it to me. It was by either Rand McNally or Scholastic, and was similar to the white editions. I remember being struck at how different Dorothy looked. When I'd seen her on the cover of a Books of Wonder Ozma at the library before, I'd thought the girl on the front was Ozma.

I got a pen pal who also read the Oz books, and one day, while looking for later Oz books at the library, I met an older girl who also read them. I wish I knew who these people were now. These were the only fellow Oz fans I knew of.

My dad also turned up Eric Shanower's The Secret Island of Oz and The Ice King of Oz at the library, and I eagerly read these and The Blue Witch of Oz, which I found later. I also recall looking for pictures in the library's copy of The Making of the Wizard of Oz.

I made Oz clothespin dolls and one year, my mom made my birthday cake with pale green icing with a castle and a road leading to it outlined in chocolate chips. (It didn't taste that good, but I didn't mind too much.) We visited Kansas once, and I found some Oz-themed postcards that I was allowed to get. Every time I saw something that was Oz, I was thrilled.

I would love to say my love for Oz continued throughout my childhood and I found the rest of the Baum books and eagerly read them and the others in the Famous Forty, discovered the International Wizard of Oz Club and joined at a young age. And I'd love to say that Oz instilled in me a great love of literature and I read lots of books, not just Oz.

Sadly, none of that would be true. A lot of Oz fans say they leave Oz behind when they got older and returned to it later. You could say that happened, but the truth was, my Oz love was cut short before I was 11. And not by my choice, though I did consent, believing a certain person knew better than me at the time.

At age 40, my mother became very religious. And one day, I guess she felt "convicted" about my love of Oz, and told me she didn't want me to have anything more to do with witchcraft, which she felt was the main theme of Oz. Like I said, I thought she knew best, and so my entire Oz collection went into the garbage. (My dad wasn't thrilled about it.)

What mom failed to notice is that my interest in reading waned after Oz was disposed of. The only book I can really recall reading thoroughly and enjoying during those years was The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. I felt like I was a lazy reader. Probably the more likely reason was that anything that really, really interested me, I was forbidden to enjoy. I checked out an audiobook of The Hobbit from the library and, when attempting a second listen-through, I was told to shut it off by my mother because she heard something about a necromancer. When I attempted readings of Alice in Wonderland, I was told I shouldn't spend too much time on nonsense.

I think the best example of the results of this is when I was told to read Shakespeare and literally fell asleep on the first page.

I firmly believe that children should be allowed to read books they enjoy. As they do this, their interests grow, and they try reading more things. The more varied their reading, the bigger a vocabulary they will have, and they will notice how to write properly as they read. Instilling the thought that some literature is dangerous at such an impressionable age is much more dangerous than a book could ever be.

By some lucky happenstance, I had second thoughts about Oz years later when I saw the MGM Wizard of Oz at a youth center I visited regularly. This wasn't a story about witchcraft. It was a story about friendship and love for your family. Good versus evil! What was so wrong about Oz after all? Nothing I could see.

Thanks to the library (libraries are awesome), I sneaked in Oz books. Eventually, mom found out. She appeared okay with it at first, but there were times when she would lecture and even yell at me about it. One time, she even attempted to pray it away. But I'd made up my mind. The enjoyment I was getting from Oz was much better than those years of lazy reading where I found little to interest me except sneakily read comic books from dad's collection. (Yes, she disapproved of these, too.)

I found out a lot more about Oz thanks to the internet and read some of Baum's non-Oz work by downloading it online at the library on a floppy disk and reading it at home on our Windows 3.1 computer. ("In 2000?" We were really late-bloomers in the computer age.) I started collecting Oz frequently and joined the International Wizard of Oz Club after I began working a job in 2004, right after I'd passed the GED test and turned 18. After I turned 20, my sister and I moved out into our own apartment partly because mom and dad were moving, too, and partly because we just didn't want to live with mom anymore. (They'd actually lost our childhood home by defaulting on our mortage, which they'd gotten because mom wanted new windows.)

Many items from my original Oz collection have since been replaced, either by better editions, similar editions, or the same editions. Of course, my Oz collection now overflows from a bookshelf. I have three big plastic tubs full of The Baum Bugle, Oziana, and various Oz comics and other publications. I have another tub I've devoted to more Oz books. Hopefully I can move to a larger home in the near future where I can let my Oz collection be displayed more properly.

And that's my story.


Hungry Tiger Talk said...

Thanks for sharing all this, Jared - quite a story.

Glenn Ingersoll said...

I love the line about skipping a chapter because the title of it made it sound uninteresting.