The Wonderful Wizard of Oz
First published in 1900
Still in print
My history with this book
I loved the movie and I started reading the other Oz books around age 9 or 10, but I had actually never read the book that started it all until now.
I’m not sure why I didn’t read The Wonderful Wizard of Oz as a child. I owned most of the other volumes in mass market paperback editions, but I didn’t have the first book and I never sought it out. I think I figured that since I already knew the plot from the movie, there wasn’t much point in reading it.
When I started this project, I decided it was time to read it. After all, I loved the other books, and I’ve re-read a few of them as an adult and found they still held up. With this in mind, it’s not a huge surprise that I loved The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.
If you’ve seen the movie (and who hasn’t seen the movie?), you’ll be familiar with the basic plot: Dorothy gets swept up in a cyclone and transported to the magical land of Oz, where she accidentally kills one wicked witch and then goes to meet the Wizard, who sends her on a quest to kill another witch. Along the way, she befriends the Scarecrow, the Tin Man, and the Cowardly Lion.
Although the plot is familiar, I found it interesting to see which elements made it into the movie and which were dropped. I was surprised that the beginning of the book, where Dorothy is still in Kansas, is very short. Within 4 pages, she’s up in the air. The descriptions of her home are pretty grim.
“Not a tree nor a house broke the broad sweep of flat country that reached the edge of the sky in all directions. The sun had baked the plowed land into a gray mass, with little cracks running through it. Even the grass was not green, for the sun had burned the tops of the long blades until they were the same gray color to be seen everywhere.”
Aunt Em and Uncle Henry are just as gray:
“The sun and wind had changed her, too. They had taken the sparkle from her eyes and left them a sober gray; they had taken the red from her cheeks and lips, and they were gray also. She was thin and gaunt, and never smiled, now… Uncle Henry never laughed. he worked hard from morning till night and did not know what joy was. He was gray also, from his long beard to his rough boots, and he looked stern and solemn, and rarely spoke.”
I felt this was a slight weakness in the book. Of course, Dorothy wants to get back home to Kansas, because it’s the only home she’s ever known, but since we see so little of her life there–and what we do see is so grim–it’s hard to get a feel for how much Dorothy wants to get home again. I did love the descriptions of her home and aunt and uncle. You really get a feel for the dry, dustiness, barren sort of life it is. The movie handles this section well, with the black and white scenes giving you the same gray sense of place. Lengthening this section also gives the viewer a better sense of Dorothy’s connection to home.
One of the biggest differences is that Dorothy is much younger in the book. Her age isn’t specified, but I would guess she’s around 10. I knew that Dorothy was young from reading the later books in the series since Dorothy makes appearances in several of them, but I tend to picture Judy Garland as Dorothy, which doesn’t really make sense in the context of the books, where Dorothy is clearly not a teenager.
In the book, there are a lot more obstacles along both the Yellow Brick Road and the journey to kill the witch. The movie streamlines both journeys, leaving out a lot of the obstacles. Some of the parts that are left out are episodes I really liked in the book, but I can see why they were cut, in particular, one that includes thousands of mice, which I imagine would have been awfully difficult to film in the 1930s.
One thing that surprised me about the book is that the Wicked Witch isn’t that scary. You read a lot about her and how awful she is (and she is really awful, enslaving multiple populations), but on the page, she only appears quite briefly, and she’s definitely not the terrifying witch of the movie. I assume it was a deliberate choice to make the witch more kid friendly. In his introduction, L.Frank Baum writes, “for the time has come for a series of newer “wonder tales” in which the stereotyped genie, dwarf, and fairy are eliminated, together with all the horrible and blood-curdling incident devised by their authors to point a fearsome moral to each tale.” Perhaps the not too scary witch is an attempt to move away from the wicked witches of traditional fairy tales. It also makes the book appropriate for very young readers.
Overall, I enjoyed this book very much, although the third book in the series, Ozma of Oz, remains my favorite.
Does it hold up?
Yes. This is a fantasy classic, and the only thing that feels dated is Dorothy’s life in Kansas.
Is there any objectionable content?
No, not really. There are various references to the Wicked Witch enslaving the Winkies and her sister using the Munchkins as forced labor, so that might prompt a discussion about slavery.
Can you read it aloud?
Definitely. Most of the chapters are pretty short, and the book is very episodic, so it lends itself to being read in brief spurts.
Do I want my kid to read it?
Yes! I can’t wait to share the Oz books with him, and although The Wizard of Oz isn’t my favorite of the series, it sets the groundwork for so much.
This book is still widely available, in lots of different editions. You can also read it free online through Project Gutenberg or buy it for .99 for the Kindle.