The Wonderful Wizard of Oz: A new one for me

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.

My thoughts:
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.




The Westing Game: A Delightful Puzzle

The Westing Game
by Ellen Raskin
First published 1978
Still in print

My history with this book:
I first read The Westing Game when I was 10 or 11. It was one of my childhood favorites, and I read it several times. I was looking forward to revisiting it. That’s my well-loved childhood copy in the photo.

My thoughts:

I loved this book as a kid, and I loved it again as an adult.

The Westing Game is the story of a group of seemingly unconnected people who all move to a new luxury apartment building. Shortly thereafter reclusive millionaire Samuel Westing dies and his will brings together most of the residents of the building. They’re potential heirs to the Westing fortune, but they only get the fortune Westing Gameif they solve Westing’s murder. Thus begins a clever and intriguing game.

Although there are many characters, the most memorable one is Turtle, a 13-year-old girl who’s determined the solve the mystery. She’s very smart, but she’s not very pretty, unlike her beautiful older sister, Angela, whose shadow Turtle lives in.

People being overlooked is a big theme in the book. Turtle is overlooked because she’s just a kid. Another character, Chris, is in a wheelchair and has trouble speaking, so people tend to underestimate him, although he’s also very bright and observant, noticing things the others don’t see. Madame Hoo doesn’t speak English, so she’s mostly ignored. And even beautiful Angela is invisible in her own way. Everyone sees her beauty, but no one sees the misery inside.

An aspect of the book that I really enjoyed is that the terms of the will force the heirs into pairs, and each pair is rather unlikely. But these oddball pairings end up being complementary. Turtle’s angry edges are softened when she’s paired with Mrs. Baumbach, a sweet older woman. Timid Angela and attention-hungry Sydelle bring out the best in each other. Turtle’s slightly racist mother and Chinese-American inventor/restauranteur Jimmy Hoo are a bad match at first, but end up making a connection. I like the idea of showing kids that friendships can be found in unlikely places.

And then there’s the mystery, a multilayered puzzle with many pieces. It’s the kind of story where you can try to figure things out as you read, or you can just relax and enjoy the eventual solution, which is a satisfying one.

Does it hold up?

Yes, definitely. There are some dated attitudes about Angela’s future. She had to drop out of college, because of her parents’ financial issues, and although she wants to become a doctor, her mother is pushing her into marrying a doctor because it’s so hard for women to go to medical school. Ugh.

Is there any objectionable content?

Grace is mildly racist, but her behavior is presented negatively. The word retarded is used twice, not in a pejorative sense, but as a term to refer to the developmentally disabled. I know this was common usage at the time the book was written, but it feels very dated and might require some explanation for kids.

Can you read it aloud?

You could, but a lot of the cleverness is word play, and some of that might not work as well if you’re reading it aloud.

Do I want my kid to read it?
Definitely. I can’t wait to share this one with him.

The Westing Game is still in print and is available in physical and ebook form. It should be widely available in libraries.



An introduction

I was an avid reader as a child, and I have many happy memories associated with books. When my son was born 3 years ago, I began to think about sharing my childhood favorites with him as he got older. Although I had revisited some of these favorites over the years, most of them I hadn’t read in many years. I wondered if the books I had loved so much as a child would something I could share with my son as he grows up. Are they timeless classics, or will they seem hopelessly dated?

So, about 18 months ago, I started reading a lot of children’s books. I’m reading my old favorites, some classics and popular books that I missed as a child, and occasionally, some newer books. I’ve been taking notes as I read, but I decided to start writing up blog posts on the books, so I’ll have some coherent thoughts to share with my son. I’ll be writing up my thoughts about these books, focusing on the following things: my history with the book, does it hold up/would kids still enjoy it, is there any objectionable content (let’s face it, older books may have some racial stuff that’s very hard to read), and can you read it aloud.

Revisiting Are You There God, It’s Me, Margaret

By Judy Blume

First published in 1970

My history with this book:

I first read this book when I was about 8, a little below the target age, but I tended to read older than my age. I remember loving this book when I was kid. I read it multiple times. It really spoke to me as a kid nearing my tween years (not that the term tween existed back then of course). I had pretty specific memories of this book.

My thoughts:

I was looking forward to re-reading Are You There, God, It’s Me, Margaret since I had loved it so much as a kid, but I did wonder if the book would hold up. I’m happy to say that it did. To paraphrase Stefon, this book has everything: budding female sexuality, frank discussion of periods, kissing games, mean girls, religious confusion, and an awesome grandmother.

I feel like this book was almost required reading for young girls in the 70s and 80s. It’s still referenced a lot in pop culture, and it’s arguably Judy Blume’s best-known book.

Margaret Simon is going through a lot of changes. She and her family have just moved to the suburbs of New Jersey (possibly in an effort to get away from the dad’s mother, but it doesn’t work because she’s awesome and she’s not going to let a little thing like having to take several different forms of public transportation keep her from her granddaughter), she’s starting a new school, she’s entering puberty, and she’s exploring the possibility of choosing a religion.

I liked Margaret this time around, but probably for different reasons than when I was a child. She’s a little sarcastic and she’s bright and funny. She’s not a big personality like her grandmother or her friend Nancy, but she’s appealing and the perfect stand-in for the reader.

Religion is an important part of the book (not a surprise, given the title). Margaret’s father was raised Jewish and her mother Christian. They both left their respective faiths when they married, and they’ve raised Margaret without a religion, telling her that she can choose when she grows up. This wasn’t an issue when they lived in New York, but in their new suburban town, everyone wants to know their religion, because everyone is town belongs to either the Jewish Community Center (the Jewish people) or the Y (everyone else), and it’s based on religion. Margaret has her own relationship with God. She doesn’t pray in a traditional sense, but she has nightly conversations with God, talking over her day and asking for advice. She has to do a school project, and she makes religion her focus.

Looking back, I didn’t remember the religious aspect nearly as well as all the period talk. A huge part of this book is about Margaret and her friends anticipating getting their periods. Eleven going on twelve is a weird age, totally not a girl, not yet a woman, and I remember the whole puberty thing being exciting but also kind of terrifying. Judy Blume really captures that in this book. Margaret and her friends are obsessed with getting their periods and their growing breasts, and at their weekly club meetings, they discuss these things (as well as boys). There’s some competition about it, mostly with Nancy, who positions herself as the group’s leader and actually goes as far as lying about getting her period while she’s on vacation. Margaret discovers the lie because she’s with Nancy when she actually gets her period for the first (and Nancy completely freaks out). One thing I remember about the period stuff in the book is that I was fascinated by the mechanics of it: Margaret discusses buying a belt and learning how to attach the pad to the belt. At the time I first read the book, I asked my mother about this and was disappointed to learn that feminine hygiene technology had advanced to the point that pads were now adhesive and no one needed belts anymore. (Side note: As an adult, I can’t even imagine what a pain the belt must have been, especially under tights or pants. Feeling grateful to live in an era where dealing with periods is pretty simple, and there are multiple options.) The edition I read now had been revised to remove the whole sanitary belt thing, which definitely keeps the book from feeling too dated, and now Margaret uses plain old adhesive pads.

Breast size is another major topic. I had forgotten the scene where Margaret’s mother takes her to buy her first bra, and they first go to the women’s lingerie section, but a saleswoman sends them to the juniors’ department and Margaret is mortified. Blume also tackles the topics of girls who develop early and slut-shaming. Margaret’s classmate Laura Danker has noticeable breasts and she’s taller than everyone else in the class (boys included). I don’t remember feeling sorry for Laura when I was younger, but I really did this time around. Nancy tells Margaret to stay away from Laura because she goes behind the A&P with Nancy’s brother and his friend Moose. The girls all seem to hate Laura, supposedly for her bad reputation, but really out of fear and jealousy. As Laura says to Margaret, after Margaret has accused her of going behind the A&P with boys, “Do you think it’s any fun to be the biggest kid in the class? … Think about how you’d feel if you had to wear a bra in fourth grade and how everybody laughed and how you always had to cross your arms in front of you. And about how the boys called you dirty names just because of how you looked.” Poor Laura. It’s a rough scene, but it’s an important turning point for Margaret, who realizes that she can’t believe everything she hears (especially from Nancy). I was impressed to read such a sensitive treatment of slut-shaming in a book written in 1970.

Nancy is a classic mean girl, and I’m not sure I realized as a child just how awful she is. She shames Gretchen for wanting to eat oreos, she spreads rumors about Laura Danker, and she lies about getting her period. Margaret doesn’t stop being friends with her, but she definitely has Nancy’s number by the end of the book.

Does it hold up?

Yes, surprisingly well. I expected it to feel more dated, but it really wasn’t. A few elements may strike kids as a bit quaint, but the emotions in this book are so universal they don’t feel dated at all.

Is there any objectionable content?

Nope, unless you’re really squeamish about menstruation.

Can you read it aloud?

Probably not so much. The target age is a little past the reading aloud stage, and I personally would have been mortified to be reading this one with a parent, given things like “we must, we must increase our busts,” spin the bottle, and copious talk of periods.

Do I want my kid to read it?

Definitely, but I’m not sure that’s going to happen. It’s ironic that the first book I re-read is one that my son may not be interested in reading. I feel really strongly that kids shouldn’t limit themselves to so-called girl books or boy books. That said, will a boy in the target age group for Are You There God really want to read a book that’s mainly about getting your first period? My husband just laughed when I asked his opinion. A young boy could really learn a lot of budding adolescent female sexuality from this book, but I realize it may be a tough sell.