Alison Lurie on The Secret Garden
Alison Lurie on the modern magic of E. Nesbit

Alison Lurie on ''The Oddness of Oz''

The Wizard of Oz illustrated by Lisbeth Zwerger

Here's another passage from Alison Lurie, this time on the The Wizard of Oz and its sequels by L. Frank Baum (1856-1919). It's from her in-depth essay on Baum, "The Oddness of Oz," originally published in The New York Review of Books and reprinted in Boys and Girls Forever: Children's Classics from Cinderella to Harry Potter:

Dorothy and Toto by Lisbeth Zwerger"Though the Oz books have always been read by children of both sexes, they have been especially popular with girls, and it's not hard to see why. Oz is a world in which women and girls rule; in which they don't have to stay home and do housework, but can go exploring and have adventures. It is also, as Joel Chaston has pointed out, a world in which none of the major characters have a traditional family. Instead, most of them live alone or with friends of the same sex. The Scarecrow stays with the Tin Woodman in his castle for months at a time, while Ozma, Dorothy, Betsy, and Trot all have rooms in the palace of the Emerald City, and Glinda lives in a castle with 'a hundred of the most beautiful girls of the Fairyland of Oz.'

"The appeal of Oz seems even clearer if it is contrasted to that of contemporary books for girls. In the early years of the 20th century, the heroes of most adventure stories were boys; girls stayed home and learned to get on better with their families. If they were rejected children like Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm, or orphans like Anne of Green Gables and Judy in Daddy-Long-legs, they found or established new families. At the end of all these stories, or their sequels, the heroine grew up, fell in love, and got married.

The Wizard of Oz illustrated by Lisbeth Zwerger 12*

"There was of course already another famous little girl protagonist who had adventures in a magical world: Lewis Carroll's Alice. But from the point of view of most child readers (including me) her experiences were less attractive. Unlike Dorothy and Ozma, who collect loving friends and companions on their journeys, Alice travels alone, and the strange creatures she meets are usually indifferent, self-absorbed, hostile, or hectoring. Rather than helping her, as Dorothy's companions do, they make unreasonable demands: she is to hold a screaming baby, do impossible math problems, and act as a ladies' maid. One or two of the characters seem to wish her well in a helpless way, like the White Knight, whom many readers have seen as a stand-in for Carroll himself. Moreover Wonderland, unlike Oz, turns out to be only a dream.

"Most children, though they may enjoy Alice's adventures, don't want to visit Wonderland, which is full of disappearing scenery and dangerous eccentrics, some of them clearly quite insane. They prefer Oz, where life is all play and no work, and all adventures end happily.

The Wizard of Oz illustrated by Lisbeth Zwerger

"To some extent Baum's endorsement of escapism was hidden -- disguised as a light-hearted fantasy, with a series of sweet, pretty-little-girl protagonists, the most famous of whom at first declares that all she really wants is to go home to flat, gray Kansas and see her dull, deeply depressed Uncle Henry and Aunt Em again. But, as anyone knows who has read even a few of Baum's later Oz books, Dorothy may return to Kansas after her adventures, but she doesn't stay there very long -- somehow, a natural disaster (shipwreck, earthquake, whirling highways) always appears to carry her
back to Oz and the magical countries that surround it. She spends more and more time there, and has more adventures.

The Wizard of Oz illustrated by Lisbeth Zwerger"Finally, in the fifth volume of the series, Dorothy not only moved to Oz permanently, but arranges for Uncle Henry and Aunt Em (whose failing farm is about to be repossessed by the bank) to join her there. Yes, you can escape from your dreary domestic life into fairyland, Baum's books say: you can have exciting but safe adventures, make new friends, live in a castle, never have to do housework or homework, and -- most important of all -- never grow up.

"This subversive message may be one of the reasons that the Oz books took so long to be accepted as classics. For more than half a century after L. frank Baum discovered it in 1900, the Land of Oz had a curious reputation. American children by the thousands went there happily, but authorities in the field of juvenile literature, like suspicious and conservative travel agents, refused to recommend it or even handle the tickets. Librarians would not buy the Oz books, schoolteachers would not let you write reports on them, and the best-known histories of children's books made no reference to their existence. In the 1930s and 1940s they were actually removed from many schools and libraries.

The Wizard of Oz illustrated by Lisbeth Zwerger"As a child I had to save my allowance to buy the Oz books, because the local library refused to carry them. This censorship was justified at the time by pointing out that the books were not beautifully written and that the characters were two-dimensional. This is arguable, but it has not prevented many other less stylistically perfect children's books of the period from being admired and recommended. It seems more likely that in the dark years between the first and second waves of American feminism, critics recognized the subversive power of Baum's creation. Not until recently did the Oz books enter the canon."

For me, this passage captures the flavor of Lurie's writings on children's literature perfectly: I constantly find myself arguing with her essays (for example, with her sweeping and America-centric statement that most children prefer the Land of Oz to Wonderland), and yet I constantly learn from her too. She is exasperating and brilliant in equal measure, and I treasure her books despite the number of times I have wanted to chuck them across the room.  Thus I highly recommend Boys and Girls Forever, and Lurie's earlier collection of children's literature essays, Don't Tell the Grown-ups. I may not always agree with Lurie's conclusions, but the range of her knowledge is impressive and her prose is delightful.

The Wizard of Oz illustrated by Lisbeth Zwerger

The Wizard of Oz illustrated by Lisbeth Zwerger

The charming imagery today is from The Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum, illustrated by Austrian book artist Lisbeth Zwerger (North-South Books, 1996).

The Wizard of Oz illustrated by Lisbeth Zwerger

The passage about is quoted from "The Oddness of Oz" by Alison Lurie, published in Boys and Girls Forever (Vintage, 2004). All rights to the art and text in this post are reserved by Lisbeth Zwerger and the Alison Lurie estate.