Genre: Fairy Tale
Author(s): L. Frank Baum
Illustrator(s): W.W. Denslow
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Release Date: 12/13/1901
Hard cover Price: $27.99
Reading Level: 8-12
Read Aloud: 4
Read Alone: 8
Other Choices: The Hero's Guide to Saving Your Kingdom, The Phantom Tollbooth, Down the Mysterly River, Where the Mountain Meets the Moon
Synopsis: Original American fairy tale more spare, magical than movie.
Common Sense Rates It:
Parents need to know
Parents need to know that the 1939 movie The Wizard of Oz, which is full of Hollywood embellishments, has little to do with the spare, classic book by L. Frank Baum, originally published in 1900. The Wonderful Wizard of Oz is a quite different story, and not to be missed. It has magic, great characters, tongue-in-cheek humor, a good deal of sturdy American self-reliance, good deeds and kindness rewarded, and a cheerful appreciation of hucksterism. There's some incidental violence (principally when the Tin Woodman and other members of his party lop off the heads of their attackers) that's startling to many unsuspecting readers. There's food for thought and lessons galore in a book that adapts its structure from Pilgrim's Progress, avoids taking itself too seriously, and never forgets that there's no place like home.
- Families can talk about why the book and the movie versions of this story are so different. Which do you like better? Why?
- What does the Scarecrow do that makes you suspect he might have more brains than he thinks he does, the Tin Woodman more heart, and the Cowardly Lion more courage?
- Why would Dorothy rather be in a shabby cabin in Kansas than in any of the beautiful places she visits?
- Do you think you might like to read more of the Oz books?
What's the story?
Dorothy lives with her Uncle Henry and Aunt Em and her beloved little dog Toto on a poor farm in Kansas. When a cyclone strikes one day, she runs after Toto instead of into the shelter; the wind carries off the house with them in it and finally drops it again. Coming out of the house, Dorothy is greeted by a grateful crowd of people called Munchkins and a woman who calls herself the Good Witch of the North, explaining that Dorothy's house has landed on the Wicked Witch of the East, who's enslaved the Munchkins for years, and now they're free. Also, the Wicked Witch's magic silver shoes are now Dorothy's, even though the exact nature of their magic is a mystery. All Dorothy wants, though, is to get herself and Toto back to Kansas before Aunt Em gets too worried, and no one has any idea how to make that happen. The Good Witch says the Wizard of Oz in the Emerald City might be able to help, and thus begins a trip in which Dorothy befriends the Scarecrow, the Tin Woodman, the Cowardly Lion, and quite a few others, and has many adventures.
Is it any good?
THE WONDERFUL WIZARD OF OZ is an American classic, and will probably astonish those who know only the movie, which took considerable liberties with the story in its adaptation. Author L. Frank Baum tells a good tale, has a lively imagination, and writes from the heart, particularly when it comes to explaining why one would want to leave a beautiful place like Oz for the barren Kansas prairie. While Dorothy and her friends must endure many hardships in their quest before things reach their happy conclusion, the plot moves along quickly, and with plenty of shrewd observations. The book was a huge hit as soon as it was published in 1900 and was followed by more than a dozen sequels.There are many editions available of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, but the original was very much a team effort of author Baum and illustator W.W. Denslow, and the 100th Anniverary Edition (pictured here) replicates that one.
The Good Stuff
Messages: The closest thing to an explicit statement in this message-packed but subtle story (aside from Dorothy's saying, once or twice, "There's no place like home," but never while clicking her heels like in the movie) is when Glinda tells Dorothy that she's had the ability to get herself home to Kansas all the time, if she only knew it. Likewise, long before any wish-granting, the Woodman shows plenty of heart, the Scarecrow plenty of brains, and the Lion plenty of courage -- it's only a matter of recognizing it. There are many instances in the story where kindness is rewarded (as when the Tin Woodman saves the Mouse Queen, whose people come to the travelers' rescue later) and others where characters are defined as good by their kind behavior. Strong friendship helps the characters solve their difficulties and get out of many a fix.
Educational Value: While author Baum states in his introduction that his aim is to entertain, not teach in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, kids will learn a bit about cyclones and farm life in 1900 Kansas. Kids can also sharpen their critical thinking skills as they contemplate whether the fact that Oz is a successful, kind ruler balances the fact that he's a complete charlatan.
Role Models: Dorothy is an excellent role model: the whole adventure comes about because she rushes to save Toto, and she is almost always kind-hearted in her dealings with others (in the famous scene where she throws water on the Wicked Witch, she is responding to the theft of her shoe and has no idea of the dire effect). Her desire to get back to Kansas is driven in part by her own wish to be home, but also because she's concerned at how unhappy her Aunt Em will be that she's gone. In the face of many obstacles, she never loses sight of her goal of getting herself and Toto home, and she's willing to persevere and work hard to get there. While the Scarecrow, the Tin Woodman, and the Cowardly Lion think they lack brains, heart and courage respectively, their deeds show otherwise. The four friends (and Toto) are good companions and support each other through their difficulties. And other characters, from the Mouse Queen to Glinda the Good Witch, are helpful and generous in their dealings. Even the Wizard himself, though a considerably more mixed bag as a self-admitted fraud, has ruled the Emerald City benevolently and treated its people well, and does his best for Dorothy and her friends.
What to watch out for
Violence & scariness: The cyclone famously drops Dorothy's house on top of the Wicked Witch of the East, killing her, and later the Wicked Witch of the West has that fatal encounter with the bucket of water. In between those incidents, there's a startling amount of casually narrated violence: The Tin Woodman, it turns out, was once a flesh-and-blood man, but a witch's curse caused his axe to cut off one part of his body after another until he was nothing but metal replacements; at one point, the Woodman and others kill dozens of attackers of various species by chopping off their heads.
Sexy stuff: Just a slight heads up that the next volume in the Oz series, The Marvelous Land of Oz, features a startling instance of gender-bending as the young male protagonist proves to be Ozma, Queen of Oz, under an enchantment, and is restored to her proper state. If The Wonderful Wizard of Oz leaves your kids wanting more, you may want to know that this is coming.
Language: Not an issue
Consumerism: Not an issue
Drinking, drugs & smoking: One of the hazards Dorothy and her friends face is a field of red poppies whose fragrance puts unwary travelers to sleep until they die.