The Marvelous Land of Oz by L. Frank Baum

I continue my Oz reading with this second installment of Baum’s fantastical world.  I know that I’ll read at least one more if not two in the series.

Plot:  Let’s get one thing out of the way: Dorothy is not in this one.  Our story opens in the Country of the Gillikins, the northern land of Oz, and follows a boy name Tip as he escapes from his cruel master, the witch Mombi.  Before leaving, Tip steals some magic powder which he uses to animate a pumpkinhead man that he has made.   Their plan is to travel to the Emerald City to meet the Scarecrow, who is now the ruler of that place.  Along the way, they animate a saw horse and ride him to the City.

They meet the scarecrow who unfortunately is not much help as his city is quickly overthrown by an army of girls with knitting needles.  They all escape to the land of the Winkies where they meet the Tin Woodsman who rules there.  They return to the Emerald City but are quickly surrounded by the girl army, escaping by creating a flying machine out of various items including the head of a gump.  Eventually they make it to the south country where they meet with Glinda the Good who accompanies them take back the Emerald City from both the girl army and Mombi.  There is an excellent plot twist at the end that I will not spoil for you.

Personal Reaction:  I felt that this book was different from the first in that L. Frank Baum seemed more sure of the tone that he wanted to strike.  In the Wizard of Oz, the story often overwhelmed a great deal of character development (“and then this happened…and then this happened…”).  But Baum allows The Marvelous Land to breathe a bit more and lets the characters have extended conversations that illuminate their personalities.  One dialogue that I found enjoyable was early on in the book when the Scarecrow and Jack Pumpkinhead are first meeting.  They talk themselves into the idea that, because they are from different lands of Oz, then they must need an interpreter to understand each other.  Of course, they are speaking the same language the entire time.

I also appreciated how each character was proud in their own way of their uniqueness, but also inclined towards sensitivity on this matter.  The Tin Woodsman, for example, has himself nickel plated and is careful to avoid scratches to preserve his lustre.  Jack Pumpkinhead is careful not to damage his head and is constantly worried about spoiling.  The Sawhorse is embarrassed when one of his legs is damaged and must be switched out with another piece of wood.  Baum’s characters wear their weirdness on the outside, but just like people, are inclined to be self conscious about it.

Taken all together, I believe that this book holds up (a bit of sexism concerning the girl army notwithstanding) over a hundred years later.  I can cheerfully recommend The Marvelous Land of Oz to 7 year olds and up.

Themes:  uniqueness, diversity, character identity, female empowerment, gender identity, the trials of teamwork,

The Squish Series by Jennifer L. Holm and Matthew Holm

Jennifer L. and Matthew Holm continue the amusing tone set in their Babymouse graphic novels with their new series Squish.  Last week I read the first two installments to my 5 year old daughter.

Plot: Squish is a young amoeba who lives in a pond floating with other microorganisms including paramecium and planaria.  But life in the pond is not easy and Squish is plagued with troubles familiar to any human child in elementary school.  In the first book, Squish must face down the school bully Lynnwood, also an amoeba, who wants to eat his obnoxiously ebullient friend Peggy, a paramecium.  In the second book, Squish is starting a new school year and finds that he has made it into the cool crowd with the Algae, the “coolest microorganisms in the pond.”  But Squish soon finds out that being with the popular kids comes with a price that is too high for him to pay.

Personal Reaction: These are fun, clever reads.  I love the artifice of using the microscopic world of a pond as an allegory for the trials of elementary school.  Lynnwood is the scariest amoeba in school because he readily, and quite literally, eats and digests other microorganisms.  The Algae are the coolest kids  because they produce oxygen.  As an adult, I found it entertaining to reconsider the life of an amoeba, something that I had not thought about since 9th grade biology class.  Kids will enjoy the comic book spoof humor and the problems that relate to this age group.

Themes: following your conscience, bullying, standing up for your friends, father-son relationship,  the effects of the inner life of the mind on the outer world, fitting in with social groups, the shifting nature of friendships under pressure.

Squish: Super Amoeba 94 pages 2011 Random House; Squish: Brave New Pond 90 pages, 2011 Random House.

The Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum

Any children’s librarian worth her salt (or his salt, in my case) needs to be familiar with L. Frank Baum’s classic The Wizard of Oz.  For my part, I have decided recently to read at least the first 3 or 4 books in the series.  I wanted to move beyond the initial book that Hollywood has so well acquainted us with and truly experience the strangeness of Baum’s imaginary world.  With this in my mind, I put the Wizard of Oz in my suitcase as I packed for my vacation last week.

We are all by now familiar with the story: a cyclone sweeps up the Kansas prairie girl Dorothy, her dog Toto and their house and deposits them in the magical world of Oz.  Upon landing in the country of the Munchkins, Dorothy learns that she must travel to the City of Emeralds and seek the help of the great Oz.  She meets some companions along the way in the form of a scarecrow, a tin man, and a lion. That is all that I will say about the plot, because you know it anyway.

My own reaction to Baum’s classic is that it holds up pretty well since its publication in 1900.  I sometimes felt that events were a little forced (“and then this happened…and then this happened…”), especially near the end when the party travels through a land of living ceramic people.  I couldn’t help but wonder why Baum inserted that in there unless he was trying to set up plot points for future books.

Ultimately I liked the message of uplift that pervades the story.  As Edward Wagenknecht writes in the Afterword, “all these people, and the cowardly lion too, when they wanted something, they went out after it and in the end they found it.”  And it’s true.  Each of the characters attains that for which they search.  The irony of course, often lost on children but clear to adults, is that each of the characters already had what they wanted.  The Scarecrow had brains, the Lion courage, the Tin Man had heart, and Dorothy had an adventure to deliver her from the tedium of the Kansas prairie.  What is Baum telling us?  That adventure is here and now?  That we already have what we so want?  I’m not certain, but I love when a children’s book pushes me into deeper waters like this.

So, even an adult reader in 2012 can enjoy The Wizard of Oz.  I look forward to tackling at least the next two in the series.

The Ravenmaster’s Secret by Elvira Woodruff

ImageSynopsis:  The year is 1735 and the place is the Tower of London.  Forrest Harper is an 11 year old boy who is the son of the prison’s Ravenmaster.  His days are spent tending to the birds, playing with his rat catching friend Ned, and providing meals to some of the prisoners.  Forrest longs for adventure and receives some when a group of Scottish prisoners are sent to the tower.  Amongst them is a girl named Maddy who soon fills Forrest’s ear up with tales of her home in Scotland.

As the day of Maddie’s trial and execution approaches, Forest and Ned are tempted to become part of a plot to help her escape.  But there is so much at stake.  If they are caught, it would surely mean death for them and great shame for Forrest’s family.  What will they do?

Personal Reaction:  Because I enjoy reading about history and other cultures, this was a quick and easy read for me.  Woodruff packs this book with bullies, thugs, and shady people.  She also does such an excellent job of building characters and moving the plot along that I truly wanted for Forrest, Ned and Maddie to prevail.  After I hit the midway point of this book, I just burned through the rest. I had goosebumps as I read the final pages.  I’m not sure that I can give a book higher praise than that.

Themes include father-son relationships, testing of friendships, freedom vs. captivity, bullying,  the limits of patriotism, the morality of public executions, child labor, and child cruelty.

225 pages; published 2003