Illustration by John R. Neill
I loved the Oz books as a kid. Loooooved them. Collected the whole series, the Baum-authored ones plus a couple of the Ruth Plumly Thompson sequels, and enlisted my father’s help to track down the Very Best Editions, the white-bordered oversized trade paperbacks with John R. Neill illustrations.
I reread the entire series regularly all through high school and even on college vacations. Dorothy, Ozma, Tik-Tok, Scraps, the Hungry Tiger, the Glass Cat, Betsy Bobbin, Billina, Polychrome, General Jinjur, the Shaggy Man, Button-Bright: this astonishing array of lively characters peopled my imagination and taught me a great deal about diversity, varying points of view, and fun. They were an outspoken bunch, these Oz folks. They had strong opinions; their perspectives clashed; they worked through conflicts and celebrated one another’s quirks. I adored them. Still do.
Strangely, the Oz books never seemed to take off for my kids as read-alouds. Baum’s prose is, I confess, a bit arch, sometimes saccharine. His genius was for character and plot, not lyricism. My older three girls went through waves of reading the series on their own, but they didn’t seem to catch Oz fever with the intensity I had.
Enter Rilla. Well, first enter Eric Shanower and Skottie Young, who are bringing the Oz books to a new generation of readers via truly gorgeous graphic novel adaptations published by Marvel. Oz, overflowing as it is with colorful, outlandish characters, was made for graphic depictions. Eric Shanower (who has become a friend of mine through Comic-Con and SCBWI) is a true Ozian—why, his own press is called Hungry Tiger, and his contributions to Oz literature and fandom are staggering. His adaptations are faithful, deft, and affectionate. And Skottie Young’s art, while a departure from the John R. Neill images burned into my brain as canon, is wholly delightful. It’s clear he is having tremendous fun bringing these creatures to life.
I’ve mentioned before that Rilla, as a reader, is drawn to books with a heavy illustration-to-text ratio. She prefers Brambly Hedge to Little House, for example; those gorgeous, intricately detailed drawing of tree-stump pantries and attics can occupy her for a full afternoon. She’ll spend an hour talking to me about Eric Carle’s techniques. For her, art is the magic; an accompanying plotline is simply a nice bonus.
We brought Eric and Skottie’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz home from SDCC last month, and Rilla—well, you’d have thought we gave her an actual trip to the Land of Oz, she was so excited. It’s the longest, hardest book she has read on her own. Oh yes, it’s a graphic novel, but the text is quite sophisticated: there’s some nice meaty vocabulary in the dialogue. Baum didn’t talk down to his young readers, and neither does Eric Shanower. (And of course I’ve written volumes before about the excellent reading skills imparted by comics: there’s a lot of complex decoding going on as a young reader navigates those panels.)
“Bad news,” she told me mournfully one day. “I finished the best book in the world.”
“Guess what,” I whispered. “There are more.”
Her gasp, her shining eyes: no Princess of Oz was more radiant.
The next week’s worth of bedtimes saw her poring over The Marvelous Land of Oz, one of my favorite books in the series (both the original and the graphic adaptation). Every morning, she narrated the previous night’s events to me, dancing with suspense as the story unfolded, and belly-laughing over the ending.
Then came Ozma of Oz, a book for which my deep affection renders me nearly incoherent. Even that sentence is on shaky grammatical territory. Imagine a lot of squealing noises and some Rilla-esque bouncing around. I mean, I mean, Tik-Tok and the Wheelers! The lunch-pail trees! The loathsome, fabulous Princess Langwidere and her collection of interchangeable heads. SHE WANTS DOROTHY’S HEAD FOR THE COLLECTION, YOU GUYS. Come on. And then the Nome King and his high-stakes guessing game (shades of Heckedy Peg), and Billina the Hen’s surprising trump card. Oh, oh, oh.
Don’t tell Rilla, but I’d already given a copy of Ozma to my goddaughter, Vivi, whose mother is, if anything, an even bigger Oz fanatic than I am. She even looks like Ozma. (Krissy, why why why didn’t we ever go as Ozma and Polychrome for Halloween?)
Polychrome, the Rainbow’s Daughter, meets Princess Ozma. Illustration by John R. Neill.
Rilla hasn’t met Polychrome yet. She will swoon, mark my words. The Rainbow’s Daughter? Polly of the swirling robes and floaty hair? Rilla’s a goner. Like Ozma, she’ll make Polly’s acquaintance in The Road to Oz. I can’t wait to see what Skottie Young does with Polychrome and the Shaggy Man. Both characters are bubbling over with the whimsy he captures so well.
But first comes Dorothy and the Wizard in Oz. Even for Baum, this is a bizarre tale. Dorothy gets caught in a San Francisco earthquake and falls all the way to the center of the earth, where weird vegetable people (as in, they grow on vines) called the Mangaboos are on the verge of executing her when, whew!, who should float down in his balloon but Dorothy’s old acquaintance, the Wizard?
After that comes The Emerald City of Oz. Rilla and I may not be able to wait for the collected edition; we might have to start picking up the floppies from our local comic shop.