Wednesday, March 24, 2010

I Can Get There from Here: The Power of Children's Books

Every Christmas my father bought me a first edition Oz book for a dollar, from the Silver Shack, a used bookstore in downtown Detroit. The Oz books were the highlight of my Christmas, the key to a land of unimaginable excitement. I can close my eyes now and breathe the yellowed, slightly musty smell of those books, with their promise of magic and adventure.

The Wonderful Wizard of Oz was the first in the series by L. Frank Baum, but Dorothy wasn’t the only child to find her way to Oz. In later books, children arrived from all over the U.S. I fully intended to make it there myself before I became an adult. I wasn’t sure exactly how it would happen, but I had faith that it would.

One Christmas vacation, I was curled on the floor of my bedroom in my new red pajamas eating an apple and reading The Emerald City of Oz, the sixth book in the series, when I came to the last chapter, “ How the Story of Oz came to an End”. It described how the author, Baum, had received a personal note from Dorothy:

"You will never hear anything more about Oz, because we are now cut off forever from all the rest of the world. But Toto and I will always love you and all the other children who love us. Dorothy Gale."

I stopped chewing mid-bite. I didn’t move or even breathe as the enormity of what I had just read sunk in. The whole universe seemed to stand still with those terrible final words – "we are now cut off forever from all the rest of the world." I was locked out of fairyland forever, stuck in the real world trying to coerce ordinary life into a story.

The Emerald City of Oz was published in 1910, so by the time I read Dorothy’s letter, Oz had been cut off from the rest of the world for forty-five years. But to me Oz was breathlessly immediate, and everything that happened was happening right now. (Later, Baum decided to continue the series after one of his readers suggested Dorothy send him more Oz adventures by wireless telegraph.)

I must have known Oz was fiction. I was nine years old, after all. But a part of me believed that the fairyland existed on some plane, and that I would get there before I reached adulthood. Other kids had made it – Betsy from Oklahoma, Button Bright from Philadelphia, Trot from California. Surely there was room for one more kid to squeeze in before the door to Oz was slammed shut forever.

The way Oz was cut off, Baum explained in The Emerald City of Oz, was by making it invisible to outsiders.

“But how can you do it?” asked Dorothy. “How can you keep every one from ever finding Oz?”

“By making our country invisible to all eyes but our own,” replied [Glinda] the Sorceress, smiling… “We will be able to see each other and everything in the Land of Oz…but those who fly through the air over our country will look down and see nothing at all.”

That was the chink in the wall, the crack in the door left ever so slightly ajar. Oz might be invisible to most people, but if you looked really really closely, you could glimpse it shimmering through the fabric of reality, a parallel universe to the ordinary world we lived in. You might not be able to live there, but by watching closely and paying attention, you could at least catch sight of it now and then.

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