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We're Off To Read The Wizard, 'The Wonderful Wizard Of Oz'

Our next book club adventure takes us on a journey that is familiar to people across generations: We will be taking a trip down the yellow brick road with The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, first published in 1900. It is one of the most beloved stories in popular American culture, but over the decades, the book has taken a back seat to the wildly successful Wizard of Oz film.

Indeed, the mere mention of The Wizard of Oz calls to mind an image of the stumbling Scarecrow, the rusted Tin Man, the Cowardly Lion or the actress Judy Garland, clad in gingham and braids, singing "Somewhere Over the Rainbow." It's a film that is in our national DNA, viewed usually not just once, but over and over again. The 1939 musical is said to have been seen by more people more times than any other movie ever made. For years it was broadcast annually on television in the U.S. and also in several other countries.

In March, a new film is rolling into theaters called Oz: The Great and Powerful. It's produced by Disney and is meant to be a prequel to The Wizard of Oz film, with a story line that explains how the Wizard found his way to magical land of Oz in the first place.

Here at NPR's Backseat Book Club, we've decided go back to where the yellow brick road began, with the original fairy tale authored by a man named L. Frank Baum. In many ways it is a simple story of a girl who gets swept up in a Kansas cyclone and wakes up in a mystical land with flying monkeys, treacherous trees, scarecrows that sing and a scary green witch who rides bicycles.

In the centennial edition of The Annotated Wizard of Oz, children's book historian Michael Patrick Hearn said, "Frank Baum knew at once he had written something special when he completed The Wonderful Wizard of Oz." Before introducing readers to Oz, Baum had achieved success as a children's book author translating Mother Goose into prose and publishing a popular collection of nonsensical Father Goose poems. He had a strong sense that the Wizard of Oz would be a smash hit because it was a fairy tale that touched on timely themes at the turn of the 20th century, but also timeless questions such as where does courage really come from? And why do humans always long to go back home? Baum also realized that the story had stoked his own creative flame. He told his brother Harry that The Wonderful Wizard of Oz was the best thing he'd ever written. So smitten was Baum by The Emerald City that he eventually wrote more than a dozen novels based on the Land of Oz.

Historians say there was another reason for the blockbuster success of the first Oz book: It featured magical illustrations by William Wallace Denslow that captured the imagination of adults as well as kids. The original book was published with 24 color plates and contained more than 100 textual illustrations. Hearn said it was "the most lavishly illustrated American book of the twentieth century." Hearn also noted that reviewers heaping praise on the Oz book could not decide who deserved more credit, Baum the author or Denslow the illustrator.

A fairy tale that carried such visual punch and visceral emotion was tailor-made for a musical production. Baum and Denslow began laying the groundwork for a stage play almost immediately after the first Oz book was published. After a series of fits and starts, a stage version opened in 1902 bearing the name that would eventually appear in film as well, The Wizard of Oz. The popular stage version had a plot line that veered from the original book. The witch disappeared. Toto said "ta ta" and was replaced by a cow named Imogene. Overall, the theme and subtle jokes in the stage play were aimed primarily at adults.

The story line eventually leaned back toward a younger audience with early attempts at film adaptations and the eventual 1939 classic film made by Metro Goldwyn Mayer. The movie, like the stage productions, is quite different from the original book, but we don't want to give too much away before our Backseat Book Club readers launch into reading the story that started it all: The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.

We hope this book will reach readers across the age spectrum, and we would love to hear from those who have special memories attached to the Land of Oz. We're hoping that our trip down the yellow brick road will send you on a trip down memory lane. Did you sleep with the light on for weeks after seeing the flying monkeys? Do you have a pair of red slippers tucked away in your closet or a cherished vintage toy version of the Tin Man? Do you find that you can't hum a certain song when you see someone on an upright bike with a wicker basket on the handlebars? Please share your Oz memories with us here.

And if you or your kids have ever dressed up as a character from The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, we'd love to see you in costume. You can submit your photos here.

Happy reading. And you know what? There really is no place quite like home.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.