Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Saturday, May 26, 2012

The Wonderful Wizard of Oz

Remember this?  Back when I was full of steam to start a little "book section" in my blog? In all fairness, I wrote that blog a little over a week before my father's death (a steam emptier if I've ever experienced one), and to this day it remains my third most read blog ever. Number two was a post with so many technical difficulties, I think the same five people read it a hundred times.  Number one is one of my earliest posts from the "Home Renovation" days, when people thought that's really what they were getting...  Number three is an accident too, I'm sure.  People innocently looking to order a book for their child and instead falling into a pit of criticism... 

I stand by what I wrote, but now it's time to move on to the "short, positive" posts I referred to at the end of my Ladybug Girl critique.  I thought I would start by sharing a much beloved book (at least in our family) that is oft ignored because of the Oh-So-Famous Movie that has come in its wake.  This winter (seriously--the whole winter; we renewed the book three times and it was still overdue when we finally returned it...) was the season for The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.

To be honest, before I read the book to Emerson (the first time through...of four) I was an Oz virgin myself.  I had seen the movie, knew all the songs, but never thought about the book until I was at an exhibit of Lizbeth Zwerger's art a few years ago.  The art speaks for itself, but what I also found so impressive was how many classic children's tales she had chosen to illustrate.  Although most of her books where a bit above my children at the time, I made a mental note of some of the titles to save for later.  One of these, of course, was the Wonderful Wizard of Oz, which I--like many--thought was merely The Wizard of Oz (Lizbeth Zwerger uses this title as well), but no.  He is not just a wizard.  He is Wonderful.

Fortunately, instead of just hastily ordering Zwerger's version from the library (which I did, too...), I decided to read a little bit about the original book itself--the story line, the history surrounding it, author's biography, etc...  In doing this I found out the original copy of L. Frank Baum's book was illustrated by a man named W.W. Denslow, and although that book was out of print, there was a facsimile of the original edition in circulation, and I could order one just as easily as I had ordered Zwerger's version. (Maybe someday, if I live to an old age, I will pursue the satisfaction of having original copies in my hands, but for now I am thrilled with facsimiles!)  I wasn't completely smitten with Denslow's art the way I was with Zwerger's (his drawings are a bit cartoony for my taste, which makes sense--he was an editorial cartoonist by profession), but I thought there was a warm quality to his depictions of the characters that would soften some of the more intense parts of the story for Emerson.  And after all, they are the illustrations that Baum, himself, chose for his tale.

So I ordered them both and waited to see which one would come first... Thankfully, it was Denslow's.

The first thing that struck me when I picked the book up was its thickness.  We had never read such a long book before, and I wondered what I was getting us into, but Emerson happened to be with me at the library, and I had been telling her all about the arrival of "a book with witches" for days (both very bad decisions if you want to preview a book before reading it to your child, by the way), so we began right then, right there.

But how shall I get there?

You must walk.  It is a long journey, through a country that is sometimes pleasant and sometimes dark and terrible.

Emerson (and I, and Matt, and Ophelia when she could sneak a listen) loved the journey and chose to stay on it for three-plus-months.  (When Emerson saw the book in the return pile, she was dismayed, and she asked to read it again a few weeks after I had taken it back.)  My fears that it would be too complicated or too scary for Emerson disappeared as soon as I read Baum's introduction.

Folklore, legends, myths and fairy tales have followed childhood through the ages, for every healthy youngster has a wholesome and instinctive love for stories fantastic, marvelous and manifestly unreal. The winged fairies of Grimm and Andersen have brought more happiness to childish hearts than all other human creations.

Yet the old time fairy tale, having served for generations, may now be classed as "historical" in the children's library; for the time has come for a series of newer "wonder tales" in which the stereotyped genie, dwarf and fairy are eliminated, together with all the horrible and blood-curdling incidents devised by their authors to point a fearsome moral to each tale. Modern education includes morality; therefore the modern child seeks only entertainment in its wonder tales and gladly dispenses with all disagreeable incident.

Having this thought in mind, the story of "The Wonderful Wizard of Oz" was written solely to please children of today. It aspires to being a modernized fairy tale, in which the wonderment and joy are retained and the heartaches and nightmares are left out.

L. Frank Baum
Chicago, April, 1900.

Over the years, critics have claimed that the Wonderful Wizard of Oz is a political or monetary allegory; others have linked it to Antroposophy (which is very interesting to me...), but despite what Baum may or may not have been trying to awaken in adults through his writing, his true intentions--that the book serves to please children--are clear. In terms of leaving out the "heartaches and nightmares", Baum was true to his word.  Although there was danger along the way (the witches and field of poppies, of course, but also Kalidahs--vicious predators with bodies like bears and heads like tigers--and Hammer-Heads--whose heads spring out of their bodies forcefully, knocking even the Cowardly Lion off his route), there is no real evil in this story--no character so vile that children are forced to doubt the inherent goodness of the world. 

The "fearsome moral" is indeed left out, but morality remains.  As we travel from the Land of the Munchkins to the Land of the Quadlings, and to all the places in between, the integrity of Baum's main characters (Dorothy, the Scarecrow, the Tin Woodman, the Cowardly Lion, and even Toto), and many of his minor ones (Oz, Glinda, the Winged Monkeys) shines through. Courage, endurance, loyalty, clemency, kindness, modesty--these are just a few of the virtues that appear so often they cannot help but sink into the soul of every reader who shares in this adventure.

As for the larger message--that we all carry inside us that which we think we lack most--this is not lost on a six-year-old either.  At one point in the story, when the Scarecrow was separated from the group and waving goodbye, Emerson noted, "it's too bad they lost the Scarecrow...he's the one who always has the good ideas..."

Great stuff...all of it.

Zwerger's version arrived a couple of weeks later, at which point Emerson was already completely smitten with Denslow's art.  She flipped through Zwerger's version a few times, but thought the characters were "too puffy."  I think they are both great--as long as they are accompanied by the words, I'll take them both.

It was Toto that made Dorothy laugh, and saved her from growing as gray as her other surroundings.

...all the people seemed to think her a witch, and she knew very well she was only an ordinary little girl who had come by the chance of a cyclone into a strange land...

"But after all, brains are not the best things in the world."
"Have you any?" enquired the Scarecrow.
"No, my head is quite empty," answered the Woodman; "but once I had brains, and a heart also; so, having tried them both, I should much rather have a heart."

"All the same," said the Scarecrow, "I shall ask for brains instead of a heart; for a fool would not know what to do with a heart if he had one."
"I shall take the heart," returned the Tin Woodman; "for brains do not make one happy, and happiness is the best thing in the world."

...Dorothy, fearing Toto would be killed, and heedless of danger, rushed forward and slapped the Lion upon his nose as hard as she could while she cried out: "Don't you dare bite Toto! You ought to be ashamed of yourself, a big beast like you, to bite a poor little dog!"

Once, indeed, the Tin Woodman stepped upon a beetle that was crawling along the road, and killed the poor little thing.  This made the Tin Woodman very unhappy, for he was always careful not to hurt any living creature.
"You people with hearts," he said, "have something to guide you, and need never do wrong; but I have no heart, and so I must be very careful."

"I am terribly afraid of falling, myself," said the Cowardly Lion, "but I suppose there is nothing to do but try it.  So get on my back..."

" But you were strong enough to kill the Wicked Witch of the East," said Oz. "That just happened," returned Dorothy simply; "I could not help it."..."I never killed anything willingly"
" I suppose we must try it; but I am sure I do not want to kill anybody, even to see Aunt Em again."

The leader of the Winged Monkeys flew up to her, his long, hairy arms stretched out and his ugly face grinning terribly; but he saw the mark of the Good Witch's kiss upon her forehead and stopped short.  "We dare not harm this little girl," he said to them, "for she is protected by the Power of Good, and that is greater than the power of evil."

At first the witch was tempted to run; but she happened to look into the child's eyes and saw how simple the soul behind them was, and that the little girl did not know of the wonderful power the Silver Shoes gave her.
"I'm very sorry, indeed," said Dorothy, who was truly frightened to see the Witch actually melting away like brown sugar before her very eyes.
"Didn't you know water would be the end of me?" asked the Witch, in a wailing, despairing voice.
"Of course not," answered Dorothy; "how should I?"

"I think you are a very bad man," said Dorothy. "Oh, no, my dear; I'm really a very good man; but I'm a very bad Wizard, I must admit."

"Can't you give me brains?" asked the Scarecrow.
"You don't need them. You are learning something every day. A baby has brains, but it doesn't know much. Experience is the only thing that brings knowledge, and the longer you are on the earth the more experience you are sure to get."

"But how about my courage?" asked the Lion anxiously.
  "There is no living thing that is not afraid when it faces danger. True courage is in facing danger when you are afraid, and that kind of courage you have in plenty."

"I cannot understand why you should wish to leave this beautiful country and go back to the dry, gray place you call Kansas."
"That is because you have no brains," answered the girl.  "No matter how dreary and gray our homes are, we people of flesh and blood would rather live there than in any other country, be it ever so beautiful.  There is no place like home."

Sunday, May 13, 2012


Over the past decade, a profitable new marketing group has been identified: tweens.  Many people mistakenly believe it represents a bona fide psychological stage of development when it was actually created by the business world to carve out a  new marketing niche.  The term is applied almost exclusively to girls, not boys, and implies that girls ages eight to eleven are "between" childhood and their teen years, rather than the young children they still are.  When younger girls are directly targeted by the media, they are that much more susceptible to messages that negatively influence their self-regard and distract them from more important developmental tasks, such as learning how to act kindly toward their peers, write a proper paragraph, or imagine their future as a novelist or astronaut.  In turn, the positive self-image characteristic of eight to ten-year-olds erodes, leaving a flimsy foundation for adolescent identity development.  --- SuEllen Hamkins, MD and Renee Schultz, MA

I prefer mud to media; it's so much easier to wash out.  Keep froggin' girls!

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Three Golden Hairs and a Loose Tooth

Last weekend I was lying in bed, like I often do on Sunday mornings, trying to catch up on a few minutes of the hours of sleep I lose during the week due to various reasons (work, Ophelia's 6am rendition of "Puff the Magic Dragon," cat throwing up in the middle of the night, etc...).  Emerson--also tired, also a victim of the early morning singing routine--was next to me, quietly finger knitting the yarn attached to her stuffed kitty's neck (her leash, apparently), when I felt her body become completely still.


Usually I get annoyed when Emerson breaks the Sunday morning no talking (and no wiggling) rule, but this wasn't a usual voice.  It wasn't the begging or whispering or whining or crying I get from a child who is restless, hungry, tired or bored.  And it wasn't an exclamation either...not a shout...although there seemed to be a hint of excitement beneath the surface.  It was just Emerson's regular voice, but stronger, clearer, as if she had something really important to say.


"What, honey?"

"My tooth just came out."

After a week of wiggling and jiggling, chewing crunchy foods, and playing rough, Emerson has lost her first tooth.  Not on the playground or at gymnastics, but in bed on a quiet Sunday morning.

Exciting stuff, I tell you...a six-year-old and her first tooth, (Emerson and Matt made a little felt pouch yesterday to put her tooth in under her pillow, and she spent a good portion of the morning pulling the tooth in and out of it) although truth be told, I'm not sure who is more excited, Emerson or me.  At various intervals during the day I would look at Emerson and ask her to smile, which she did willingly, but by the end of the day she was wondering out loud about my seeming obsession with her changing grin.

I suppose I could ever be more excited than Emerson about the loss of her first tooth, but in some ways I think I am equally as excited.  Equally...but for completely different reasons and expressed in a very different way.  As Emerson dreamt upstairs, giddy at the thought that a fairy will fly into her bedroom and leave a surprise, I sat downstairs, remembering the day six years ago when, to my surprise, I found a small, white nub in my nearly one-year-old's mouth.

That is part of the excitement for me--the nostalgic remembrances of when that tooth, that very tooth I am able to now hold in my hand, first showed itself to us.  How for three months her sweet smile was a one-toothed-grin, and how wonderful and pure that time was.

But there is another important aspect as well--the one concerning the "nearly one-year-old" part.  Important because the average child sprouts teeth at around six months, and all the babies around me at the time had plenty of teeth...except Emerson. Yet I was still surprised to see it there. Not expecting it, not waiting, not calling the doctor every chance I got, or stuffing fluoride into her mouth. We were just playing in the grass when I happened to look at her a certain way in a certain light, and there it was. A change. A sign of growing.

I can remember worrying about many things when Emerson was a tiny infant--that she would stop breathing in her sleep (I used to check on her just about every minute when she was a newborn.  True story.), that she had autism because of her expressionless stare, that she was going to be overweight, stupid and buck-toothed because I was unable to breastfeed, the list went on and on...  By the time Emerson was around four months old, however, I came to realization that most of those concerns weren't sprouting from maternal instinct, but from the plethora of parenting information available today, so I took action.  I got rid of all the parenting books, took everything I heard with a grain of salt, and did something mothers all over the world have been doing for years--I trusted the process.  By the time that first little tooth showed up, I was wading in calm waters.

The surety that everything will turn out as it was meant to was relatively easy when it was just Me vs. The World of Parenting Advice.  It has become a bit more difficult now that it is Me vs. Teachers, Educational Specialists, Administrators, and Legislators (who somewhat randomly decide age cut-off dates for school).  Mother Nature is easy to trust...but these people?

Over the past few months I have been wondering--again--if Emerson should really be in the first grade this year, or if she should have spent this past year in kindergarten.  Should she move on to second grade next year or take a year off?  These wonderings came in the midst of some difficulties this winter:  Emerson sobbing herself to sleep and being scared of some of the fairy tales being told at school, me visiting the classroom for her half-birthday and finding Emerson looking tiny and afraid, having her teacher tell us (in a manner that was merely informative, completely free of worry) that Emerson is having trouble with recall--the retelling of stories he has told in class--and of her timidness in general...including singing (oh how she has belted out the words to her favorite songs in the past!), having him also report that she has been expressing nervous tendencies at school--biting her hands, trembling...

Slowly, my mind took over again.  I started looking at the kindergartners a little more closely, wondering if Emerson would feel more comfortable in this peer group.  I spoke with the parents of every youngest child in every grade of the elementary school.  I started daydreaming about possible plans for our "year off"--unschooling, travel, late mornings, lazy days...

...and then Emerson sat down one day and read me a book.  In disbelief (it was a book we had read before, and I thought she had memorized it), I immediately presented her with a book she had never seen before.  And she read that too.  Now in order to fully understand this, you need to take into consideration the fact that Emerson goes to a Waldorf School, where connecting printed words and living concepts is taught gradually and subtly.  Emerson was not being pumped on phonics, but here she was demonstrating the cognitive, linguistic and social skills necessary to read.  Like...well...a first-grader.

And other things starting happening too.  She stopped crying herself to sleep and began to be her content self again, she became more assertive in social gatherings, she made some new best friends in her class (boys...those people she has overlooked for the past few years),

and she lost her tooth--the last one in her class to do so.  Right on time.

This last week was a big one for the first grade, with their lengthy (and toothless) production of The Three Golden Hairs.  There were three showings, the last of which coincided with the May Fair.  As I sat in the audience, I was nervous for Emerson, expecting her to come into the room like a deer in headlights, but my fears couldn't have been more unfounded.  Emerson (and the rest of the class) came into the room smiling, playing their flutes, and proceeded to perform for close to an hour, reciting the lines on cue (all the children said all the lines in the entire play), managing numerous costume and set changes, and working together in a way that was both hilarious and awe inspiring.  As a group, the children were emboldened.  They supported each other at every turn, they accomplished something fantastic, and together they were proud.

Now when I look at the current kindergartners they look so incredibly tiny to me.  The first graders seem to have each grown a foot since spring weather arrived.  Sometime between the first day of school and now these fifteen children have become a collective unit--a family.  And even though Emerson may march to her own personal drummer,

she is still and integral, valued, and loved part of the whole.

(And if I wasn't sure enough that Emerson was in the right place, I could just ask her.  When I mentioned her being in class with the current kindergarten girls, she said "nah...all they do all day is try and look at each other's underwear...")