Posted: Thursday, April 11th, 2013
Illustration by Brian Chang
The landscape of my childhood is made up of obsessions. Most kids have ‘phases,’ but I’ve always felt my interests as a kid went much, much deeper than those of my peers. When I got into something, I REALLY got into something. It consumed me.
For instance, from my earliest childhood years and well into my late-elementary years, all I could do was talk Disney. My grandmother had four kids, who in turn had their own sets of kids, which meant that she was family babysitter. As such, she had a vast collection of Disney movies on VHS, which got me acquainted with the Disney library pretty quickly. This was the late ‘80s-early ‘90s, so I was living in the middle of a Disney revolution: Little Mermaid. Aladdin. Lion King. Every new movie was my movie. Every song I knew back to front. At age 4, my first career goal was to be the voice of a Disney character.
Age 7: My dad buys me a paperback copy of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. I love it. I watch the 1971 film version. What had scared the bejesus out of me as a preschooler (our teachers showed it to us one afternoon; I burst out bawling at the sight of Violet Beauregard becoming a blueberry and had to be taken out of the room) suddenly becomes fascinating. Gene Wilder’s deadpan portrayal of Wonka is probably responsible for my, ahem, cutting wit today.
After that it was cats. I had always preferred cats to dogs, but once I hit about age 7 EVERYTHING WAS CATS. Cat sweatshirts. Cat school supplies. National Geographic specials about cats. Ugly cat figurines that still collect dust on the shelves in my bedroom to this day.
As I got older, I fell in love with theatre – the r-before-e kind of theatre. I was all about musicals. Almost every waking moment that I wasn’t in school, I was wearing out a cassette of an original Broadway cast recording. When I was old enough, I started enrolling in school plays and community productions. And a few years later, around age 14, I entered a committed relationship with rock ‘n’ roll that hasn’t let up and that I hope never, ever does.
Concurrently with my Willy Wonka obsession crept up a fascination with The Wizard of Oz. My grandma, in addition to her Disney collection, had a few off-brand kids’ movies that lived down at the bottom of the shelf. One of them was The Wizard of Oz. I had watched it on and off but didn’t love it.
Then, one day around 1994, I just started watching it. A lot. And soon, it was my main obsession. But unlike all my other obsessions (rock ‘n’ roll excepted), The Wizard of Oz is one I never grew out of. It grew with me.
Over the years, I’ve tried to pin down why The Wizard of Oz is the only childhood obsession that has stuck with me all this time. I never have a good reason when people ask me why I love it. “I just do,” I say, and maybe tell them the story I just told you. But working at Education.com often has me embedded deep in the classics of children’s literature – The Secret Garden, Alice in Wonderland, Peter Pan – and has forced me to really think about why it has always felt so different from the rest. While you can learn from pretty much any fairy tale out there, the lessons a kid can extract from Oz are pretty singular.
1. Dorothy is awesome. I’ll be the first to admit she isn’t the most butt-kickin’, name-takin’ heroine out there. But she’s not some hand-wringing damsel in distress that’s going to curl up and cry while she waits for someone to rescue her (which, honestly, is about how I’d handle it if I were dropped into a strange land via tornado). Dorothy has pluck. Spunk. Moxie. All those other old-fashioned words for “bravery,” “creativity” and everything in between. She isn’t afraid to ask for help. She calmly and cautiously carries out each task she’s charged with, but she ain’t no pushover – I mean, girl thinks nothing of smacking a lion in the face when he gets outta line. That’s some serious moxie.
2. Home isn’t a place. It’s people. In the book, a good amount of the first chapter is spent trashing the Kansas prairie. It’s not the dry grass, the muted color palette of the prairie, the “dull and gray” house that she’s eager to get back to after ending up Oz. It’s Aunt Em and Uncle Henry that she cries out for.
3. People are jerks sometimes. One of the heaviest themes in Oz, in my opinion, is that someone can be a good person, but do bad things once in a while, and bad guys can do good things, too. Up until then, I had been raised on a diet of stories where there were bad guys and good guys – no in between. Then along comes The Wizard, and his Kansas doppelganger Professor Marvel. The Professor is all set to swindle Dorothy until he finds a photo of Aunt Em while rifling through her basket and has a change of heart. And, spoiler alert, the Wizard isn’t really a wizard. He’s been faking it for fear of upsetting the utopian vibe in the land. His presence alone is what’s keeping everyone so gosh-darn chipper all the time, and who is he to spoil that? Sure, it wasn’t very nice of him, but sometimes people choose to do not-so-nice things with the best of intentions.
4. You’ve had it in you all along. OK, so it definitely wasn’t cool of Glinda to withhold that information about the slippers’ powers from Dorothy for all that time. But Dorothy’s defeat of the witch wasn’t just a happy accident – if she hadn’t had the guts to toss that pail of water on her in a last-ditch effort, she and her friends would have met a horrible fate. Just like Glinda says, she had to discover her strength on her own in order to truly harness its power. Don’t call it magic. Call it moxie.
5. There’s more to life than movies. You mean this thing is based on a book? I can’t ever be sure what spurred a love of writing in me, but I can say that The Wizard of Oz inspired at least a few early creative writing projects starring Dorothy and her friends, and at least one book report on one of the other novels in the Oz canon. Oz is one of the first films a kid can truly say “I liked the book better” about and mean it.
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