Thu
Jul 29 2010 1:33pm

Spinning round in Fairyland: Merry Go Round in Oz

Perhaps dispirited by their experiences with generally unknown authors for their Oz series, publishers Reilly and Lee took a new approach for the 40th (and, as it would turn out, final) book of the series: hiring the Newberry Award winning novelist and children’s author Eloise Jarvis McGraw, who chose to co-write her book with her daughter Lauren McGraw. The choice turned out to be fortunate indeed: Merry Go Round in Oz is one of the very best of the Oz books, a fast paced, hilarious book worth seeking out by Oz fans and non-fans alike. My initial worries that this book might not live up to my fond childhood memories soon vanished: I still found myself laughing out loud as I turned its pages, and I was sorry when the book ended.

The book interweaves three tales: of young Robin Brown, an orphan from Oregon; of the three National Disasters that inflict the noble kingdom of Halidom; and, er, the quest of Dorothy and the Cowardly Lion for some awesome Easter Eggs. So, ok, not all the plots are equally riveting—although I did like the bunnies. And, surprisingly enough, all of these seemingly unconnected plots turn out to be very closely intertwined indeed. Even the bunnies.

Of the characters, young Robin may be the worst off: shy and inarticulate, he’s not very good at making friends, explaining himself, or fitting in with his well-meaning, but noisy, foster family. He suspects the family doesn’t like him very much, and won’t miss him if he leaves. No wonder that he seizes the chance to ride a quite ordinary merry-go-round in quite ordinary Oregon, and reaches up to grab the brass ring for a chance at a free ride. The successful grab sends him and the little merry go round horse he is riding careening into Oz.

(Incidentally, this points up one real decline in contemporary society: I spent years looking for similar rings on merry go rounds, and never found one. I’m not even sure that they make ordinary grabbable rings anymore, let alone the magical sorts that send you to Oz. Sigh.)

This, and the discovery that the little merry go round horse, called, (hold your surprise), Merry, is now alive and can talk, rather confuses Robin, a situation not helped by the discovery that Merry can only ride round and round; straight lines confuse her. (We’ve all been there.)

Meanwhile, over in Halidom, things are going from rather bad to really worse. Halidom had been doing quite well as a supplier of luxury heraldry supplies to all of Oz’s tiny little kingdoms (our first indication, in 40 books, that any of these kingdoms perform any positive economic function whatsoever). But, alas, alas, Halidom’s prosperity was dependent on three little magical circlets (yet another lesson in the critical importance of diversifying your assets, even in a fairyland), which have all, gulp, disappeared. The circlets grant dexterity, intelligence, and strength; their disappearance leaves every Halidom native exhausted, clumsy, and unable to think. This is no way to start a quest.

And yet, the Prince decides to quest anyway (as I mentioned, thinking isn’t a strong suit with him at the moment) taking along his rather arrogant horse and a very cute Flittermouse, as well as two friends not from Halidom, and thus unaffected by this circlet: his page Fess and a Unique Unicorn.

Also, bunnies.

In a roundabout fashion (cough), all three plots end up centering (ahem) on the town of Roundelay, a town which has focused so hard on quality that they have inadvertently manufactured themselves right out of business: their products never break or decay, and thus never need to be replaced. The goods? Well, round things, of course.

So many things make this book a delight: the sly jokes, delightful dialogue, the Cowardly Lion’s horrified response upon meeting Genuinely Good Children (scarier than they might sound); Roundelay’s economic jokes and inept and delightfully absurd attempts at rebranding; the likeable villains; the way nearly everyone gets to help solve or contribute to the Halidom quest; and the decidedly satisfactory resolution, wherein all of our circling plots turn out to be linked together quite closely indeed. (Even the bunnies!)

And—don’t fall over in shock—almost no Ozma fail. Unless you count her decision to delegate her Easter Egg shopping to a friend. Okay, so maybe some minor Ozma fail. But after this, Ozma arrives with useful advice, a satisfactory action plan, ready to mete out appropriate justice. Maybe Queen Lurline replaced the old Ozma with this useful doppledanger. I guess we’ll never know.

To counter this surprising departure from Oz history, the book does return to an old L. Frank Baum motif: questioning traditional gender roles. Unusually for Oz, Halidom has very distinct ideas on what men should do, and what women should do, and Lady Annelet is not allowed to join the quest for the circlets. (This would have bothered me more had she not been hampered by the same clumsiness, weakness and inability to think that plagued the entire kingdom, and had Prince Gules and Fess not warmly welcomed the very feminine Unicorn and the always practical Dorothy on their quest.) A bit jarring in a series where girls had almost always (even in the notable exception of The Hungry Tiger of Oz the segregation by gender occurs outside of Oz) had an equal share of opportunity and adventure.

And yet, those assigned gender roles are, as it turns out, the partial cause of Halidom’s downfall (along with the bunnies): the book’s chief villain has been sneaking around and doing bad things because he—and it’s critical that he’s a he—is terrified that people will doubt his masculinity if they discover just how much he loves to cook and eat pie. (It’s apparently seriously excellent pie.) As Dorothy notes, if the poor man had just felt free to be himself, all might have been well. Or, at least better, since two of the circlets would still have been missing.

Overall, the book can be seen as an argument against holding to static roles and refusing change: not just Halidom, but Roundelay, the Good Children, and View Halloo all harm themselves or others by refusing change or any threats to the status quo. It’s a surprisingly subversive message, harking back to the Baum books, especially in a book that outwardly appears to celebrate aspects of the very traditional culture of the British aristocracy (hunting, heraldry and so on), however humorously. 

But the story that lingers is that of Robin, who in all his various foster homes has never found a place where he belongs. In Oz...well, I’ll just say that magical things can and do happen in Oz. Even in places where people are desperately chasing the world’s greatest dessert. (And if that isn’t justification for evil doings, I don’t know what is.)

(Although as an adult, it did occur to me to hope that Ozma sent some magical message over to Oregon to ensure that Robin’s well meaning foster parents didn’t end up in jail on charges related to his disappearance. This seems to be a more mature, thoughtful Ozma. Let us hope.)


Speaking of Ozma fail, the series summary:

  • Total number of books: 40
  • Number of books in which Ozma does not appear and is not mentioned: 1 (The Wonderful Wizard of Oz)
  • Number of books in which Ozma does not appear and manages to fail anyway: 1 (Captain Salt in Oz)
  • Number of books in which Ozma appears but does not have time to fail because she only appears in the last few pages and is still recovering from that whole transformation thing: 1 (The Marvelous Land of Oz)
  • Number of books with minor Ozma fail (i.e, not leading to gross injustice, kidnapping, an attack on the Emerald City, war or genocide): 15
  • Number of books with major Ozma fail (i.e, leading to gross injustice, kidnapping, an attack on the Emerald City, war or genocide): 18
  • Number of books with no Ozma fail, making me wonder exactly what series I was reading: 4 (The Tin Woodman of Oz, The Royal Book of Oz, The Shaggy Man of Oz, Merry Go Round in Oz)

Fail rate: 85%

I...don’t even know what to say.


Merry Go Round of Oz was the last of the “official” Oz books. (Some Oz fans also include six additional books written by the Royal Historians and later published by the International Wizard of Oz Club, Books of Wonder, and Hungry Tiger Press, in this “official” list, but I couldn’t find any consensus on this.) Oz publishers Reilly and Lee were bought out by the Henry Regnery Co, which in turn was bought out by McGraw Hill, which in turn jumped out of the Oz publishing business altogether to focus on textbooks.

But if its publishers abandoned Oz, fans and writers did not. Oz books proliferated (and continue to proliferate), both with books seeking to stay true to canon (however inconsistent that canon), and books that upended the series altogether, of which the best known is (arguably) Geoffrey Maguire’s Wicked series. A tribute, I think, to the zaniness, the inconsistencies, and wonders opened by L. Frank Baum and the Royal Historians of Oz, in a land always filled with adventure and the unexpected.

And, as if to offer proof of the continued power of Oz to inspire writers and artists, just over the weekend, Eric Shanower and Scottie Young brought home some well deserved Eisner Awards at Comic-Con for their adaptation of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.  

I love knowing that I’ll never know what Oz will bring us next.


Making it through this entire series has been wildly entertaining, and I want to thank everyone that has read and commented on these posts along with me, particularly those that spoke up in Ozma’s defense, those that left insightful comments on Baum’s manuscripts and writing techniques, and those who passionately argued about the illustrations. (We should have a Denslow-Neill cage match!)


Mari Ness lives in central Florida near a large alligator-infested lake, not too far from the magical lands of a certain talking Mouse. Her fiction work has appeared in numerous publications, and she can be followed on Twitter or on the disorganized blog she keeps at mariness.livejournal.com. Her two adorable cats were of no assistance whatsoever in the writing of these posts.

26 comments
Megaduck
1. Megaduck
You know all that Ozma fail makes me sad because she was always my favorite character as a kid.
Kate Nepveu
2. katenepveu
Congratulations on an enormous and excellent endeavor! (And, err, on finishing 40 books before I finished one. *is slacker*)
Megaduck
3. Gavin99
Thanks for a hugely entertaining series of recaps, Mari. I loved the Baums as a child, and I was vaguely aware that the series had continued, but I had no idea to what extent.

If I were to pick up one post-Baum book, would Merry Go Round be the best choice?

Also, although I agree that ring-grabbing has gone out of fashion, there is a merry-go-round on Long Island, NY, that lets children grab the brass ring: the Greenport Harbor carousel.
Michael Burstein
4. mabfan
Thank you for this wonderful ride through the Oz books. In my own childhood, I had only managed to find the first 14 plus one, so it's been fascinating to learn what I missed.
Sean Arthur
5. wsean
I only vaguely remember this one, but I definitely remember enjoying it a lot!

Thanks for doing the series, Mari, even if you did rather destroy my childhood views of Ozma. ;)
Megaduck
6. Stefan Jones
Hmmm, brass rings. I remember seeing such a dispenser. Maybe on a Merry-go-Round in Kennywood of Pittsburgh, PA? They weren't easy to get, as I recall.

"The circlets grant dexterity, intelligence, and strength;"

I have a D&D characters who could really use those suckers!
Noneo Yourbusiness
7. Longtimefan
It was truly delightful to read all of your posts on the Oz books. Thank you for all of your hard work and timely posts.

Would it be ever so much trouble to ask you to do a post on Wicked (just the one) in a somewhat related but unique post.

It is a rather marvelous book in both its continuation of the Oz mythology and its recreation of the Oz story from such a different perspective.

Perhaps it is just that I have enjoyed your posts and now that they are at a conclusion I fear that I shall miss your joyful personality and whimiscal insights.
Liza .
8. aedifica
I've enjoyed reading your posts, even though I never read most of the series. Thanks!
Megaduck
9. seth e.
Adding my thanks for the re-read series, which was always interesting and fun. So what's next? The Freddy books?
Mari Ness
10. MariCats
You're welcome, everybody, although I kinda feel as if I should be thanking you guys for indulging me through 40 long posts.

And I'm sorry for destroying everyone's illusions of Ozma, but, it's probably better that we all know the truth, even if the truth hurts.

:)

@Gavin99 - I'd say that if you are only going to read one post Baum book, it should be Merry Go Round in Oz, if two, Merry Go Round and Magical Mimics, and if three, add Speedy in Oz. Those are the best of the post Baum books.

And now, I need to go to Long Island to try to grab that ring!

@Stefan Jones - And, in a nice touch, the Halidom rings would raise the stats for the entire party!

@Longtimefan - I'm not sure what, if anything, I'll be blogging for Tor.com next; I was just focused on finishing this! I read Wicked a few years back - I would need to reread it before making any substantial comments on it. And I've never seen the musical, although I've heard bits of the soundtrack and enjoyed them.
Megaduck
11. Bourgeois Nerd
I just wanted to thank you and congratulate you, Mari, for this series. I've actually never read any of the Oz books, but it was still delightful to traipse through them with you. The Ozma Fail shall never die!
Greg Morrow
12. gpmorrow
Merry-Go-Round appears to be out-of-print enough that even the 1989 reissue is pulling collectible prices on Amazon.

This is the 21st century. Why are books going out of print?
Megaduck
13. ericshanower
One small correction: Eloise McGraw did not win the Newbery Award. She received the Newbery Honor three times, which is basically runner-up for the Newbery--for Moccasin Trail (1952), The Golden Goblet (1962), and The Moorchild (1997).

I also want to mention Eloise's book Mara, Daughter of the Nile, probably her most popular book, with lost of strongly devoted readers. If you want to try one of her non-Oz books, I suggest starting with Mara. (It's only coincidence that the name happens to be so similar to the author of these Oz essays.)

Merry Go Round in Oz is still very much available from its current publisher, Books of Wonder, in both paperback and hardcover. Link:
http://www.booksofwonder.com/searchprods.asp

Anyone who likes Merry Go Round might be interested to read Eloise's two other Oz books, one in collaboration with her daughter, The Forbidden Fountain of Oz, published by the International Wizard of Oz Club, (link: http://shop.ozclub.org/product.sc;jsessionid=FC2B6491E2D8CC2DDE1556BA4686EB3D.qscstrfrnt04?productId=211) and The Rundelstone of Oz, published by Hungry Tiger Press (link: http://www.shop.hungrytigerpress.com/Rundelstone-of-Oz-p-rundel.htm). I think they're both good books, but neither is as good as Merry Go Round, which was the first non-Baum Oz book I read as a child. Found it in a library and loved it.

Eloise and Lynn worked on a fourth Oz manuscript, but it was never completed. It featured the Hungry Tiger and the return of the Flittermouse.

Eloise and Lynn were inspired to write Merry Go Round in Oz after reading Neill's Scalawagons in Oz and finding it not-up-to-snuff. Interestingly, Scalawagons also spurred Rachel Cosgrove to write The Hidden Valley of Oz. So although in some circles Scalawagons is considered the worst Oz book, it has actually been beneficial for Oz. Eloise's favorite Oz book was Grandpa in Oz, which I've always found surprising, since it's one of my least favorite Oz books.

Eloise and Lynn spoke about their Oz writing at the 1983 Winkie Convention. You can read or listen to that presentation here: http://hungrytigerpress.com/tigertreats/mcgraw.shtml

As humorous as I find your comments about Ozma fail, I also think it's a little harsh. Your points are all valid, but I think that the way Ozma rules is pretty much how any average kid would rule an entire country. I think that's why it works for kids reading the books. (Is it too self-serving to suggest that anyone who wants to read an Oz book with a more capable Ozma who still remains recognizably Ozma might try Paradox in Oz by Edward Einhorn and illustrated by me? Paradox is currently out of print, but copies are available on the secondary market.)

Thank you, Mari, for all your Oz book essays. They've been a joy to read. I second the motion for Walter Brooks's Freddy the Pig books next.
Megaduck
14. Tansy Rayner Roberts
Mari, I have read every single one of these posts and really enjoyed them! Thank you for doing this. What a marathon effort.
Megaduck
15. Bell-Snickle
I just discovered these posts and I've really enjoyed going through them. It was long a goal of mine to read all of the famous forty Oz books as well. I finally finished them all just a few years ago.

"Merry Go Round" was the last one I got to, it was kind of weird to read an Oz book with such a strong plot! Great book though. McGraw's "Forbidden Fountain of Oz" is quite good too. Personally I didn't care for her "Rundelstone of Oz" as much. It's a nice fantasy novel but it doesn't feel much like an Oz book.
Megaduck
16. Bell-Snickle
@ gpmorrow - "Merry Go Round In Oz" is definitely in print, you can but it from the current publishers web site: http://www.booksofwonder.com/products.asp?dept=84
Megaduck
17. ericshanower
I guess my previous comment got deleted as spam, since I'd inserted links to the Books of Wonder site where the current edition of Merry Go Round in Oz is for sale, as well as links to Eloise's two other Oz books, The Forbidden Fountain of Oz and The Rundelstone of Oz. Since Bell-Snickle has posted the Books of Wonder link, I don't need to do that. If anyone is interested in the other books, just do an online search.

I also wanted to make a correction: Eloise never won the Newbery Award. She received the Newbery Honor--which is basically Runner Up for the Newbery Award--three times.

Mari, you didn't really mention Dick Martin's illustrations. They are quite a relief after Dirk's in the previous Oz book--some of the best work of Dick Martin's career--maybe his best published work period.
Mari Ness
18. MariCats
Just chiming in to add, yes, this book is still available from various places, and some libraries might be able to obtain it through interlibrary loan.

@Bell Snickle - I have to admit, I have a soft spot for Rundlestone of Oz just because of all of the musical names for the puppets. You're probably right about the less Ozzy feel of the book (although it certainly continues the tradition of the puns), but, puppets!

I didn't read the books in order when I was a kid - in fact, I think I read this one before I tracked down all of the Baum books - so the stronger plotting of this one didn't bother me.

@Eric Shanower - Ah, my bad about the Newbery Award/Honors.

Yes, I should have mentioned Martin's illustrations. I'm not that familiar with Dick Martin's work outside of this one book and of course the little Oz map that appears in the Del Rey (and possibly other) editions, which must have taken years to figure out.

I find Martin's illustrations serviceable -- neat, clean, working well with the story, and, yes, when you read the books in order, they come as a tremendous relief after the last book. And I love the illustrations of Merry.

I certainly wish he'd done the illustrations for Hidden Valley.
Megaduck
19. Eric Gjovaag
I've finally gotten around to reading the rest of your reviews tonight (insomnia is not always a bad thing!). Congratulations, and your insights have been a breath of fresh air in the sometimes lockstep orthodoxy of Oz critiques. (I would go with "Wishing Horse" as Thompson's best, but I will certainly concede that "Speedy" is good, too.) I do hope you get the chance to do similar reviews of the other non-Forty books of the Royal Historians:

* "The Little Wizard Stories of Oz" by Baum
* "Yankee in Oz" and "The Enchanted Island of Oz" by Thompson (available from the International Wizard of Oz Club)
* "A Runaway in Oz" by Neill (available from Books of Wonder)
* "The Wicked Witch of Oz" by Rachel Cosgrove Payes (available from the Oz Club)
* "The Forbidden Fountain of Oz" (from the Oz Club) and "The Rundelstone of Oz" (available from Hungry Tiger Press) by McGraw (with her daughter's collaboration on the first)

You might also want to track down the recent Sunday Press Books collection of both Baum and Denslow's Oz comics, "Queer Visitors from the Marvelous Land of Oz", and two of Baum's non-Oz books, "The Sea Fairies" and "Sky Island". These two books introduce Trot and Cap'n Bill, and Button-Bright and Polychrome pop up in "Sky Island". They're available from both Dover and Books of Wonder.

Of course, I will understand completely if you need to take a break from Oz for a while before tackling these books. But because of their very close ties to the rest of the Oz books, I think they would be worth your (and your readers') while.
Megaduck
20. J. L. Bell
I was going to note that Eloise Jarvis McGraw received Newbery Honors rather than Medals, but I see Eric Shanower has already done so. She's still quite impressive, and perhaps unique, in receiving her third Honor decades after her first.

I heartily concur with the main thrust of this review—Reilly & Lee managed to end its series of Oz novels with a book that combined good plotting, good prose, and the humorous characterization that was the series's most consistent quality. This book was relatively hard to find when I was a kid reading Oz, but it was worth the hunt.
Megaduck
21. Charlie Mane
I've actually read one of the Little Wizard Books - the one about the Hungry Tiger and Cowardly Lion deciding to go back to their roots, more or less: The Lion wants to kill a human and the Tiger to finally eat a fat baby - to prove their mojo or something. So they go to a village and seek out their objectives - but end up acting rather differently when their chances finally come to prove their ferocity. I remember a scene where the big cats see a small child crying, and the Tiger lunges at it, only to crouch beside it and say "Oh, you poor thing, what's the matter?" And the Lion remarks, "I thought you wanted to eat a fat baby", and the Tiger says "What! What kind of a person do you think I am? I'm a respectable person, I'll have you know!" and so forth. It was pretty funny. I have no idea where I found that book...Also, I remember reading part of "Merry Go Round in Oz" in our local library - but I put it back on the shelf when I decided that it really didn't remind me of Oz (Back then, I judged everything Oz by the 1939 movie).

Anyway, I've really enjoyed your critiques of the OZ books. Wonderful stuff. I'd love to read your take on the various Potter books - and if you do, I hope you really snark it up. I've read all of them, but the only one I've been able to re-read with any enjoyment is "The Prisoner of Azkaban". The rest of the books seem alarmingly pedestrian to me now, and, if you ask me, are ripe for satire...
Mari Ness
22. MariCats
@19 Eric Gjovaag - Thanks!

I haven't had a chance to talk to Tor.com about any future Oz posts (and probably won't have that chance for a few more days - I just got back from Gen Con and real life is going to be extremely hectic), but I will certainly bear your comments in mind.

@20 J.L. Bell - I must have been lucky; the children's library in my Illinois suburb had a copy of this book, and I checked it out over and over again until we moved again; I was delighted when it was reprinted and I could pick up a replacement.

@21 Charlie Mane - Thanks!

I'm not sure if I'm ready to take on the Potter books yet - plus, I'm not sure if they're all snark worthy. The later ones, yes.

And to everybody: I must have missed the Freddy the Pig books one way or another - quite probably because I spent many of my childhood years in Italy, where we had access only to British books and those American books that British publishers chose to reprint. So instead of Freddy the Pig books, I read Paddington Bear and Womble books and a huge number of (terrible) Enid Blyton books.

But now I'm intrigued enough to consider tracking down the Freddy the Pig books!
Megaduck
23. Miko
I spent most of last night and part of today reading through all of your "original 40" blog posts. Very entertaining! I read all of the 14 Baum books when I was in Junior High by checking them out of the library, but they didn't have any of the others. A couple of years later I bought all 14 in paperback Del Rey editions, and then a few years ago (well.. maybe 10 years ago now that I think about it) I set out to complete my collection. I was able to buy most of the Del Rey Thompson books through Hungry Tiger Press and I bought nicer versions of all of the Baum books, and I picked up a few of the others, but it only occurred to me recently to finish the project.

I also had never managed to read through all of the Thompson books, but I think I'll give it another try now. I have the first Neill book, and Snow's Shaggy Man, and it's clear from your reviews that I really should pick up Show's other book and the McGraw books next.

Anyway, I've been a big fan of Oz for years and your blog was a very interesting and engrossing read. ^_^
Mari Ness
24. MariCats
@Miko - Thanks for your comments! I have to admit - most of my own editions are the cheap Del Rey ones, but at least I got to read the books :)

I do highly recommend the McGraw and Shaw books, above many of the Thompson books - I enjoyed a few of the Thompson books, but with the later books she seemed to be struggling a bit.
Megaduck
25. Darrell Spradlyn
I'm so sad I came into this so late!
I would have loved sharing each book along with you and commenting.
I enjoyed this so much, and you opened my eyes to something I had been blind to! (Ozma fail)

The Oz books are fantastic and I hope there can be more articles like this, or even a continuation of yours with the other Oz books and non Oz books.
Mari Ness
26. MariCats
@Darrell Spradlyn --

Glad you enjoyed the Oz reread!

If you click on my name on the posts this should bring you to a link of all of my posts that chatter about children's literature -- including Narnia, Edith Nesbit, and more. Right now I'm covering L'Engle, and it looks like Freddy the Pig is coming up next, so feel free to stop by.

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