The New Phase of Oz

I was not entirely certain a visit to the land of Oz would be in the cards for my writing endeavors, much less result in a full novel, but here we are – two months after the release of “A Nightmare in Oz,” when the response has been overwhelmingly positive. To understand, perhaps, how the very concept of the book came to be, and what this means for my future as part of the great lineage, it becomes necessary to verbally surmise why I came to this point in the first place. As big a fan as I have remained and as loyal the fanbase has been in their continued response, this is a project that seems almost serendipidous given my trajectory as a first-class cynic.

Oz, as I know it, has been an active facet of my life since the mid-80s, when both the movie and the early books colonized every untapped corner of my imagination. So thoroughly obsessed had I been with Baum’s colorful world, full of quirky characters and exciting adventures, that there was scarcely a moment when the stories of Dorothy and her friends did not enter my mind. They became magnets for daydreams, lures away from the strange dichotomy of a real world thick in annoying contradictions. When you are young and guarded, of course, your concept of life is perhaps less cynical than it becomes in the later years, when annoyances are replaced with knowledge of the real cruelty of humanity. So too does your admiration for the innocent escapes waver; as more adult problems overwhelmed the foreground, Oz and its cast of heroes became little more than a blur.

Only when I reached my mid-teens did I discover, much to my delight, how deeply the quirk of Baum’s stories inspired others: a handful of successors had apparently continued the narrative far forward, helping to establish the “famous forty” moniker that has followed the series’ “official” canon. When my knowledge of the scope broadened, so did my fascination. I made an endeavor to own and read every story ever written about those characters. About the various encounters they had over the years following those initial adventures. About the plethora of new and vibrant faces that came to the fairy country, seeking their own fortune while all the troubles of their home worlds faded into distance distortions. I found a need to become one of them, to feel what they felt. One of the great catalysts of my loyalty was the character of Zeb, who appears as a supporting player in “Dorothy and the Wizard in Oz” – his brand of awe and disbelief mirrored mine, and the inevitability that he would have to return to Earth and resume his normal existence was not lost on me as having reflected the entirety of the reader experience. No matter how hard we tried, no matter how deeply we would engage with Princess Ozma and her kingdom of magical beings, eventually most of us had to return home – willingly or otherwise.

Over the years the Oz books have remained crucial cornerstones of that philosophy, particularly as the age of information has flooded us with persistent knowledge of a civilization far crueler than we envisioned. Baum’s benefit, and therefore that of many of his successors, was that they wrote stories that could be used as momentary escapes in times when they felt the most needed. This theory was more directly tested towards the end of his life, when World War I broke out and provided a central motivation for his continued output. Ruth Plumply Thompson, no doubt, felt a similar chutzpah with her works, which closely aligned with anti-Semitism, the great depression and the early stages of World War II. But how would any of those historians write stories for kids now, when kids themselves are forced to grow up without viable shields from the terrible reality they endure? Climate is collapsing. World powers are engaging in genocides. Pandemics threaten the entirety of large populations. The internet and cellphones have become windows into the devious deeds of sensationalists, who would literally do anything for the chance to become “viral.” Young minds are so hardened by this foresight that innocent yarns like “The Wizard of Oz” may seem out of fashion with their grasp on reality. How could they remain relevant for children if youthful innocence had long been sacrificed?

This was the initial thought process going into the thinking of “A Nightmare in Oz,” a story that exists in a direct ancestry with the official series while evolving the perspective towards more pubescent sentiments. But it was not enough to simply write a story in hopes of contributing to the great escape; I had to go there with a sound intention, with the need to say something relevant in these more literal times. The concept, as such, became one in which the original characters would be asked to do something that we as readers all had to: face the willingness to grow up. The great thing about Oz, at least, is that no one ages or dies. But maturity, a state of mind, must arrive for everyone regardless of what exists around us, and that ought to include the likes of Dorothy, Trot, Betsy Bobbin and any number of young adventurers still hiking through the rolling hills beyond the Emerald City. Endurance is the greatest quality of any heroine’s survival.

Moreover, one’s ability to develop usually comes from the sounding of terrible alarms. For me, those alarms involved the death of grandparents, close calls with illness, and coming to terms with my sexuality. But what often afflicts the experience of youth – the sort that molds them so greatly – is the idea of experiencing fear. When you are scared, you discover the most about yourself: namely, what you are capable of handling, how far you can take it, and whether you can withstand the breaking point. For the three primary heroines of Baum’s Oz stories, who have lived there for well over a hundred years without much threat to their innocence, a genuine sense of threat had to confront them in order for such a leap to be feasible.

“A Nightmare in Oz” represents the first of a series of those leaps, to be followed by a handful of additional novels that will collectively make up “The New Oz Chronicles.” The second of these books, now in production, is slotted for a release this coming winter, while additional stories have already been outlined. Collectively, they tell of familiar young minds as they must navigate their way out of childhood naivety and face the inevitability of personal growth, where sacrifice and personal reflection become the great tools to escape the approaching fire.

What I hope to accomplish with this offshoot, ultimately, is breathe an added facet of relevance into a long-running series that otherwise is unfairly overlooked in the modern slipstream of readership. The Oz books are great yarns precisely because they completely remove us from the terrible realities of everyday life. But as that becomes harder to accomplish in a world where nothing ever turns off, the need for more accessible – more modern – stories has emerged. Perhaps the stories I tell will pave the way forward for today’s young adult minds to see Oz in the sort of light that so many of us were able to long ago, when the real world was less intrusive and we were allowed to daydream safely.