Inspiring Young Readers

posted on 12 Aug 2015

In the Land of Oz

Most people know the classic tale of the Wizard of Oz and in most bookshops you will find at least one reprint of the L Frank Baum original version and maybe one or two modern variants where the illustrations have been done by current artists. I suspect that even more know the story from the movie version with Judy Garland as Dorothy and the magnificent Margaret Hamilton as the Wicked Witch of the West - and all those songs...........we're off to see the wizard, the wonderful wizard of Oz............

But in reality, the Oz books were something of an industry. The original tale, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, was published in 1900 with illustrations by W.W.Denslow. Then from 1904 onwards and at regular intervals, 14 more titles followed putting the characters into a range of different situations and which introduced new characters or fleshed out others only mentioned in passing in the original. This later run of books was illustrated byJohn R Neill and they were published right through World War One and up to 1920. The images Neill created have become the classic images for many people.


After Baum had died late in 1919 the Oz industry passed into the hands of Ruth Plumly Thompson who continued to produce stories based on the characters from Oz from 1920 onwards. These annual productions continued until 1939, still using Neill's illustrations. During the first couple of years of World War Two Neill himself took over from Thompson but the franchise had pretty much run out of steam by this point. Attempts were made to revive the series in 1946 but only two or three books followed produced by Frank Kramer and finally in 1951 by Dirk Gringhuis.

John Neill's drawings are fantastic and truly evocative of the Land of Oz but are also very much of their time - you can see elements of the magazine work he did as his main day job. Neill's work on Oz also made him a go-to illustrator for other children's books and he is most famous, possibly controversially, for his work on Helen Bannerman's Little Black Sambo.


Because the Oz books were part of a prolific industry there used to be plenty of them around in second hand bookshops when I first started buying but that has changed  - they are pretty hard to find now, especially in decent condition. The illustrations here are part of a batch we purchased from one bookseller all in one go and we've kept our eyes open to add to them - but with no success so far. There's plenty to look for though if you want to start collecting.


Terry Potter

August 2015