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[Review] Oz the Great and Powerful

Oz-The-Great-And-Powerful-New-Years-Movie-TrailersThere have been countless attempts to adapt or supplement the stories of L. Frank Baum and is magical land of Oz. What is canon and what is not is the subject of contentious debate, with only fourteen of the original forty novels written by Baum, and various sequels, prequels, companions and re-imaginings considered both canon and apocrypha depending on who you ask.

Oz the Great and Powerful is billed as a prequel to the series that begins with The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (1901) . More honestly it is an origin story of the type generally found in the pages of D.C. or Marvel. But the Wizard  – designated in this film Oscar Diggs and played by James Franco – is not a comic book hero. He is a man, and a deeply flawed  one at that. Lacking in any abilties other than those of  a carnival conjourer (and not a very good one at that), the wizard is, in his own words ‘just a common man’; a  con man and charlatan who is carried away in his balloon and ends up in Oz quite by accident.

Canonically, when he arrives in Oz the Emeral City does not exist:

“…I found myself in the midst of a strange people, who, seeing me come from the clouds, thought I was a great Wizard. Of course I let them think so, because they were afraid of me, and promised to do anything I wished them to.

“Just to amuse myself, and keep the good people busy, I ordered them to build this city, and my Palace; and they did it willingly and well.

In this revision, directed by Sam Raimi and written by Mitchell Kapner and David Lindsay-Abaire, the Emerald City is already the centre of Oz (though it is the Emerald City of the 1939 MGM film, not the books) and is the home to witches Theodora and Evanora, played by Mila Kunis and Rachael Weisz respectively. So far, so not-very-Baum.

Let’s briefly run through the plot.

When Diggs arrives in Oz he meets Theodora, who is remarkably pleased to see him. Diggs’ arrival in Oz has, it turns out, been prophesied. A great wizard, it is said, will arrive to  overthrow the evil witch that killed the king. Obviously that is Diggs, for whomelse would fall out of the sky?

Theodora and Diggs travel to the Emerald City, adding to their number a winged monkey named Finlay (Zach Braff) who is saved from a (perfectly reasonably) cowardly lion en route. Inevitably, Theodora falls in love with Diggs.
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Exploring the Classics: The Wonderful Wizard of Oz


1900 cover of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz

L. Frank  Baum’s first published work for children, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz contains, in its introduction, the supposition that fairy tales were written to impart ‘fearsome’ morals to children and argues that since children are now, generally, being formally educated they no longer require their literature to be edifying. Because of this, says Baum,

The Wonderful Wizard of Oz was written solely to please the 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.

The suggestion that children do not require didacticism in every text they encounter (which they don’t) and that The Wonderful Wizard of Oz doesn’t contain any (which it does) may provide exoneration under the charge that the novel imparts a confused set of messages which I’ll return to later. Baum has certainly produced in his first book a ‘modernized fairytale’ which, while sharing topoi with the stories of Grimm et al., feels fresher and simpler in the reading. Baum is no great writer – his prose is clumsy and artless – but his plot is expedient and thoroughly enjoyable, and for this the novel deserves its place in the American literary landscape.

Scarecrow gives the Tin Woodman a hand in Denlow's original illustration

Scarecrow gives the Tin Woodman a hand in WW Denslow’s original illustration

The Wonderful Wizard of Oz is the subject of a famous bit of dodgy scholarship dating to 1964. Written by a man with patchy economic and historical knowledge named Littlefield, the work claims that WWoO (as it is much more fun to refer to the book) is a ‘subtle parable’ concerning American fin-de-ciecle monetary policy. To readers unfamiliar with the minutae of 1890s midwestern political debate, which, let’s be honest, is pretty much all of us, the allegory can be broken down into a series of lazy symbols which I will try my very best to outline concisely: Read the rest of this entry

Three Picture Books for Gender-Variant Children

Content warning. Some brief transphobic language appears below (for illustrative purposes only).

There are comparatively few picture  books on the market that feature characters questioning or struggling with their gender identity or experimenting with their gender expression. Frequently recommended are books about feeling ‘different’, such as 70’s favourite Oliver Button is a Sissy, but feeling different can present in myriad ways, so it’s nice to have something more specific.

While I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend any of these books, they are not without fault. They tend towards a binary view of  gender, so if you don’t feel like a boy you must feel like a girl (though that may be by the nature of the thing: the sample is too small to allow much diversity), and feature significantly more protagonists assigned male at birth than assigned female (I am yet to find one that features a protagonist assigned female at birth, and I’ve looked really hard!). This is a trend about which I have Thoughts which I shall have to arrange before I share*.

To the bookshelf!

My Princess Boy; Cheryl Kildodavis, Suzanne Desimone (illus.)

downloadI’ve picked My Princess Boy, published in 2011, because it does not treat transvestism as necessarily being a symptom of or gateway to gender identity disorder. The eponymous Princess Boy is Kildodavis’ son Dyson, and, as the cover note explains, “sometimes he wears dresses, and sometimes he wears jeans.” The book has, predictably, been torn apart by bigots** and people who think children are stupid, but it is of course absolutely and completely harmless.

The books dominant message is an anti-bullying one. It’s aimed lass at cross-dressing or gender variant children than it is at the traditionally gendered kids that might poke fun at them. My Princess Boy asks readers if they will would tease or laugh at a Princess Boy, and  teaches that though sometimes people can be cruel, those who love you will accept who you are.


Our Princess Boy is happy because we love him for who he is.

Dyson is referred to as ‘my/our Princess Boy’ throughout. It’s made clear that Dyson feels as much like a boy as any other might, he just likes to wear dresses (and really, who can blame him? Dresses are awesome). The book uses humanization techniques to encourage empathy, emphasising familial bonds as a point of identification that inspires compassion.

Some may be put off by the blank, walnut-shaped faces of the characters, but not allowing readers to parse emotion in facial expression forces them to search inside themselves, aiding the cognitive processes of empathy.

10,000 Dresses; Marcus Ewert, Rex Roy (illus)

tumblr_l7mj1uihsf1qctkybo1_r1_5001Bailey, the protagonist of 10,000 Dresses appears entirely genderless on the page. Identified as having been assigned male at birth, the text always refers to her using female pronouns (except in direct quotes). Pronouns are important, so it’s great to find a picture book that gets it right.

Ewert and Roy deliver a classic coming out narrative in 10,000 Dresses, providing as primary antagonists Bailey’s family who are less than positive about Bailey’s pronouncements that she would like to buy a dress:

“Bailey, what are you talking about? You’re a boy. Boys don’t wear dresses!”

“But… I don’t feel like a boy,” Bailey said.

“Well you are one, Bailey, and that’s that! Now go away… and don’t mention dresses again!”

Bailey went to her room.

Bailey perseveres through the reactions of her family, and finally finds acceptance when she meets a big girl named Laurel who helps Bailey be herself.

The text is immersed in the illustrations, validating the images and through them Bailey’s world. Each fully illustrated page is a rainbow and a wide brush-stroke effect adds vibrancy and texture to each spread. Bailey’s feelings are enlarged upon by the illustrations, so when Mother speaks she dominates the page,  lowering the horizon line and skewing perspective and making a threatening presence of her and her ideas.

The final dress of Bailey’s imaginings speaks of her desire to break free. The dress, made up of windows, the dress, says Ewert, allows her to “look out onto the entire world” in all it’s beauty and difference, and when she meets Laurel and together they make dresses made from mirrors the sentiment is underlined. Now Bailey can see the world around her, but she can also see herself.

The book teaches that sometimes we must undertake a journey to be who we are, but pursuing happiness and comfort in our own skins is worth it.

Goblinheart;Brett Axel, Terra Bidlespacher (illus.)

gblinheartGoblinheart is a  gem from a small Liberal publisher that’s new to the market. Mark my words: it will get picked up by a publishing house in the Big Time and when it does you should dash out and buy it immediately. If you just can’t wait, the best place to buy it at the moment is etsy, but if you’re in the US, it’s also available on Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

This version is not perfect – there are one or two misprints; the hardback format isn’t really right – but these are frivolous considerations compared to Axel and Bidlespacher’s sensitive, wonderful handling of trans issues.

Goblinheart tells the story of Julep, a youngster who lives in a forest-dwelling tribe of mythical creatures who grow up to be either goblins or fairies. Fairies grow wings when they are approaching adulthood, goblins grow claws, and each takes up a role according to the category their body suggests.

Julep begins to sprout wings, but just doesn’t feel like a fairy on the inside:

Julep shook a little, but remained brave. After taking a deep slow breath Julep replied, “I know that you believe that I belong with the fairies. I certainly understand why you would, but even though I look like a fairy, I am sure I am really a goblin.”

The story is a simple one, which directly addresses some of the issues that trans and gender-variant children might face: acceptance both within and outside the family, practical considerations (in this case wing-binding) and having the confidence to self-define. It’s presented thoughtfully and forthrightly in both text and illustration. Bidlespacher’s  monochrome line drawings are emotive and sharp, with genderless bodies against detailed backgrounds and a motif of grass fronds pulling the illustrations together.

Though the book never mentions gender and avoids pronouns, it’s about as subtle as a brick to the face. Nevertheless it made me sob uncontrollably the first time I read it. I cannot recommend Goblinheart strongly enough.

Adult resources for understanding and supporting trans or non-binary gender children.

These books have been recommended to be by sources I consider to be reliable; I cannot vouch for them all personally.

The Trans Youth Family Allies website.

A Guide for Parents and Family Members of Trans People in the UK, PDF produced by gendered intelligence.

Transwhat? website.

Transitions of the Heart book/e-book.

Transgender Explained for Those who are Not book/e-book.

The Transgender Child;  A Handbook for Families and Professionals book/e-book.


*Mainly these thoughts have been me inwardly exclaiming what’s that about then? and not really knowing, so it might be a while.

**Hilarious sample quote: ” Al-Qaeda and the rest of the terrorist-loving Islamic world isn’t [sic] teaching their boys to be women and their women to be alpha males.” BECAUSE THAT’S EXACTLY WHO WE SHOULD BE LOOKING TO FOR PARENTING TIPS.

[Review, DVD] Red Riding Hood

Red Riding Hood (2011)

Fairy tales suffer a lot. They undergo constant revision, both by design and by accident; by people purposely seeking to subvert the traditional tales (a la James Thurber), and by misrememberings and chinese whispers of oral storytelling.

Little Red Riding Hood may well be the most reinterpreted of the classic Tales of Mother Goose: Roald Dahl’s comic verse; Angela Carter’s twisted tales in The Bloody Chamber; Toby Forward’s POV swappage. There’s a plethora of retellings available on Amazon, from  board books for toddlers to long YA tomes that Freud would be proud of. In its lifetime, the story of the hooded one has been a morality tale, a metaphor for sexual awakening, a love story. It has been a thriller and a creature feature, a revenger’s tragedy and a modern satire.

Hollywood has taken the story to heart, with the character having been portrayed on-screen in at least 117 features. The The Weinstein Company‘s Hoodwinked! was released in 2005 to a lukewarm reception, and the latest take on the tale comes from Twlight director Catherine Hardwicke.

Perrault’s Le Petit Chaperon Rouge is the simplest and most well-known version of the story. In it Red is beat to Grandmother’s house by the wolf because she stops to pick wildflowers, and after running through the ‘what big arms/legs/ears/eyes/teeth you have’ schtick, is eaten up by the wolf. There’s no rescue, no redemption, and the tale ends with a moral:

Little girls, this seems to say,
Never stop upon your way.
Never trust a stranger-friend;
No one knows how it will end.
As you’re pretty, so be wise;
Wolves may lurk in every guise.
Handsome they may be, and kind,
Gay, or charming never mind!
Now, as then, ‘tis simple truth—
Sweetest tongue has sharpest tooth!

Rotkäppchen (or Little Red Cap) by the Grimms differs slightly from Le Petit Chaperon Rouge. Split into two parts, the first half mirrors the Perrault text but has Red rescued by the Huntsman after she’s been eaten. Once bitten, twice shy, the Grimm’s add a second part to the story that sees Red and Grandmother foil further similar attempts to gobble them up by a second wolf. Read the rest of this entry

Disney* Hates Your Daughters, part 1

Disney has, inarguably, done much to uphold the white skinned, doe-eyed, tiny waisted ideal of physical femininity (consider Ursula the Sea Witch and the Queen of Hearts as a counterpoint). The women of the canon are, broadly, split into three traditional archetypes: the maiden, the mother and the crone. The virginal teenage heroine who must overcome a real or imagined obstacle and bag her man (Snow White, Beauty and the Beast‘s Belle); the nurturing, white-haired older woman as advisor or wish granter (Sleeping Beauty‘s three fairies, Cinderella‘s fairy godmother); the striking, red-lipped antagonist, sexually available, clever and evil (Malificent, Cruella De Ville). Up until The Little Mermaid, these women are entirely controlled beings with no real sense of selfhood, directed to their destinies by forces beyond their control. Whether or not these destinies correspond with each character dream (something that she must have) is a matter of chance and accident. Luckily for these girls what they all seem to dream of is love, or, more accurately Disneylove, which is instantanious and all encompassing, blind to flaws and everlasting.

The Disney Princesses (two of whom aren't actually princesses, but let's not be picky).

But Disney’s fairy tales – Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, The Little Mermaid, and the like – are based on the stories collected by Perrault, Grimm and Andersen, so if they don’t show us a range of images of womanhood, whose fault is it?

That’s a difficult question to answer. Has Disney chosen to retell the most famous of the fairy tales, or are they the most famous fairy tales because Disney has chosen to retell them? Whatever the answer, the motivation of Walt Disney, of most entrepreneurial business minds, is not social progress. It is cash, cold and hard. This is not an admirable stance but it is a valid one. Disney will give the public what it thinks it wants and the public will drink it up, because it’s Disney. Read the rest of this entry

Origins: What Are Little Boys Made Of?

The only sensible way to illustrate this rhyme is with a photo of a frog with a snaily chapeau.

What are little boys made of?
Slugs and snails
And puppy-dogs’ tails,
That’s what little boys are made of.

And what are little girls made of?
Sugar and spice
And all things nice,
That’s what little girls are made of.

Oooh, but this rhyme get my feminist hackles up. It implants gender essentialism in the youngest minds of our society before (arguably) they have the critical function to question such assumptions and provides children with ideals of masculinity and femininity to which they may well not conform, creating a pressure towards reconciliation with gender stereotypes which, frankly, toddling tots do not need. It is part of a socialization process that forgives the transgressions of young males with a dismissive ‘boys will be boys’ while shaping young girls into passive nonentities, sweet and willing. It is, as Caitlin Moran would have it, bullshit.

But it is also a common nursery rhyme, and so deserves my attention.

The rhyme appears in countless varient forms, generally that amend the ingredients of the genders, so that ‘slugs and snails’ becomes ‘frogs and snails’, ‘snips and snails’ and myriad other combinations depending on where in the world you are.

The rhyme is taken from a ten stanza work generally attributed to Robert Southey named What Folks are Made of and appears in its shortened form in Halliwell’s Nursery Rhymes of England in 1842 with two additional verses:

What are young men made of?
Sighs and Leers
And crocodile tears
That’s what young men are made of.

What are young women made of?
Ribbons and Laces
And sweet pretty faces
That’s what young women are made of.

There will be no Origins post next week.

Reluctant Readers? Boys and Books

Comics need to be recognised as valid reading material

Boys don’t like to read. It is, apparently, a fact. One of those extra facty facts that doesn’t require citation; it just is. It’s so true, so universally acknowledged, that to cite a source would be to undermine its factiness. Everybody knows it. It is because it is.

The significantly less facty fact, but the one that has actual science in it, is that boys read only slightly less than girls (Topping 2010). They tend towards less challenging literature, it’s true, but ultimately the reading habits of girls and boys are remarkably similar.

Yet we believe beyond doubt that boys are usually reluctant readers who don’t read outside of the classroom and only read inside it with some hesitation.

The genesis of this myth is likely the type of reading boys indulge in. They are more likely, in their leisure time, to read graphic novels and comics, magazines (the number one choice of reading materials for both boys and girls) and websites. Each of these media has a value – graphic novels may be picture heavy, but they use similar narrative techniques to other fiction, magazines are as likely to be informative as they are to be vapid and being able to surf the internet effectively is a valuable skill. If your children are clicking on Perez Hilton as often as Wikipedia, they’re still practicing functional literacy. If we started to view time spent online or with a comic book to be legitimate reading, the perceived gap between girls’ and boys’ readerly habits would look much smaller.

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