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News and Events of the Leonard H. Axe Library, and of the
Kansas Technology Center Library - Pittsburg (KS) State University

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

L. Frank Baum: Royal Historian of Oz

October 30, 2008, 7:00 p.m. Crimson and Gold Ballroom of the Overman Student Center

“L. Frank Baum, Royal Historian of Oz” to be presented by Fred Krebs, professor of English, Johnson County Community College.

L. Frank Baum, one of America’s premier writers of children’s literature, was a native of New York State, Dakota Territory (later, South Dakota), Chicago, IL and, his most loved, California. (Sorry, his only documented presence in Kansas is two nights spent in Lawrence, KS, while performing in a production of his play The Maid of Arran. In fact, his bleak descriptions of Kansas were inspired by the drought years in Aberdeen, South Dakota.) Baum was a prolific writer (He wrote 14 installments of the OZ series as well as several other fantasy series or individual storybooks for children, plays for adults, and theatrical and cinematic adaptations of his stories.) but he also tried his hand at numerous other trades, such as journalist, shopkeeper, actor, theater owner, filmmaker and chicken breeder. Encouraged by his feminist mother in law, Matilda Jocelyn Gage, to write down the stories he told to his sons at bedtime, he took these stories to publishers more than once and finally had a success with Father Goose, His Book. (This is his first collaboration with the illustrator of the first OZ book, political cartoonist W.W. Denslow.) Encouraged by the success of Father Goose…, Baum and Denslow came out in 1900 with the first American fairy tale The Wonderful Wizard of OZ. In this fairy tale, the magic carpet is a Kansas cyclone. Dorothy, being a practical, plainspoken Kansas farm girl, does not need a Prince Charming to rescue her (Baum was not in favor of love interest in children’s books) but makes her own luck and forms her own solutions with the help of such unlikely companions as a brainless scarecrow and a humbug wizard from Omaha. And although Dorothy is astounded by the beauties of nature in OZ, she still longs to go back to Kansas because “There is no place like home.” Baum’s books also forgo the didactic homilies present in late nineteenth and early 20th century children’s literature. His books delight boys and girls alike and are chock full of adventures and one magic land after another. There is the Dainty China Country in The Wonderful Wizard of OZ, where the delicate china from your mother’s cabinets can move around and have a life of its own. There is the Land of Mo, in The Scarecrow of OZ, where the only food is candy and it rains lemonade and snows popcorn (“nicely salted and buttered”). And there is the Kingdom of Twi in a non OZ adventure, The Enchanted Island of Yew, where everyone has an identical twin. In the literature of Baum, the children of us mortals have power. They can outwit a wicked witch and liberate the downtrodden people she oppresses and they can overthrow an evil king and demote him to a gardener’s boy. And unlike the heroes in Grimm, they do it with a minimum of bloodshed. (Recall Dorothy’s lethal bucket of water.)

Baum was, sporadically, a successful business man because several of his creative endeavors were very prosperous. He was astute at writing books to please his public, monitoring the correspondence from his young readers and creating one adventure after another to please them. But his tendency to experiment with theatrical productions and motion pictures were not always financially successful. Also, he was frequently duped by unscrupulous business partners and, when working as a storekeeper in South Dakota, taken advantage of by poverty stricken customers who bought on credit. Also he liked to experiment with many types of children’s literature when his chief talent lay in creating the OZ books, which pleased his young audience more than any of his other efforts. Finally, despite the fact that children were very fond of the OZ series, many adults did not appreciate them. Children’s literature critics dismissed his books and, perhaps taking their cue from these critics, librarians would not buy them and teachers would not read them to their pupils. Indeed, this controversy continues to this day because of Baum’s use of witchcraft. This angers the religious right, whose supporters continue to challenge his books in libraries around the nation.

The Kansas Humanities Council, a non profit agency which sponsors lectures and performances throughout the state of Kansas designed to enhance the understanding of the state’s history, culture and intellectual life, has very graciously consented to assist the Tilford Group and the Friends of the Leonard H. Axe Library in presenting the “History Alive” program L. Frank Baum, Royal Historian of Oz. History Alive productions are different from conventional lectures in that they choose an actor/lecturer to actually portray a famous person from history. Fred Krebs, our L. Frank Baum for the evening, has long experience in portraying historical personalities for the Kansas Humanities Council both at their annual Great Plains Chautauqua as well as in individual lectures and performances. In addition to Baum, he portrays Stephen A. Douglas, William Allen White and Benjamin Franklin. He also does lectures. In fact, in February, 2000, Mr. Krebs was our guest lecturer, delivering his discourse on the Reverend Charles Sheldon, a social reformer who wrote the famous book In His Steps, or What Would Jesus Do? At present, Fred is a professor of history at Johnson County Community College. He has a Master of Arts in history from the University of Missouri in Kansas City. The performance will take place at 7PM in the Crimson and Gold Ballroom of the Overman Student Center. Refreshments will be served.

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