You may find good people and bad people in the world; and so, I suppose, you may find good witches and bad witches. But I must confess that most of the witches I have known were very respectable, indeed, and famous for their kind actions.L. Frank Baum, American Fairy Tales, “The Witchcraft of Mary-Marie”
I recently finished American Fairy Tales by L. Frank Baum and illustrated by George Kerr. It’s the second edition of the book (there were other illustrations and design by a variety of people in the first one and it’s much more difficult to acquire). The book is a series of short stories in a fairy tale style that are mostly very American and all with a distinctly modern flair.
I really enjoy this book and the stories within it. I like the use of modern (for the time) kids in modern American cities, I like Baum’s quirky fairies, I like the unusual and surprisingly twentieth century magicians that people the stories. The wizards who make the barking glass dog (a precursor to Oz’s Glass Cat?) and the enchanted bon bons are particular favorites of this modern breed of magic.
There are a few stories set in fairy tale style kingdoms, but even those have a modern quirkiness to the sensibility of the story that I enjoyed. There is a story, for example, about a kingdom in need of money where they are quite literally auctioning off the right to be queen (and marry the ten year old king) to whatever woman can pay the most for it. And for a book of fairy tales, there is remarkably little romance and very few marriages, although lots of happy endings (and some that it’s unclear how happy the ending is).
“But I warn you the beauty will only be skin deep,” said the wizard.
“That’s all right,” replied the happy glass-blower; “when I lose my skin I shan’t care to remain beautiful.”L. Frank Baum, American Fairy Tales, “The Glass Dog”
I have favorite stories, of course. I loved the magic bon bons and was especially entertained by the story of the boy who captured Father Time and the tale about the dummy who came to life. This book makes me wish that Baum had done more short-form stories than he actually did (or than were published, anyway, since it’s possible he had reams of them that have been lost), since he’s great at fun, interesting pieces that wrap up in a few pages. I adore his novels, obviously, but I wish he had been able to do more short pieces as well. I suspect that publishing, then as now, wasn’t big on collections of short pieces, though, so even if he did write lots of them it is unsurprising they would have been lost.
The illustrations were cute, but often didn’t match the details of the story, which is funny, since you’d think they would. The glass dog in particular stood out as totally not being consistent. Still, the three color art was full of personality and in many cases a lot of fun. Even if the boy on the cover’s hand is backwards…
I enjoyed this book a lot and would absolutely recommend it. It is a product of it’s time, so there are aspects that a modern reader may not love (like the story about the Chinese man), but overall the content is less problematic than many books from the turn of the twentieth century. Baum’s ability to make his fantasies genuinely feel American, as opposed to being deeply rooted in the European traditions, is unusual and notable. As much as Oz was groundbreaking, stories like this were innovative and had the potential to change the children’s publishing landscape just as much. Since Oz is mostly what he is remembered for, it’s difficult to trace the impact his other books had, unfortunately. But this was fun and unique and I would absolutely recommend it!