It appears that the “Tom Swift” and “Wizard of Oz” books – popular with kids for most of the last century – are finally to be replaced by “Harry Potter.”
The fourth volume of the Harry Potter series went on sale at bookstores throughout the country during midnight parties — excitement not seen since the Pet Rock craze a decade ago.
Titled “The Goblet of Fire,” the latest book by British author J.K. (Joanne Kathleen) Rowling promises – or threatens — to prolong indefinitely the Potter series for the generation coming on line.
Some parents are uneasy about the new sub-literary fad. It features a supernatural kid who hobnobs with sorcerers and witches. Hey, they’re reading instead of watching the same stuff on teevee.
All kids go through the make-believe stage, and some of us never outgrow it.
Ms. Rowling insists she makes up her stories simply to entertain children and make a living for herself and daughter. However, deep thinkers profess to see hidden allegories in her works that criticize the political and social life of our times.
Her emphasis on wishful events seems to bear out contemporary yearning for magic solutions conjured by 12-year-old Harry Potter to deal with his travails.
The technique is rooted in ancient literature such as “Aesop’s Fables” and “Mother Goose Rhymes.”
More than 600 fables related by a Greek slave in 550 B.C. was intended to impress social verities on children through talking animals.
As an 11-year-old, I discovered Aesop’s wisdom in a library book. I have never forgotten his account of the hunt by a lion, fox, jackal and wolf. The four hunters brought down a stag and then discussed how to divide it.
“Quarter this stag,” roared the lion. Accordingly, the other hunters skinned it and cut the meat into four equal parts. With this, the lion pronounced judgment:
“The first quarter is for me in my capacity as King of Beasts. The second is mine as arbiter, and another share comes to me for my part in the chase. As for the fourth quarter, I should like to see which of you will dare to try and take it from me,” growled the Lion.
“Humph,” grumbled the Fox as walked away with his tail between his legs, “You may share labors of the great, but you will not share the rewards.”
Still, today, I shake my head a little when someone ascribes the largest share of anything as that due the lion. The lion’s portion, stated ironically by Aesop, is not a share at all, but everything.
This fable is a realistic lesson to be learned at an early age. It describes both social and political greed to guard against throughout life.
* * *
The same dual purpose inspired the hundreds of Mother Goose rhymes. In medieval England, criticism of kings, nobles and other authorities could cost your life. Consequently, jibes at government were couched as ditties for children.
Consider this rhyme:
Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall.
Humpty Dumpty had a great fall.
All the king’s horses,
And all the king’s men,
Couldn’t put Humpty together again.
The term humpty-dumpty was commonly used in England to describe someone stupid or muddle-headed. In the rhyme it refers to King Richard III at the battle of Bosworth Field in 1485.
Richard was resisting a rebellion by Henry Tudor. In the battle, King Richard fell from his war-horse named Wall. He was surrounded by enemy soldiers and hacked to pieces. He was the last of the York kings and the last king to die on a battlefield.
Books For Kids
After the American Civil War, the invention of cheap “sulfited” paper pulp sparked a revolution in publishing. Newspapers expanded. “Dime novels” became popular. Public schools were extended to the high-school level. Children had knowledge and desire to read for pleasure.
The old custom of veiling politics with kid-appeal was an easy approach for publishers and writers. Regular patrons of this column may remember the recent account of Joel Chandler’s “Uncle Remus” series.
Those charming tales of talking animals by an editorial writer for the Atlanta Constitution were aimed at “children of all ages.” The objective was to entertain – while portraying former slaves as wise and dutiful citizens.
An outstanding example of hiding a social message within a fairy tale is the “Wonderful Wizard of Oz” published in 1900.
The author was Lyman Frank Baum, editor of the weekly newspaper at Aberdeen, South Dakota. When it failed in 1891 during the prolonged collapse of crop prices he moved his family to Chicago. There he wrote for various newspapers.
He also participated actively in the Populist (Silver Coinage) Movement and the presidential campaigns of Sen. William Jennings Bryan. He also wrote his first book “Mother Goose In Prose” in 1897. Interestingly he employed the fantasy/reality techniques of Aesop Fables, Mother Goose, and Lewis Carroll’s “Alice In Wonderland” which preceded him.
Baum’s first venture into fantasy was not widely circulated but reviewed favorably enough to encourage him to write his first Oz book. It was an instant bestseller, which he turned into a theatrical play the following year.
His ambition was to act and write for the theater. Nevertheless, the response to “Wonderful Wizard” was so great he consented to write a sequel titled “The Marvelous Land of Oz.”
Before he died in 1919, Baum wrote 14 Oz books. Thereafter, Ruth Plumly Thompson and other ghostwriters authored 26 additional volumes until the series was concluded in 1963.
Baum stoutly maintained that the original Oz had no sociopolitical inferences. Yet, the story and its characters so ably reflected the turbulent times that the comparison is compelling.
- Oz is the abbreviation for ounce, the standard measure for gold.
- The yellow brick road is composed of gold ingots that lead only to a field of opium poppies and drugged sleep.
- The Emerald City is the store of “green-back” paper money backed by silver as well as gold.
- The Tin Woodman, represents the industrial worker made heartless by factory owners and left to rust when his labor was no longer needed.
- The Scarecrow is the farmer with not enough brains to support Sen. Bryan’s reforms.
- The Cowardly Lion is Sen. Bryan who roars a lot but is afraid to bite.
- The Wicked Witch of the East represents New York City financiers and bankers who enslave little people called Munchkins.
- The Good Witch of the West portrays people in the heartland of America.
- The Wizard is supposed to be President William McKinley who conceals his deceptions with smoke, mirrors and phony proclamations.
- Dorothy’s magical silver shoes (changed to red in the ever-popular color movie) had the power to grant her wish to go home once she acknowledged the value of family and farm.
If Baum did not intentionally weave these symbols into his first Oz book, he subconsciously reflected his time and place – after all, the genius of good writing.
* * *
My favorite books as a youngster were those in the “Tom Swift” series which began in 1910 and continue popular today. There was not a speck of politics in them, but they were progenitor of science fiction.
Tom, “the boy inventor,” built contraptions that were just in the discovery stage at the turn of the century. In several instances, the authors of Tom Swift books anticipated science.
Such subject matter reflected the fascination of kids – particularly boys – with the gee-whiz technology of that time. Then it was such things as motorcycles, speedboats, automobiles, planes, submarines, radios, and super cannons.
These things are ordinary today. Kids now are titillated by witches, giants, monsters, demons, magicians, terminating-killers, space ships and assorted planetary aliens. All are served up by computer games, videos, television and special effect movies.
The genre of series books for children — with the same, central character — was the brainchild of a publisher named Edward Stratemeyer. He started the Stratemeyer Syndicate of ghostwriters to churn out endless books about characters and situations he dreamed up.
Among his creations was the Bobbsey Twins, Hardy Boys, and Nancy Drew. The big money maker, though, was Tom Swift. Most of the first 38 volumes were written by Howard Garis, Stratemeyer’s best friend, under the pseudonym Victor Appleton.
The books have come to be known as the Tom Swift Senior series. Since then, other publishers bought the name rights. They continued to produce Swift Junior books with ghost writers and adventure topics until “Death Quake,” the last one, in 1993.
The 99 Tom Swift series is the largest total, and longest running, of all time simply because it tapped the interest of kids in exciting things which might be.
Ms. Rowling is simply following a well-tested format.
I wish I had thought of it.
July 16, 2000
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