Tag Archives: the wizard of oz

Flying to Narnia

Something wonderful happened last week, aside from the fact that we started Prince Caspian, book 4 in our read of The Narnia Chronicles: N learned to ride a two-wheeler.

This is something we’ve been trying to teach her for years, but even a bike with training wheels proved to be an enormous challenge for her. Each summer we’d haul it out, plunk her on it, and she’d go rigid with fear. “Don’t let go!” she’d plead. “Whatever you do, don’t let go!” And this was with the training wheels. Every excursion ended the same way — N dissolving into whines, or maybe tears, the grown-ups growing increasingly frustrated, and finally all of us losing our temper and stomping home. Walking the bike, of course. The only fun times we could manage were with “the doubler,” which was fun indeed, but independence seemed a long way off.

And then.

At the bus stop a while back, AW, a friend of N’s asked if she’d like to go bike riding that Saturday morning. My ears perked for N’s answer. “Sure!” she said with enthusiasm. And when AW skipped away, N scooted over to me and whispered “I’ve got to learn to ride by Saturday, Mom!”

So out came the bike. Every day after school she practiced and whined and told us she couldn’t do it. She would never be able to do it. Everyone else could do it except her. I asked her how she learned to do cartwheels, to skate, to play piano, to speak French, to read? But she sat on her bike, looking dejected, as three boys tore by on their bicycles, practically soaring. They looped around the block and came whizzing past again and again as N inched forward with a crumpled expression, just like the one I wore at her age, when I rode leaning into the one training wheel I would not let my dad remove. Clinging to it like a drowning person clings to a lifebuoy.

But every day she got better. Every day she whined less.

By Friday, though, she had still not mastered it, and she was sick with the thought of her Saturday morning bike ride. But when we woke up, there was thunder and lightning, and it was teeming rain. N, of course, was delighted. The bike ride was moved to Sunday, and Saturday evening, when the rain ceased, we squeezed in a bit more practice — she was definitely improving, moving herself forward with her feet and ever so tentatively lifting them to the pedals for a second or so at a time. When she made her first complete revolution, she turned to me, beaming, and said, “Mom — I felt like I was flying!”

But she was still not really riding by Sunday morning. So (sorry to say) she was doubly delighted that poor AW had fallen ill overnight, and the excursion was cancelled.

That day, she did it. She put her feet on those pedals and wobbled forward, and we stood in the street behind her, hooting and hollering and clapping our hands. What a sight, to see her zooming away from us with not-exactly-confidence but courage and determination. I told her she reminded me of the Cowardly Lion in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.  When the wizard admits to being a good man but a bad wizard, Dorothy and friends are dismayed, realizing he can’t give them what they came for.

“How about my courage?” asked the Lion anxiously.

“You have plenty of courage, I am sure,” answered Oz. “All you need is confidence in yourself. There is no living thing that is not afraid when it faces danger. The True courage is in facing danger when you are afraid, and that kind of courage you have in plenty.”

So it is with my bell-ringing N. The more riding she does, the less she wobbles. On the weekend, we all got on our bikes, and went on a lovely ride — a family bike ride! — up the West Toronto Railpath, all of us smiling. At least I think N was smiling — she was so far out in front I couldn’t tell. I watched her cycling along with her head a little bit tilted, and I realized she must be humming, because a tilt always goes with her hum, and I thought my heart might burst with happiness. I glanced at my compass-bell and saw we were going north-ish, and I thought of Bree and Shasta in The Horse and His Boy. They couldn’t wait to get to Narnia, where all creatures were equals. So I shouted their rallying cry: “To Narnia, and the north!”

And we all cycled on, separately, but together.


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Mortal peril and bluebirds

Julie Walters as the magnificent Molly Weasley. "Harry watched with terror and elation as Molly Weasley's wand slashed and twirled, and Bellatrix Lestrange's smile faltered, and became a snarl. Jets of light flew from both wands, the floor around the witches' feet became hot and cracked; both women were fighting to kill."

Sadly, we finished Harry last week. Seven books in seven months, devoured the year N was seven. I have to say I didn’t expect to like the books as much as I did. They are wonderfully rich stories, but I think I loved them even more for the way they brought the three of us together, so excited to see what would happen next, and talking over each other to squeeze our predictions in. The term “reading ahead” became a common accusation in our house — “Mom! I saw Dad reading ahead!” — so much so that it extended into other areas of our life. One day N’s dad phoned to say he would be home late, and N said, “Okay, Dad, we’ll eat ahead.”

There was plenty of sobbing over this final book. For me, the most intense part came towards the end of the story, when Hermione, Luna, and Ginny, all teenage girls, were battling the evil Bellatrix Lestrange. She was much more powerful than they were, and had very nearly cursed Ginny to death when Mrs. Weasley, the frumpy, doting, fretting mother figure throughout all of the Harry books, ordered the girls “OUT OF MY WAY!” and flew at Bellatrix, her witch’s power infused with maternal love. I could hardly get the words out I was crying so hard. Later N’s dad suggested, “I think you relate to Mrs. Weasley a little more than you realized!” And yes, I have to admit, I do.

Like me, Mrs. Weasley is the one who rushes everyone to readiness for their various activities, and gives annoying reminders of what needs to be done when and what will happen if it isn’t accomplished. She bustles around the ramshackle Burrow doing the chores and keeping her eye on a magical clock that was “completely useless if you wanted to know the time, but otherwise very informative. It had nine golden hands, and each of them was engraved with one of the Weasley family’s names. There were no numerals around the face, but descriptions of where each family member might be. ‘Home,’ ‘school,’ and ‘work’ were there, but there was also ‘traveling,’ ‘lost,’ ‘hospital,’ ‘prison,’ and, in the position where the number twelve would be on a normal clock, ‘mortal peril.'” Later in the series, with the return of the Dark Lord, all nine hands point to “mortal peril,” and Mrs. Weasley has taken to carrying the clock around the house with her, so she can keep her eye on it (and her family) at all times.

I remember when N was a baby how anxious I felt when the three of us were separated. As long as we were all three together, it seemed that everything would be all right, but as soon as one of us was removed from that scenario (N’s dad off at work, or the two of us on a date, with N’s grandma babysitting), the anxiety would return in a flood. Luckily, that passed, but I well recall the feeling that we were somehow protected simply by being together.

N’s dad was away this weekend, and I had no worries whatsoever. N crawled in with me two nights in a row, and we watched movies and read books together, side by side. She’s working her way through a little gem I discovered, Tales of Beedle the Bard by J.K. Rowling, translated from the ancient runes by Hermione Granger. It’s beyond N’s reading level, but I love the fact that she wants to work her way through it alone, and to read while I’m reading. It didn’t really work out that way, of course, because she interrupted me every few minutes to ask about a word, and then glanced over when I’d put my book aside and asked “Mom, why aren’t you reading?”

A publicity still from The Wizard of Oz, 1939

Our movie this weekend was The Wizard of Oz, which we hadn’t seen for some time, and on this viewing N was quite curious about Dorothy — or rather Judy Garland. Who plays Dorothy, she wanted to know, and how old was she then and how old would she be now, and was she rich, as rich as J.K. Rowling?

I told her what I knew: that Judy Garland had become famous for her singing and acting at a very young age, after the phenomenal success of The Wizard of Oz, and that sometimes fame muddles up your life in the worst ways possible. And then — curious myself —  we looked her up to find out more.

Frances Ethel Gumm, flanked by her older sisters, in 1933

She was born Frances Ethel Gumm, and her parents were vaudevillians who ran a movie theatre. She and her sisters — The Gumm Sisters! — performed at the theatre from an early age, accompanied by their mom on piano, but it was Frances/Judy who went on to fame and fortune. She was just 16 when she was cast as Dorothy, belting out “Over the Rainbow” (which, like Supercali, N can pick out on the piano) and surely unaware how the song would follow her through her life from then on. In later years she wrote, “‘Over the Rainbow’ has become part of my life. It’s so symbolic of everybody’s dreams and wishes that I’m sure that’s why some people get tears in their eyes when they hear it. I’ve sung it thousands of times and it’s still the song that’s closest to my heart.”

It’s no surprise. From the sounds of it, Judy Garland was certainly no happy little bluebird. And she didn’t have Molly Weasley for a mother. They were estranged for years, and Judy once told Ladies’ Home Journal that her mother was “no good for anything except to create chaos and fear.” Even without her mother, Garland’s life seemed full of chaos and fear. Of one of her suicide attempts, she said, “All I could see ahead was more confusion.”

As I pondered all of this and the hefty price of fame, N sat pondering too. I wondered what she was thinking about so intently, and if there was a weighty question coming my way, perhaps about life and death, mortal peril, maybe, or sadness. But after a while she looked up at me with the sparkle of an idea showing in her eye and she asked, “Mom, can anyone change their name? I mean … can I?”


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“Grown-ups don’t believe in anything”

This gorgeous image comes, via thegraphicsfairy.blogspot.com, from an old French dictionary.

A while back at breakfast I was recounting to my little family a dream that I’d had about Elton John–the peacock-style Elton of old, who disappears into his costumes. N knows who Elton John is from watching a DVD we have of some Muppet Show episodes, and she has often commented that Elton plays piano with his fingers too flat, since her own teacher is always reminding her to use the very tops of her fingers to strike those keys. “I guess he didn’t have a very good teacher.” Though he seems to have done all right regardless.

Anyway, my dream about Elton was that he came to me several times in his souped-up outfits, serenading me and asking to be my boyfriend. In the dream, there was no N and no N’s dad, and so I was free to accept Elton’s bejeweled hand if I so desired. But I could not get past the enormous glasses, the feathery hats, the glittering sequins and the flared pantsuits. I could not find the real Elton behind all of that, and so I said “Sorry, but no.”

And N’s response? “Mom.” A roll of the eyes. “Grown-ups don’t dream.”

Girl with fairy hovering, by N

Where she got this idea, I don’t know. But it has stuck with me. We sometimes have long talks about fairies, as she is a fan of the Rainbow Magic fairy books by someone with the dubious name Daisy Meadows. Together we have mowed through Penny the Pony Fairy and Ruby the Red Fairy and Sunny the Yellow Fairy and Crystal the Snow Fairy and Amy the Amethyst Fairy and Zoe the Skating Fairy and Samantha the Swimming Fairy. And we have even purchased–setting our sights high–Mia la fee du mardi, but the French is a little beyond us still.

As an author I sometimes wonder, how does Daisy do it?

And how much longer will she go on?

Never mind–N adores these books, and I can practically hear her wheels turning as we read about Rachel and Kirsty gasping (which they do every couple of pages), and zipping off to Fairyland, and stopping the dirty deeds of Jack Frost and the goblins, who steal the fairies’ magic. Actually I like the bad guys, bratty and pointy-nosed, always sneering and sticking out their tongues at the girls. I read their voices in a robotic but nasal way that propels me through the pages. “From this day on, Fairyland will be without colour–forever!”

Sometimes I think it’s the way children imagine the grown-up world–without colour–and they feel a little sorry for us, and a little wary of where they themselves are heading.

N sets up her own fairy houses, decorating them with tiny boxes stuffed with tulip petals for beds, and setting out drinking vessels and offerings of nuts and seeds. She used to ask, “Mom, do you believe in fairies?” But she doesn’t ask anymore, because I think she knows the answer.

It’s the same with ghosts. A while back she and her friend A wrote letters to ghosts for an entire afternoon.

“Dear Grandpa Peter. Can you watch out for me your grandoter that you never met? And can you also watch out for my friend as well?”

“Dear Stella. I live in your olde house that you youst to live in. PS Your probebly verry nice.”

“Dear Terry. I miss you terobly. I will trye to wach ouet for your gardin wehn ever I go bye it.”

Each note was slid beneath the basement door, and they stood listening to it whoosh down the stairs.

Recently N was at another friend’s place, J, and J told her how one night when she’d been lying awake in the darkness, a green hand appeared before her face, just hovering there. It was about the same size as her own hand, and it had the criss-cross pattern of ordinary skin. Alarmed, J screamed aloud until her father came rushing into the room. She told him what she’d seen–how she’d been wide awake and absolutely not dreaming–and he tried to calm her, as a parent would, and told her she was imagining things.

“But I know I saw it,” the girl confided to N. “It’s just that grown-ups don’t believe in anything.”

"When Dorothy, who was an orphan, first came to her, Aunt Em had been so startled by the child's laughter that she would scream and press her hand upon her heart whenever Dorothy's merry voice reached her ears; and she still looked at the little girl with wonder that she could find anything to laugh at. Uncle Henry never laughed." Illustration by W.W. Denslow.

I suppose our dismaying lack of belief is what keeps us out of so many children’s stories. In the fairy books N devours, Rachel and Kirsty’s parents sometimes drift blandly through the background, offering bus money or a sandwich, but they are never privy to the girls’ mysteries and great adventures. Pippi Longstocking lives parentless in Villa Villekulla with her monkey and her horse. “But who tells you when to go to bed at night?” Annika asks her. And Pippi answers “I do. The first time I say it, I say in a friendly sort of way, and if I don’t listen I say it again more sharply, and if I still don’t listen, then there’s a thrashing to be had, believe me!” Alice, swallowed up by her dream, slips down through the rabbit hole alone, into Wonderland, just as Dorothy Gale drifts up and up, leaving Uncle Henry and Auntie Em in her dust. The sun and wind had “taken the sparkle” from Aunt Em’s eyes, and Uncle Henry “did not know what joy was.” Think, too, of The Secret Garden,  a place reserved for the children of the story until they can make the adults understand its wonderful power.

And from our grown-up perspective, we watch our children taking all this in, remembering doing so ourselves, and how we looked at our own parents with wonder for all the things they did not see.


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What the witch left for me

Margaret Hamilton, witchiest witch of all, was a kindergarten teacher, a Sunday school teacher, and a tireless advocate for children's education

We were talking about witches one day — the wonderful Margaret Hamilton from the Wizard of Oz movie; the creepy toeless witches of Roald Dahl’s The Witches — when I suddenly remembered a book I had loved as a child. It was called What the Witch Left by Ruth Chew, and I was probably eight or so when I read it, just a little older than N. In my mind I could see the flare of a mysterious orange robe on the deep blue cover, and the two girls holding the robe and wondering at its magic. I zipped up to the computer and looked for the book online — out of print, sadly (words that twist in my novelist gut). I ordered a second-hand copy for N and waited for the surprise to arrive.

What the Witch Left, written in 1973, tells the story of Katy and her friend Louise, who discover a dresser drawer full of seemingly ordinary objects kept in storage for a grandmother’s family friend. There’s a robe, a little mirror, a pair of boots, and a pair of gloves. But soon Katy and Louise realize the objects are not ordinary at all — they are infused with magic. The gloves (they each put one on) disappear when pulled over each girl’s hand. Wearing  them, Katy and Louise excel at their school writing exercises; they play piano and draw masterfully. And the vibrant robe, once donned, makes them and itself invisible. When they each put on a boot, they realize they’re able to travel vast distances with every step. The little mirror fogs and then clears, showing them anything they wish to see.

Just one of many witch books by Ruth Chew

Ruth Chew, it turns out, wrote a number of witch books. She died just last year, at the ripe age of 90. According to the bio on her site, “As a child she was determined to be an artist and drew constantly. She believed that the only reason she passed high school biology was because of the drawings she made of the specimens.” Years later, as a mom of five children, Chew tried  her hand at illustrating books. But when work was slow to come, she decided to write her own book, mainly so that she could illustrate it. This first witch, The Wednesday Witch, traveled not on a broomstick, but on a canister vacuum cleaner like the one Chew used at home. I suspect that little detail delighted her children.

N enjoyed What the Witch Left. But I can’t say it affected her the way it did me. It’s funny how much we invest in our own childhood experiences, and how completely we want to convey them to our children. I wanted not just to give the book to N, but to give her my take on it too, so that she could feel what I felt when she read it. But of course it doesn’t work that way, nor should it.

Chatting about this blog with my editor the other day, she began reminiscing about books she’d read as a girl, and I saw how her whole expression changed with the memory. Which just underscored for me how books can sometimes be worlds we enter, and if we’re lucky we retain the memory of traveling there. What will N’s favourites be when she looks back on her years of childhood reading? Impossible to say just now. And entirely for her to decide.









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