23 February 2024

Reading The Runaway in Oz Aloud to My Son

The Runaway in Oz by John R. Neill
edited and illustrated by Eric Shanower

There are a number of Oz books that some fans call "quasi-canonical"; that is to say, they have some sort of claim to official status, but they are not part of the "Famous Forty" (the novels from the original publisher(s) of the series). For many, it's that they were written by a Famous Forty author, but released by a different publisher. It has been my intention to incorporate those stories in me and my son's marathon through the Oz books—but where they ought to have been published, not where they were.

Originally published: 1995
Acquired: July 2022
Read aloud:
January–February 2024

The Runaway in Oz was intended as the Oz book for 1943, but John R. Neill died before he finished editing the manuscript or even started doing the illustrations; the publisher opted to forego an Oz book for the year, and the next would not appear until 1946. In 1995, however, Books of Wonder finally published the book with the blessing of Neill's family, edited and illustrated by contemporary Oz superstar Eric Shanower. I opted to read this to my son following on from Lucky Bucky as if it was the Oz book for 1943. By the time we got to 1995, I am not so sure he would remember who, say, Jenny Jump was!

In some ways, this is probably the best of John R. Neill's four Oz books. In a comment on the late, lamented Tor.com, editor Eric Shanower says one of the things he did was "[t]ake out whatever made no sense"—in a John R. Neill book this could, of course, be quite a lot, and Runaway certainly has a cohesion lacking in, say, Wonder City or Scalawagons of Oz. It has two clear, parallel plots in the classic Baum/Thompson fashion, one about Scraps running away from the Emerald City and one about Jenny Jump, Jack Pumpkinhead, and the Wogglebug trying to find her. Yet it still has that John R. Neill fancifulness, with details such as the Wogglebug literally creating a castle in the air while he dreams—one he intends to use to take a vacation!

The best part of the book is probably the beginning, where Scraps antagonizes in turn Jellia Jamb, the Tin Woodman, and Jenny Jump. Convinced everyone is "mean" for simply telling her to behave herself, she resolves to run away. It's a very child-like, very accurate response, and it led to some good moments with my five-year-old, who likes to declare that I am mean whenever I enforce a rule or boundary, no matter how gently I do it. Were Jellia or Jenny being mean to Scraps, I asked? No, he declared. Hmmmm... Will this lesson sink in? Well, I am less sure about that.

You might think, then, that the book would end with Scraps learning to accept some responsibility for her actions, but this only kind of happens. There is a great scene where Scraps returns to the Emerald City, seemingly in prisoners' garb (a sheet, in a callback to Patchwork Girl), but I feel like an author who was not John R. Neill could have pulled things together a bit more strongly. I do like the somewhat Ozzy moral that sometimes it's right to run away, but it does seem to me that Scraps largely gets away without actually learning anything even if she does inadvertently face some consequences.

So the book was lively and focused, but not always totally successful at what it seemed like it was doing, if that makes sense. And while it certainly had a coherence lacking in Wonder City, Wonder City was so manic it almost gets away with its many faults, which isn't quite the case here.

Eric Shanower illustrates, and it's certainly a beautiful edition. Shanower's character designs are clearly influenced by Neill's, but he has a somewhat different style, with a tightness of line that makes the weirdness of what he's drawing seem more real. This being a Neill novel, there's a lot of fanciful imagery, and Shanower does a great job with it; probably my favorite was the army of quinces! The flat people were also pretty great. 

I could also detect (so I believe) a bit of fannishness in Shanower's editing. This is the first book to get east and west right since Ruth Plumly Thompson took over, and there's an extended passage of exposition reversing Jenny Jump's "lobotomy" from Wonder City. Actually, I very much enjoyed Shanower's Jenny, particularly all her costume and hairstyle changes. It's a shame Neill's work is still under copyright, because that means Jenny (and Number Nine) haven't been available to other authors, and they're strong characters I'd like to see in other Oz stories. I also like the continuing friendship between Scraps and Jack Pumpkinhead.

Things my son really did not like: the stressful sequence where the air castle disintegrates, Scraps being turned all black by the quinces. But on the whole, he reported enjoying this one. Both of us like the Patchwork Girl a lot, so perhaps we were destined to! Even the three-year-old is into her; whenever we read a chapter at bedtime, he would point to the cover and declare, "Scraps is rainbow. Scraps is rainbow!" A couple weeks later, I asked him if he remembered what color Scraps was and he said "Scraps is rainbow... but she turned black!" So the books are starting to sink in for him as well.

Next up in sequence: The Magical Mimics in Oz

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