Hugo Reading Progress

2024 Hugo Awards Progress
30 / 57 items read/watched (52.63%)
3375 / 7751 pages read (43.54%)
495 / 1360 minutes watched (36.40%)

19 April 2024

Reading L. Frank Baum's John Dough and the Cherub Aloud to My Kid

John Dough and the Cherub: A Whimsical Wonder-Story in which is Described the Marvelous Creation of John Dough, the Gingerbread Man; his meeting with the Incubator Baby called Chick the Cherub: their Adventures in the Isle of Phreex, the Land of Mifkets, Pirate Island and Hiland and Loland
by L. Frank Baum, illustrated by John R. Neill

My child and I used to slide the Nonestica "borderlands" novels (those books by L. Frank Baum about countries adjacent to Oz) in between Ruth Plumly Thompson "Famous Forty" installments when I had a delay in sourcing one. However, we have the whole Famous Forty now, so we haven't done that in quite some time; furthermore, we had just one left, John Dough and the Cherub, the only one I did not own when I myself was a kid.

Originally published: 1906
Acquired: July 2023
Read aloud:
March–April 2024

But I realized that our next Famous Forty book, The Shaggy Man of Oz, includes a character Baum first introduced in this book; furthermore, we'd recently read The Scalawagons of Oz and will soon read The Ozmapolitan of Oz, both of which feature Mifkets, who made their debut here as well. So I decided we'd take a break from Jack Snow and read John Dough first. My kid was fascinated by John Dough the living gingerbread man back when he cameoed in The Road to Oz, but as that was over two years ago, of course they don't remember that anymore.

On the one hand, it's nice to be back with L. Frank Baum again. As much as I enjoy a lot of the later contributors to the Oz novels, there's something about Baum's particular mix of groundedness and whimsy that no one else quite gets right. Yes, fanciful things can happen in an L. Frank Baum novel, but one always feels they are happening in a real world, even if not your real world, there's something about them that feels carefully thought through and rational even at their most bizarre. Whereas at times it felt like Thompson or John R. Neill were willing to bring anything to life at the drop of a hat, Baum works hard to lay the foundation for why John Dough would come to life, and then explore how horrifying it would be to be a piece of living confectionery in a world of hungry humans. My kid is often sensitive to things or people being damaged or broken, so I expected them to not like all these threats of being eaten, but they took it with surprising equanimity most of the time.

After this, though, the book changes tack; J. L. Bell argues in the introduction that Baum probably wrote the early chapters a few years before the rest. In chapter five, John Dough is abruptly sent to a fantastic realm, the kind Baum had become famous for writing about, and encounters a child co-protagonist, Chick the Cherub, the genderless incubator baby. (On the rare occasion Baum uses pronouns for Chick, he uses "it," but I substituted the more modern singular "they.") Chick is surprisingly underexplained; I guess people in 1906 just knew what an incubator baby was, and would be willing to buy Baum's apparent assumption that a human child born to a genderless machine would itself be without gender? Chick is a fun concept the book does little with, but perhaps that's the point; my five-year-old child who sometimes insists they are both a boy and a girl was all too ready to accept a genderless child in an Oz book, and Chick's lack of gender goes almost entirely without comment. Chick is also a fun character, pushing against the often recalcitrant John Dough.

John Dough, Chick, and later Para Bruin the rubber bear travel from the Isle of Phreex to the Palace of Romance to the Isle of the Mifkets to Pirate Island to Hiland and Loland, all of them typical oddball Baum locales, with his usual vividly imagined characters... though by the time we get to the last two locations, it does kind of feel like we're running on empty, with little time spent and little fun to be had. Still, even the weaker locations are the kind that a kid can still find captivating.

The book also demonstrates the weaker aspects of Baum as a writer; it's very much one of his books where the characters go to a place, do a thing, go to another place, and so on. The pursuit of John Dough by "the Arab," Ali Dubh, who wants to eat him so that he can access the Elixir of Life John was baked with, provides some unity... but John himself almost never makes any interesting choices or comes up with any clever ideas. Basically, he and Chick just run away again and again and again until they end up in a place whose residents go, "Well, you're king now." The Palace of Romance incident probably displays the most initiative on the part of John and Chick, and all they do there is delay a bit and then run away! (I did like that incident, though; it's a bit darker than Baum's usual.)

My kid did not like a bit, late in the book, where John actually gets tied up and has a finger bitten off! On the other hand, they did advocate for the Princess of Mifket Island being allowed to eat a bit of John in order to restore her health, a dilemma on John's part that is curiously one-sided. Should John really be obligated to give a piece of himself to all worthy comers?

Overall, it's not one of Baum's best, but it is one of Baum's most fanciful—and kids like fancy. Even my three-year-old is starting to get in on the act, remembering characters and concepts from day to day. When we finished, I pulled out Road and we read the section where John Dough, Chick, and Para Bruin reappear there. Already a continuity fiend, my child demanded to know why we hadn't read John Dough first in its proper order! They asked if we couldn't reread all of Road now, but I demurred; we still have over a dozen Oz books to read before we start rereading any!

Next up in sequence: The Shaggy Man of Oz

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