American Fairy Tales
by L. Frank Baum
One of the trophies of my shopping spree at New York's Books of Wonder is
this charmingly illustrated collection of short stories, reprinted by Dover,
by the author of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz
and many other magical
Originally published in newspapers in 1901 as a syndicated series, the
American Fairy Tales are a fascinating, though perhaps flawed, attempt to plant the
magic of fairies and folk tales in the modern, scientific, commercialized
soil of the U.S.A. Martin Gardner correctly points out in his introduction
that a good part of the magic is squished out of the stories by such
statements as "You are on Prairie Avenue, in Chicago." On the other hand,
Baum more than makes up for this miscalculation with his sharp wit and his
instinct for the right bit of nonsense at the right time. And perhaps, if
you squint at them just so, these little mundane details (like "Prairie
Avenue") work to the story's advantage. What American child since 1901
hasn't hoped that the paved roads, telephone wires, and steel I-beams of our
world might not forever seal every door into the world of make-believe?
In "The Box of Robbers," a little girl living on guess-what-street in
guess-what-town gets a silly surprise when she unlocks the lid of a trunk in
the attic. The way she talks three Italian bandits out of robbing her house
is as funny as the tongue-in-cheek "moral of the story."
"The Glass Dog" tells of the bargain between a magician and a glassblower, a
tale in which everybody gets exactly what he or she deserves, though perhaps
not in the way you would expect!
In "The Queen of Quok," a mischievous boy king cleverly avoids the awful
fate of having to auction off his own hand in marriage in order to replenish
the palace treasury.
"The Girl Who Owned a Bear" nearly gets eaten by it after a book agent, in
revenge against her father, gives the girl a book whose pages come to life.
"The Enchanted Types" features a fairy-creature called a knook - a species
that, I believe, Baum was the first to describe - who tries to do a good
deed by freeing a flock of stuffed birds from a hat shop. The knook grows
more and more desperate to make up for the harm his magic has unwittingly
unleashed on the fashion world of 1901 - which, apart from a few details,
sounds a lot like the fashion world of today!
An aspiring actress orders "The Magic Bon Bons" from a wizard, but someone
else takes them home by mistake. First-year Potions students should read
this is a cautionary tale.
"The Capture of Father Time" happens in a whimsical way, thanks to a
cowboy's son named Jim and his skill with a lasso. As rare bit of early
science fiction this story is priceless!
"The Wonderful Pump" tells how a poor farmer and his wife squandered a
magical gift from a grateful beetle. (It's too bad that Baum spoils the
magic by explaining how it worked.)
"The Dummy That Lived" is the wistful story of a wax lady in a shop window
who, thanks to a mischievous fairy, comes to life. Unfortunately, knowledge
of the world did not come with the package.
"The King of the Polar Bears" survives being skinned by humans, with the
help of his friends the gulls. But can a feathered bear rule over his own
And finally, "The Mandarin and the Butterfly" concerns a child-hating
Chinaman (yes, it's that "politically incorrect," but remember when it was
written). Forced to flee his native land, the Mandarin starts a laundry and
makes a wicked bargain with a trapped butterfly -- a bargain that involves
turning children into pigs!
If you love collections of fairy tales, especially books like Sandburg's Rootabaga
Stories and Nesbit's The Magic World, check this book out. Perhaps you
will agree that Baum graces the Mother Goose tradition with a delightful
quirkiness that is distinctly American. If so, and again like me, you may
also be interested in some of Baum's other non-Oz titles, such as Mother
Goose in Prose and The Master Key.
Recommended Age: Age: 8+
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