[The new 1959 dust jacket for Reilly & Lee’s edition of THE WIZARD OF OZ boasted perhaps the tamest of Roland Roycraft’s sometimes-skewed depictions of our favorite Ozians. Dorothy, however, sported a trendy-1940s June Allyson bob (as she did every time the artist drew her). Similarly, on each occasion Roycraft sketched the Scarecrow, the same odd and out-of-register color choices were selected for the character’s visage and features. This was surely unintentional, but the end result indicated a wild and wooly combination of eye infection, raspberry jelly ingestion, and rice powder foundation.]
It’s been thirty years since the publication of the first book I wrote (THE WIZARD OF OZ: THE OFFICIAL 50th ANNIVERSARY PICTORIAL HISTORY), and there have been six additional volumes since then -- three of them Oz-related, the other three about Judy Garland. Meanwhile, I’ve learned one major lesson across these decades: it’s the artwork and not the journalism that often draws in the audience and garners the attention!
So, I figured it would be best to provide a LOT of illustrations to accompany this month’s blog, especially as the topic at hand discusses an aspect of the Oz BOOKS. (Most of the other 2019 submissions have celebrated the eightieth anniversary of the 1939 Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer WIZARD OF OZ movie, which is a theme that pretty much sells itself. 😊 ) Anyway, this account specifically comes to discuss, tease/semi-malign, and ultimately celebrate an illustrator who only briefly puttered in – and painted -- Oz!
[Roycraft’s art for DOROTHY AND THE WIZARD IN OZ appropriately represented all Nine Tiny Piglets – ten, if one counts the extraneous peeking porker on the book’s spine. But the Wizard himself appears as a sort of schnockered Ed Wynn.]
I first discovered the Oz book series when I was seven years old. At that time, all but two of the then-thirty-nine volumes carried their original (or at least early) dust jacket art by the illustrators of each title: one by Dirk Gringhuis, two by Frank Kramer, and the other thirty-four by the glorious John R. Neill. A year later, in 1959, The Reilly & Lee Company – which had published all the Oz books but the very first – was taken over by Henry Regnery; the latter’s firm was especially interested in acquiring the Oz franchise. One of the first decisions implemented by Regnery was a program to redesign the dust jackets for titles where stockpiles were getting low. The initial thought was to quite simply have Neill’s work recreated by Roland Roycraft, an art director at the advertising firm employed by Reilly & Lee. Then someone reconsidered, cast Roycraft himself as the new artist-of-choice, and suggested he attempt something for the Oz paper wraparounds that would be (in his own later words) “simplified and more animated.”
Well, that phrase sums up what we got! Away with the majestic incarnations of Neill and onto the modern approach of Roland Roycraft.
Now . . . to state it up-front and plain: As a preteen and already traditionalist, I HATED every one of the eleven dust jackets Roycraft designed during the year he was on the job. I hated his variations on the beloved Oz citizens. I hated it when I received a new Oz book across that period, and it had his artwork on the dust jacket.
Loved the books themselves – to be sure.
But HATED “it”!
[All of Roycraft’s young male protagonists came across as generic variations on TV sitcom juveniles of the era – as personified here by Button-Bright. Maybe the oddest incarnation in this cover for THE ROAD TO OZ, however, is The Shaggy Man. In this instance, he’s not particularly shaggy but seems to embody an amalgam of Moses, a homeless angel, and the Braided Man from Baum’s fourth Oz book.]
The Roycraft designs were certainly revolutionary and contemporary; in their paucity of care and detail, they foreshadowed some of the late 1950s (and into the 1960s and beyond) Saturday morning TV cartoon programming. But to my very young way of thinking, his 1959 style was all wrong for Oz . . . and totally out-of-keeping with the interior Neill book illustrations (or the 1956 pictures done by Dale Ulrey for R&L’s first printing of THE WIZARD OF OZ and their 1955 reset/revamped THE TIN WOODMAN OF OZ).
This is absolutely no reflection on Roland Roycraft himself. The man passed away on June 21, 2011, at ninety-three, and I encourage any art or Oz fans to Google his name and look at the amazing watercolor work he came to do in his own style. It’s a ponderable loss when one contemplates what exemplary Oz drawings he might have achieved had he been allowed to follow his own bent; the man was obviously a master craftsman.
[We are told – and shown -- throughout the Oz series that Ozma and Dorothy are pretty nearly the same height. In Roycraft’s reconception, however, the ruler of the kingdom has become a wand-wielding, off-the-shoulder, statuesque beauty a la Julie Newmar -- or perchance a look-ahead to GILLIGAN’S ISLAND and the ginger <cough. cough.> of Tina Louise. Admittedly, John R. Neill drew (what has since been termed) a slinky Ozma for a later dust jacket of OZMA OF OZ, as well as an equally-noted sexy Ozma for a later dust jacket of THE EMERALD CITY OF OZ. The Roycraft fairy princess shown here, however, was recently referenced – by a gleeful Oz fan – as the slutty Ozma!]
In the long run, however, it now doesn’t much matter whether or not one LIKES Roycraft’s approach – or if I did. Or if one finds his Ozzy toils amusing or reprehensible. Or if one dismisses his designs or considers them happy and visionary. The man was directly following commercially-founded instructions from the publishers, and the end result was bright, colorful, unique, and may well have appealed to some. I think fans and collectors who perhaps felt or feel as I did might now be more appreciative of the fact that someone of his ability and individual dash dabbled for a year in the marvelous land.
You’ll find six of his 1959 efforts here, with (sorry!) some unavoidably irreverent Fricke commentary in the captions. All these decades later, I freely admit it’s fun to see Roycraft’s method as evocative of an era. Additionally, I honestly had a jolly good time in assembling the material while researching this entry, and it was an added bonus to discover and develop an awed appreciation for the man’s serious, non-Oz work.
[When THE HUNGRY TIGER OF OZ got his own title in the Oz book series, he was portrayed – as always – as a noble, extremely well-mannered (if famished) mammal. Unfortunately, the comic, cross-eyed feline shown here would not be out of place in a TV commercial for a vastly over-sugared breakfast cereal. Note, too, the coalescence of Pippi Longstocking and Gidget “as” Baum’s little girl from Oklahoma, Betsy Bobbin.]
A P.S. about a redeeming factor back in 1959: There was one irrefutably special addition to the Oz book dust jackets when Roycraft came on board. The rear panel of the paper wrapping didn’t (as was past tradition) duplicate the front cover illustration. Instead, Reilly & Lee offered a brief, underplayed, cheerful sermonette, which was also an essential defense in that late-1950s era when the series had once again come under fire from some librarians and historians of children’s literature.
In quiet but forceful prose, every new rear dust jacket panel at that time included this heading and subsequent three paragraphs:
A Word about the Oz Books
Since 1900, when L. Frank Baum introduced to the children of America THE WONDERFUL WIZARD OF OZ and all the other exciting characters who inhabit the Land of Oz, these delightful fairy tales have stimulated the imaginations of millions of young readers.
These are stories which are genuine fantasy – creative, funny, tender, exciting, and surprising. Filled with the rarest and most absurd creatures, each of the 39 volumes which now comprise the series has been eagerly sought out by generation after generation, until today they are known by all except the very young or those who were never young at all.
When, in a recent survey, THE NEW YORK TIMES polled a group of teenagers on the books they liked best when they were young, the Oz books topped the list.
That says it all!
Many thanks for reading. 😊
[One more for the road! When I, as a little boy, read the Oz books and reveled in Neill’s art, I always figured Cap’n Bill – one of the more appealing old geezers of children’s lit – as the character actor/Guy Kibbee type. Here, for his appearance on THE SCARECROW OF OZ dust jacket, the good sailor seems to have posed for Roycraft after having been scuzzily shipwrecked for several months.]
Article by John Fricke