Tuesday, October 24, 2023


Grabbing the Brass Ring

The Creation of Merry Go Round in Oz - Part I

Today is the sixtieth anniversary of the publication of Eloise Jarvis McGraw's and Lauren McGraw Wagner's Merry Go Round in Oz, the final title in the official Oz series. Publication had been set for October 21, 1963, but delays at the bindery meant that the first copies did not arrive at Reilly & Lee until October 24th — which for today's post I am considering the publication date. 

Many children’s series end in a fizzle. Sometimes the original author seems to lose steam or focus, such as in the Mushroom Planet books by Eleanor Cameron and the Freddy the Pig books by Walter R. Brooks. Sometimes the sequels are written by less-talented relatives, like the follow-ups to Robert O’Brien’s Mrs. Frisby and Rats of NIMH. And sometimes ghostwriters simply churn out titles so that the publisher can squeeze a few more dollars from a dying franchise, as in so many of the boys and girls series from the early twentieth century.

But occasionally, magic happens. In 1959 the Henry Regnery Company purchased Reilly & Lee, primarily to obtain the rights to publish the Oz books. Their efforts at revitalizing the Oz series began small and grew. In 1960 they published The Visitors from Oz. In 1961 they brought out four Oz picture book abridgements and To Please a Child, the first biography of L. Frank Baum. By 1962 Regnery/Reilly & Lee were considering adding a new, full-length Oz adventure to the main series. What better luck could they have had than to be contacted out of the blue by a highly respected, two-time Newbery Honor author inquiring if they would like to see an Oz manuscript? 

That author, of course, was Eloise Jarvis McGraw.

Like Royal Historians Jack Snow and Rachel Cosgrove Payes, McGraw had grown up with the Oz books.  She read and owned many of the Baum books, but her favorites were those by Ruth Plumly Thompson[i]. Which, as we will see, had a strong influence on McGraw’s Oz writing.

Eloise Jarvis McGraw circa 1963

McGraw was born December 9, 1915, and that made her the perfect age to be a Ruth Plumly Thompson fan. She was six when the first Thompson Oz book, The Royal Book of Oz, appeared. McGraw’s favorite Oz book was Ruth Plumly Thompson’s Grampa in Oz (1924), published when McGraw was eight years old. At the time of the writing of Merry Go Round in Oz McGraw was living in Sherwood, Oregon, on a filbert orchard, about twenty miles south of Portland.

Her daughter, Lauren Lynn McGraw, was born August 15, 1944, and grew up reading the Oz books. And, like her mother, she considered Grampa in Oz her favorite Oz book. She was seventeen when she and her mom began writing Merry Go Round in Oz and nineteen when it was published. She had married J. Robert Wagner in February 1962 and the young couple was living across the driveway from her parents' home in a small A-frame that Eloise and her husband, fellow children's author William Corbin, had built a few years earlier.

Lauren McGraw Wagner circa 1963

The seeds for Merry Go Round in Oz were planted when McGraw was asked to write a couple short biographical entries for the children’s reference series Childcraft in 1961[ii]. McGraw offered to write entries on Vincent Van Gogh and L. Frank Baum. She could find no information on Baum’s life in the local library, so she wrote an editor at Baum’s publisher Reilly & Lee: “I introduced myself, and begged for any crumb of information on Baum. She [the editor] sent me To Please a Child, said she knew my work, and invited me to send her any homeless manuscripts I cared to. I wrote a grateful ‘thank you’ and that was the end of it until Lynn and I got to playing ‘Oz books should be like this’ one day a year or so later. Knowing precisely where this unwritten manuscript might find a home played a large part in my decision to try writing it.”[iii]

That game of “Oz books should be like this” began during the summer of 1962 when McGraw’s daughter, Lauren McGraw Wagner, was pregnant with her first child and decided she would reread the Oz books. At some point, Lauren picked up The Scalawagons of Oz, a title she had never read as a child. The McGraw family had somehow acquired it from Lauren's cousin Gayla McCreight. Wagner was shocked at how bad and un-Ozzy Scalawagons was. Soon she and her mother were picking the book apart, dissecting and analyzing, ending with the realization that “we could write a better Oz book!” 

McGraw remembered the offer from Reilly & Lee and sent an inquiry about their interest in an Oz manuscript. The publisher responded that they’d be very much interested—and McGraw and her daughter began writing Merry Go Round in Oz. Despite the Scalawagons incident, McGraw said later, “It never occurred to us to go back and reread the few tattered [Oz books] in my attic to make sure we’d do it right. We knew what an Oz book was like—what one ought to be like. The Oz books had merged in both our memories into a sort of happy blur—the generic Oz book.”

Eloise Jarvis McGraw & Lauren Lynn McGraw circa 1950.

McGraw had published her first book, Sawdust in his Shoes, in 1950. By 1963 McGraw had written four additional children’s books (two of which were Newbery Honor titles), an adult novel, and a book on fiction writing. McGraw and Wagner had never collaborated before—indeed, Wagner was only seventeen when they began writing the book. Wagner explains how they worked together:

I was living in the A-frame during at least most of the time we were writing the book. We’d get together every few days to brainstorm; figure out the plot and the characters, names of the countries and people (we had great fun with Halidom; I’d been reading about heraldry, and was full of terms like “bar sinister,” Annelet, Gules, Wyvver, Flittermouse, and so on). I think I’m the one who suggested a country of fox hunters, but I could be wrong about that.
Anyway, after we got all that figured out, we did an outline of the plot—that was Mom’s method at the time, though she got a bit looser eventually. Then we’d rough out each chapter, making sure that our three groups were getting closer to each other but not running into each other before it was time—I think that might have been why we had to have a map, which I drew: first rough, then eventually the version that appears in the book.

One of Wagner's cleverest additions to the story was the new Oz character, the Flittermouse. 

Whenever Flitter had to recite one of his poems, I wrote it, making them smarter after the first circlet was discovered. Essentially, we’d get together to brainstorm and outline, then Mom would go to her typewriter and write the chapter. Then I’d read it, and we’d meet again to discuss it. Living just across the driveway from each other was very handy.
I’d say the plotting process was about 50/50. My mother [did] most of the actual writing; I [did] a lot of editing and critiquing. [iv]

In September 1962, Wagner took a short break from working on the Oz book to give birth to her first son, Christopher. 

Unlike the other writers of the Oz books, McGraw preserved most of her manuscript materials: outlines, character studies, and manuscripts. So, with Merry Go Round in Oz we have a unique opportunity to explore the writing and editorial processes of one of the official Oz titles.

The earliest surviving notes I’ve been able to examine are the fifteen pages of character studies and place descriptions. All is pretty much as in the book, save a few details. Fess’s age is given as twelve to thirteen, Queen Farthingale is originally Queen Martingale, and the Unicorn is Fess’s pet. Also, Halidom was pretty well developed before McGraw created the adjoining country, Troth. McGraw describes ten-year-old Robin Brown as “. . . self-sufficient, quiet, noticing (like Oliver [Twist]) . . .”

The earliest draft of the story I’ve examined is McGraw’s undated chapter breakdown. The three-page breakdown shows how economically McGraw has worked things out, mapping out exactly what she needs to accomplish in each chapter, as in her description of chapter two:

Robin and Merry get acquainted, look around them, try to figure out what happened. Characterize Merry, Robin, bring in more about Robin’s background, his love of King Arthur tales and horses. Robin starts training Merry to go in straight line; she is catching on nicely when Fox-hunters appear; before the two can get away they are surrounded.

The chapter breakdown follows the published book very closely, though some of the elements are arranged a little differently. McGraw stays with Robin and Merry for the first four breakdown chapters—only introducing us to the Halidom storyline in breakdown chapter five, after Robin and Merry have already escaped View-Halloo. In the published book McGraw leaves Robin and Merry captives of the Fox hunters (keeping the reader in suspense) while she introduces us to the Halidom storyline—only returning to View Halloo to free Robin and Merry after the Halidom group is already off on their adventure.

McGraw developed a tight timeline for the story. She wanted the actions of Robin and Merry breaking free of the merry-go-round in Oregon to coincide with the theft of Circlet Two in Halidom. She also needed the story to end on the Saturday night before Easter so the Oz celebrities could return to the Emerald City for the Easter Egg Hunt the next morning. There are many notations in the chapter breakdown marking the time of day and number of nights on the road—even including a small calendar showing that the story begins on a Wednesday morning. Eventually McGraw found she needed one extra night in Oz and she changed the McGudgeys’ visit to the carnival in chapter one from Wednesday morning to Tuesday night. These notations are likely from late in the writing process, as in one of the complete manuscripts the action still begins on “a fine April Saturday.” McGraw changed it to “a fine April evening” in the published book. This timeline is verified by a careful reading of the book, marking down nights on the road, and by Sir Greves’s mentioning that his betrayal of Halidom had occurred “last Tuesday.”[v] 

There is also a forty-page outline that closely follows the book as we know it. Many times sentences of description in the outline are repeated without change in the published book. But there are a few subtle differences between this outline and the book: in the outline Robin’s training in View-Halloo was administered by a Whip (the Prime Minister) who seems to be human; in the published book the trainer has become Spots, the dog. In the outline Troth’s chief industry was making musical instruments, training musicians, composition, etc., and Halidom’s specialty was the Science of Genealogy, which morphed briefly into manuscript illumination; in the published book Troth has become a maker of Blue Armor and Halidom a designer of Coats of Arms (though Halidom still has a University of Genealogy). Fess’s friend and fellow page, Barry, was originally two stable boys named Bodkin and Scutcheon, Sir Greves had a wife, and at the end of the outline King Herald gave the Unicorn to Fess as a present. And the Roundabout delicacy, Pi, was originally called, rather clunkily, pi R2.  

The manuscript was submitted to Reilly & Lee through McGraw’s agent, Marilyn Marlow[vi], and the editorial correspondence begins on March 27, 1963, when Reilly & Lee editor Maxine Rieckhoff[vii] writes McGraw: “Congratulations to you and Lauren on the fine job you did on Merry Go Round of Oz! [sic] I am delighted with the manuscript.” Rieckhoff continues, “The most urgent problem facing us now is the selection of an illustrator. Our sales manager insists that the illustrations must be in the classic Oz style, but there is some dissension about that.”

Cover of The Littlest Star (1961)

The dissension was in part Rieckhoff’s strong dislike of the work of Dick Martin, especially the four 1961 Oz abridgements, which according to Martin she found “a little too wild and wooly.”[viii] Jean Kellogg, who had written the adaptations of The Visitors from Oz and the four Oz abridgements, interceded for Martin, suggesting that Rieckhoff look at Martin’s more delicate work in The Littlest Star (1961). Martin did a few sample illustrations that in his own words, “curbed [his] natural tendency toward slam-bam flamboyance . . .”[ix]

But before Martin was hired, the McGraws weighed in on the illustrator debate on April 1, 1963: “Laurie and I both side with your sales manager on the matter of illustrations. As old Oz fans, we find it impossible to imagine Ozma or the Cowardly Lion or Dorothy pictured in some new (possibly improved) way. In this we are reacting as children, who are rock-ribbed conservatives in such matters. . . . It seems to me the book wouldn’t seem like a real Oz-book if the pictures were very different. I have not even seen any of the ‘new’ Oz-books (later than the Ruth Plumly Thompson ones) except Neill’s Scallywagons of Oz [sic].”

McGraw goes on to discuss the title of the book, which she explains is merely her working title. And gives Reilly & Lee a free hand at retitling the book. McGraw also mentions that “a couple of years ago my daughter, Laurie, drew a map of Oz.” The map was an “illustrated” map, Ragbad indicated by a patchwork quilt, Pumperdink by a portrait of Kabumpo, Monday Mountain by blue hills and a washtub, etc. “It’s charming and gave me the notion that just such a thing would be fun for the endpapers of the book. . . . Laurie’s map reverses the positions of the Munchkin Country and the Winkie Country[x] and contains a few other errors . . . [but] she or I can easily draw an accurate one.” 

On April 12, 1963, Rieckhoff wrote back with the first round of editorial suggestions. Rieckhoff felt they “could do with a little less of Howzatagin’s activities. . . . Perhaps his animal infirmary could be cut since it adds nothing to further the plot and the reader already has a good idea of the loneliness and kindliness of the old man.” She also thought the “sign bit” was a little overdone. In this letter we also find it is Rieckhoff who suggested merging the original two Emerald City chapters into one (the current Chapter Ten). This involved cutting a large section where McGraw introduced a number of Ozian celebrities that don’t otherwise figure in the book.

To Read Part II  Click Here

Special thanks to Lynn McGraw for sharing her memories of writing Merry Go Round in Oz; and thanks to Atticus Gannaway for sharing an image of the dust wrapper of The Littlest Star.

[i] Eloise Jarvis McGraw, “On Wearing Well” in The Baum Bugle 34, no. 3 (Winter 1990): 3-5.

[ii] Eloise Jarvis McGraw, “The Magic Land” in Childcraft: The How and Why Library, vol. 13, People to Know (Chicago: Field Enterprises Educational Corporation, 1964): 218-225.

[iii] Eloise Jarvis McGraw in a letter to the author, September 9, 1995.

[iv] Lauren Lynn McGraw in an email to the author, October 24, 2023. Lauren Lynn McGraw in a letter to the author, March 7, 1980.

[v] Sir Greves mentions this on page 276 of the book. Easter in 1963 fell on April 14th—thus Robin Brown's adventures (and the book) begin on April 9, 1963. McGraw likely shortened the story by several days—changing Saturday to the following Tuesday—because Robin can reach Roundabout only after the oracle gives Prince Gules’s party the verse about the “future” king.

[vi] Marilyn E. Marlow was a highly respected and influential literary agent. Her other clients included Robert Cormier, Jane Yolen, and S. E. Hinton, among many others.

[vii] Maxine Rieckhoff, born October 31, 1905, died May 19, 1986.

[viii] Dick Martin, “The Road to Reilly and Lee” in The Baum Bugle 27, no. 2 (Autumn 1983): 4.

[ix] Ibid.

[x] Wagner’s map, in fact, had the positions correct, with the Munchkins in the east and the Winkies in the west. But McGraw, following Thompson’s compass directions, assumed her daughter’s map was in error.

1 comment:

AMWise said...

I am so glad that so much of the composition of Merry Go Round has been documented because it shows what a fine achievement the resulting book is. It does make me wonder, however, what Baum and Thompson's processes were like.