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The other wizard of 'Oz'

Children's lit expert Michael Patrick Hearn has a career path on the yellow brick road

NEW YORK - Wizards? Magical doings? A phenomenally popular series? Devoted readers of all ages?

Long before "Harry Potter," there were the Oz books.

Most people know Oz through the 1939 movie musical, "The Wizard of Oz." Yet L. Frank Baum's "The Wonderful Wizard of Oz" sold 5 million copies before it went into the public domain in 1956 and has kept on selling. It was so popular that Baum went on to write another 13 books about the magical land where Dorothy and Toto follow the Yellow Brick Road and find witches, Munchkins, and a multitude of other fantastical inhabitants.

The Oz titles have attracted countless readers in the 100 years since the first was published. A surprising number of those readers went on to become writers: James Thurber, Ray Bradbury, Gore Vidal, William Styron, Salman Rushdie. Among them is Michael Patrick Hearn. The Oz books have perhaps had no greater fan. Certainly, none is more knowledgeable.

"There's nobody alive who knows more about the Oz books than Michael does," says Susan Bloom, director of the Children's Literature Program at Simmons College, where each fall Hearn teaches a course on picture books.

Twenty-seven years ago, as a college undergraduate, Hearn published "The Annotated Wizard of Oz." Now, having given the keynote speech at the International Wizard of Oz convention in Bloomington, Ind., this summer, he's come out with a new, much-expanded centennial edition.

Oz to academe

Hearn, 50, is working on a biography of Baum. He has "no idea" how many times he's read the book or seen the movie. He does know that he was 10 when he joined the Wizard of Oz Club, having first read the book two years before.

"It was my sister who got me interested in reading the series," he says. "She brought them home from the library, and I borrowed them." Already an omnivorous reader, he now had a literary star to steer by.

"I'm the old man of Baum scholarship," Hearn says with a smile. In the three decades he has been writing about Oz, Hearn has seen a complete transformation in attitudes toward a book that was once dismissed as trash and frequently removed from library shelves.

" `The Wizard of Oz' is taught in colleges now," Hearns says. "It's considered a classic."

Baum himself is the one most responsible for that change - not just because he wrote the Oz books but also because of the approach he took to his readers, which helped make those books a pivotal event in children's literature.

"When he said in the introduction that he was writing a book to please children, rather than to instruct or enlighten, that was quite a radical idea," Hearn explains. "People bought books for kids either for morality or history. Baum just wanted to entertain them and write a good story."

Hearn's interests extend far beyond Oz. A leading authority on children's literature, he has published annotated editions of "A Christmas Carol" and "Huckleberry Finn," as well as books on subjects ranging from Victorian fairy tales to contemporary children's book illustration. He's even published his own children's book, "The Porcelain Cat."

"Michael's knowledge is immense," says Hilary Knight, the illustrator of Kay Thompson's "Eloise" books and a longtime friend of Hearn's. "He is the first one I would go to to find some scholarly fact."

Almost as impressive as Hearn's knowledge is the fact that he operates with almost no institutional support. "He works best independently, at his desk," says Susan Bloom. "I just don't know how he makes ends meet."

Odd jobs

Hearn, who lives on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, has taught at Columbia, as well as Simmons. But he mostly moonlights as an academic. Much more of his time has been devoted to cataloging private art collections, appraising rare books, lecturing, reviewing, and other writing projects.

In addition to the Baum biography, Hearn is revising his "Annotated Huckleberry Finn" and working on a study of Russian children's literature. And those are just the jobs relating to books and art.

"I was on a soap opera at one point as an extra," Hearn says with a half-grimace, half-grin. "It was exhausting. You just sit around waiting for things to be set up, then they tell you what to do. All night. It went on and on and on. But probably the worst job was reading scripts for Jane Fonda. The scripts were pretty awful. I'm very proud that I rejected Chris Columbus's first screenplay, called `Reckless.' I thought it was dreadful. Now, he's directing [the film adaptation of] `Harry Potter.' "

Hearn gives a bemused shrug. This is the sort of quirky fact his resume is filled with. He rejected Columbus's script - and Columbus went on to direct box-office smashes such as "Home Alone" and "Mrs. Doubtfire." Hearn doesn't have an MA or PhD - yet he addressed the first Modern Language Association convention to have a panel on children's literature. He had a book reviewed on the front page of The New York Times Book Review, the first "Annotated Wizard of Oz" - and he was still an undergraduate at Bard College. When Hearn dropped off the manuscript, he overheard the publisher ask, "How old is he?"

Wiz kid

Such precocity didn't seem out of place at Bard. Among his classmates were the composer Elizabeth Swados and novelist Michael Tolkin ("The Player"). A few years ahead of him were the actor-comedian Chevy Chase, jazz writer and producer James Isaacs, and Donald Fagen and Walter Becker, of Steely Dan fame.

Hearn's passion for children's literature can be seen as having sprung from the biggest personal contradiction of all. His father was a Marine; and when asked if his choosing so gentle a subject to study wasn't a reaction against growing up in a military family, he readily agrees. He also notes that much the same can be said of Baum, who rebelled against going to military school and misses few opportunities in the Oz books to make fun of military behavior.

The crowning contradiction is that someone so dedicated to children's literature should himself be childless.

But that hasn't kept Hearn from being able to appreciate, and even accept, the vagaries of youthful literary taste.

"No, I'm not married. I've got five nieces, though. They're getting a little too old now. They're teenagers. They're too cool for their Uncle Michael." Hearn laughs.

"They usually read to me, rather than me read to them. They like to show off their ability to read. Kids are like that. I remember being at a friend's house, and they wanted me to read to their little girl at bedtime. `Why don't you have Michael read you "The Porcelain Cat"?' So I sat down and said, `You don't really want me to read this, do you? What do you really want me to read?' She pulled out `Walt Disney's Little Mermaid.' "

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