The twentieth century opened with the publication of one of the greatest children’s fantasy novels ever: L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. Baum went on to write fourteen Oz novels in total, and they all hold up today. Other authors including Ruth Plumly Thompson and John R. Neill went on to write numerous other Oz books, some of them quite good, but Baum’s are the place to start.
Certainly there are faults in the Oz books. They are written for children, and may be too simple for more-sophisticated readers. Their poliics often reflect Baum’s time (and his own politics were, in some areas, rather reprehensible). Baum’s satirical jabs at academia and other institutions occasionally fall rather flat.
But Baum never loses his sense of wonder, and for novels written around the turn of the twentieth century his Oz books are an astonishing celebration of girl power. His Dorothy (unlike the simpering naïf Judy Garland plays in the film) kicks ass, and does so out of an unwavering commitment to a clear sense of morality and loyalty to those she sees as doing good. Ozma is a strong but sensitive ruler (and her role in the sometimes-controversial twist ending of The Marvelous Land of Oz might spark some interesting discussion). Other fully-realized, strong female characters include Billina the hen (the real hero of Ozma of Oz), Trot, and Eureka the kitten.
Baum’s Oz books were the first novels I ever read on my own, and I’ve also found they work well for reading to children who have just reached the age where they can appreciate hearing “chapter books” over the course of several days.