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April 23, 2014

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North Las Vegas author keeps great-grandfather’s Oz alive

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Leila Navidi

Author Roger Baum stands in his North Las Vegas home on Friday, Jan. 25, 2013. Roger Baum is the great-grandson of L. Frank Baum, the creator of the “Oz” series.

Roger Baum

Author Roger Baum, seen Friday, Jan. 25, 2013, is the great-grandson of L. Frank Baum, the creator of the Launch slideshow »

The Wizard of Oz lives in a home at the northernmost reaches of North Las Vegas.

It’s a humble single-story home, built like all the others in its gated subdivision. There is no yellow brick road to follow, and he doesn’t try to scare off visitors with a booming, floating head. But this is where the man who makes the world of Oz come to life in the imagination of children everywhere lives.

His name is Roger Baum, though he has most kids call him Mr. Oz, and his grandkids know him as Papa Oz. He looks and acts the part of the wizard with thinning gray hair, a grandfatherly voice that evokes both wisdom and modesty, and an inviting laugh.

He is the great-grandson of the series’ creator, L. Frank Baum. In 1900, L. Frank Baum wrote his first of 13 Oz books, “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz,” creating one of the most iconic American tales of all time.

Since 1989, Roger Baum has carried on his great-grandfather’s legacy, publishing 15 of his own Oz books, with a 16th — “The Oz Enigma” — expected to arrive in March. His first book, “Dorothy of Oz,” also is in production to become an animated film starring Lea Michele, Dan Aykroyd and Kelsey Grammer, among others.

Along the way, Baum has worked to stay true to the core principles his great-grandfather engendered and to introduce new generations of children to the classic fairy tale.

“(My) biggest challenge has been to not insult Oz fans,” Baum said. “There’s a certain magnetic feeling connected to the love, heart and courage in the books. I try to keep that theme with no violence.”

Baum’s home office pays homage to the world his great-grandfather created. A Yellow Brick Road street sign marks the entrance. Inside he has Oz picture frames and Oz figurines with Dorothy, Toto and Glinda the Good Witch; his walls are decorated with Oz posters and a movie poster for "Dorothy of Oz." In his bookshelf he keeps his prized book — a tattered copy of his great-grandfather's book "Land of Oz" dedicated to him by his great-grandmother.

Baum initially refused to write Oz books out of fear that it would be too presumptuous of him. It wasn’t until a friend challenged him during a dinner that he changed his mind.

He wrote “Dorothy of Oz” in a spiral-bound notebook. He took the manuscript everywhere and almost lost his only copy when he drove off with it on the roof of the car. If he hadn’t found it in a gutter on the side of the road, he says, he would have given up.

Instead, luck was on his side. He sent the manuscript to a publishing company that later was bought out by HarperCollins Publishers, and editors fell in love with it. Since then, he has churned out 15 more books.

He hand-writes each one in spiral notebooks, which now fill his closet. He starts each one with a beginning and end in mind; everything in between flows from his imagination. It’s allowed him to create worlds where there are talking trees and boats, magical devices that can see the good and bad in someone, and obstacles to overcome.

It hasn’t been easy writing Oz, Baum said. He is acutely aware that every adventure he takes Dorothy and company on must live up to the standard and values his great-grandfather set. His wife, Charlene Baum, said her husband has had many sleepless nights worrying about a book, wanting it to be just right.

She said his books haven’t been as embraced as his great-grandfather’s, but she hopes the movie will introduce new children to the series.

“We’ve been married 26 years now,” Charlene Baum said. “I’m so proud finally one of his books is going to make it to the big screen, just that he’s going to get to see this and everyone is going to get to see. Kind of putting out more Oz for the newer generation.”

Still, all the pain and stress of writing is worth it for the children he reaches, Roger Baum said. There is a poster in his bedroom of Albert Einstein with the quote, “Imagination is more important than knowledge.” It’s his favorite quote, and it serves as his motivation for continuing the Oz series.

“I want people to remain as individuals so they can be the Einsteins of the future and choose what area of life they want to endeavor in,” Baum said.

Baum, who also is a substitute teacher with the Clark County School District, said imagination and creativity are among the most important characteristics children can have.

When he thinks about what kind of legacy he wants his books to leave, he digs out a thank-you note in his office. It was written to him in the bubbly handwriting of an elementary schoolgirl. She thanked Baum for teaching her to be an individual and to use her imagination.

“I’m so proud of those types of things,” Baum said of the letter. “They strike you no matter how long you’ve been writing.”

Baum doesn’t know how many more books he plans to write. For now, he hopes to continue to give the gift of love, courage, heart and imagination to children everywhere through the world of Oz.

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