I recently discussed chapter two of L. Frank Baum’s The Wizard of Oz and I think I noticed something funny. Baum really developed a world where anything is possible right from the start of his book, and he was able to do it in just a few short pages. This is of course astounding because the term worldbuilding has such a weight in literary circles. I mean, there are authors who are synonymous with worldbuilding: Isaac Asimov, George R.R. Martin, Terry Pratchett, and Robert E. Howard (to name a few).
Nevertheless, classic children’s literature from Roald Dahl’s BFG to E.B. White’s Stuart Little bring the reader into the world with a skillful efficiency, too, and there is definitely something to learn from their ability, which is precisely why I wanted to take a look at the first few chapters of The Wizard of Oz to show you how worldbuilding works in children’s literature and how that can help you as a writer, whether you are just writing for fun or working on your magnum opus.
What is worldbuilding?
As it is always appropriate to define terminology, worldbuilding is exactly what it sounds like—the act of building fictional worlds in literature. I think the following passage from an article about empathy in Cormac McCarthy’s The Road just about sums up the importance of creating this worldbuilding reality in an author’s work:
“A reader’s experience of narrative empathy is closely related to the reception phenomenon of immersion, the phenomenological experience of being transported into a fictional world while in the act of reading” (White).
Thus, worldbuilding is the feeling that we are having realistic experiences in a fictional world, and that the world around us is a living, breathing thing that can be touched and interacted with if only in our minds.
“Empirical evidence confirms that readers respond to written narratives at a bodily level through perceptual simulations triggered by the act of reading” (White).
These “perceptual simulations” allow us to see Uncle Henry and Aunt Em in all their dreariness, or the cyclone on the horizon, or the munchkin council aside the good witch in Oz. The reader feels the reality.
How L. Frank Baum creates this reality
It is not just the empathy of the characters we are worried about, but the empathy of the world, too, as the sense of immersion that readers often gravitate toward are ones that they can relate to through their own reality; and this is offered by Baum in The Wizard of Oz. In other words, the reader needs to feel an experience when they read, and, for a writer, that is not always easy to convey through text.
However, let us look at an example from The Wizard of Oz:
“Their house was small, for the lumber to build it had to be carried by wagon many miles. There were four walls, a floor and a roof, which made one room; and this room contained a rusty looking cooking stove, a cupboard for the dishes, a table, three or four chairs, and the beds” (Baum).
We do not need a full description of the land to tell us about the world that Dorothy lives in, even though it is extremely close to our own reality. Kansas, during Dorothy’s lifetime, was nearly uninhabited (or at least neighbors were fairly nonexistent) and Baum’s descriptions tell us about the difficulty of building, living, and finding joy in this place. Though, we do not need eight pages of descriptions of grass and the lack of trees and the gray sky and what Uncle Henry is wearing and how Dorothy looks to understand that fact. All we need is a strong description of the scarcity of Kansas, and suddenly, we are there. We understand the family, the economics, and we could possibly guess why Dorothy’s family ventured out into that sparse country.
Furthermore, when Dorothy arrives in Oz in chapter two, we do not get much of a description of the world. Is this the fault of the author? I do not think so. I believe Baum has bigger fish to fry through the interactions between Dorothy, the munchkins, and the good witch.
“There were lovely patches of green sward all about, with stately trees bearing rich and luscious fruits. Banks of gorgeous flowers were on every hand, and birds with rare and brilliant plumage sang and fluttered in the trees and bushes. A little way off was a small brook, rushing and sparkling along between green banks, and murmuring in a voice very grateful to a little girl who had lived so long on the dry, gray prairies.”
In providing contrast, Baum has realized his world in a way that is both efficient and creative (here is the opposite of what is known to Dorothy). Similarly, he describes the munchkins as “oddly dressed” with “round hats that rose to a small point a foot above their heads, with little bells around the brims that tinkled sweetly as they moved” (Baum). After a short comparison of these munchkins to Uncle Henry and of the witch to Aunt Em, the conversation begins, and Dorothy learns about the death of the Wicked Witch of the East and where she must go to return to Kansas.
Baum expertly builds his world through sparse description and dialogue, and I think that the one thing we can learn as writers is the following: less is more. What this means is that when you feel as though you need to describe the world and everybody in it, maybe take a moment to consider how using less description (and more concise description) could benefit the reality in your stories.
Baum, L. Frank. “The Wizard of Oz the First Five Novels.” Fall River Press, 2014.
WHITE, CHRISTOPHER T. “EMBODIED READING AND NARRATIVE EMPATHY IN CORMAC MCCARTHY’S ‘THE ROAD.’” Studies in the Novel, vol. 47, no. 4, 2015, pp. 532–549. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/26365200. Accessed 14 July 2021.