Frank L. Baum’s The Wizard of Oz is a story that is so firmly entrenched in our culture that the story can be brought to the forefront of anyone’s mind by simply mentioning “cowardly lion,” “flying monkeys,” or “tin woodsman.” To do an original story that heavily borrows from Baum’s universe is to invite one’s original story to be saddled with a Yellow Brick Road’s worth of baggage and expectations. In a world where “reimaginings” can turn off readers, it’s risky to relate your story to anything from Oz. Luckily, writer and illustrator Justin Madson avoids this in his work Tin Man by plunking a very familiar Tin Man in a very different Oz.
This Oz doesn’t have the glistening emerald spires; what it does have is an image very similar to small-town middle America, one that has very few opportunities for kids like Solar and Finn. Solar was once on her way to a promising career working on rockets, but after the death of her grandmother, she suddenly decides to stay in her hometown. Instead of helping her little brother Finn build his rocketship, she hangs out with a crowd of bad influences. Enter Campbell, a tin woodsman who leaves his forest after receiving a heart he got by mail. Campbell stays in Finn’s treehouse to learn how to be human, while Solar and Finn learn what they truly want out of life.
The cover of the book, from the image of a hand constructed of tin to the yellow brick background, is meant to invoke The Wizard of Oz, but any reader focusing on Baum’s story might miss what Madson’s story does right. There are a few nods here and there, such as Campbell actually meeting a woman named Dorothy, but Madson manages to create a wholly separate coming-of-age tale generously sprinkled with magical realism. Magical realism works when the magical elements are not substitutes for the emotion and conflict in a story. That is exemplified by Campbell learning the nuances of his new heart and learning his place in the world. This parallel, of course, is established among the brother and sister as well. .
Madson’s artwork also adds its own charm to this story. The lines and shapes are simple, almost like they could step from a children’s picture book, but the story they tell isn’t necessarily sheer whimsy. There are discussions of grief as well as the pain of not belonging, and the art adds the perfect kind of juxtaposition. Madson doesn’t need to depict the gloriously beautiful gleaming towers and dark forests where things worse than cowardly lions creep. His story is serviced by his rendition of a Midwestern town that has seen better days and that isn’t as hospitable to dreams as the place another Dorothy visited.
The book would make a fine addition to any Young Adult collection because it skirts the line between being born from a children’s classic and dealing with some serious themes. In collections that have lots of superheroes, space aliens, or Anime-inspired action, this coming-of-age tale can be a surprising breath of fresh air.
By Justin Madson
Publisher Age Rating: 9 and up
NFNT Age Recommendation: Middle Grade (7-11), Older Teen (16-18), Teen (13-16)