Who Stole the Wizard of Oz? by Avi, 1981.
One summer, Toby and his twin sister Becky see the police go to their local library. To the children’s surprise, Mrs. Brattle, the librarian, phones their house and asks Becky to come down to the library and bring one of her parents. The children’s parents aren’t home, so Becky and Toby go. Mrs. Brattle doesn’t seem to want to say much over the phone, only that The Wizard of Oz was stolen, and they need to talk to Becky.
As Becky and Toby walk down to the library from their house, which isn’t far, Becky says that shortly before school let out for the summer, Becky’s teacher for sixth grade next fall handed out a summer reading assignment. The kids have to write two book reports over the summer, and the books can’t be mysteries, fantasies, or romantic adventures. Miss McPhearson, the sixth grade teacher, believes in only factual books. However, Becky decided that the best thing to do was to get the book reports over as soon as possible, so she went to the library. (Toby wasn’t involved because he has a different teacher.) While she was there, she decided that she’d check out The Wizard of Oz for Toby, knowing that he likes fantasy books, but she was told that it was already checked out. Mrs. Brattle told her that there would be a book sale at the library tomorrow and that she had a copy of The Wizard of Oz that Becky could buy for five cents, but since the librarian wouldn’t sell her the book that day and Becky didn’t want to make a special trip to the library the next day, she turned down the offer.
When they come to the library, the policeman accuses Becky of stealing the copy of The Wizard of Oz that the librarian showed her as well as some other children’s books. According to the librarian, the books were actually valuable collector’s copies, worth thousands of dollars. Becky asks the librarian why she offered to sell her one for nickel if they were so valuable and Mrs. Brattle says that it was a mistake. The policeman says that if Becky has the books, she can return them now, and there will be no problem, but Becky is insulted and insists that she didn’t take them. In the face of Becky’s denial, the policeman says that there isn’t much that he can do because there is only the librarian’s word that the books were valuable, and she doesn’t deny that she earlier tried to sell them for five cents each. Missing children’s books worth less than a dollar isn’t exactly a police problem. (I’d like to say here that I was very glad that the policeman took that attitude. I hate those children’s books where adults not only falsely accuse children of doing things that they didn’t do but also make petty incidents seem like major crimes. The policeman is correct that there is no proof that the books were as valuable as the librarian says and that this evaluation of their worth comes only after their sudden disappearance and after she was offering to sell them very cheaply.)
Even though the matter seems to be dropped for the moment, it bothers Becky that the librarian still thinks that she might have taken the books. She suggests to Toby that they could investigate and try to find out what really happened to the books. The first thing that they decide to do is to look for the original owner of the books. After inspecting other children’s books at the sale and looking at the names in the front covers, they decide that Gertrude Tobias is the most likely former owner because many of the other books at the sale belonged to her. Unfortunately, Gertrude Tobias died a few months ago. However, it turns out that her niece is Miss McPhearson. Becky hurriedly finishes her book reports so that she and her brother will have an excuse to visit Miss McPhearson and ask her about the books.
When they ask Miss McPhearson about her aunt, she calls her aunt a “foolish woman” who “didn’t know any better.” However, she refuses to explain any further what she means, and the children see her crying before they leave.
When the children speak to Mrs. Chesterton, they get a very different picture of Miss McPhearson’s aunt. When Gertrude Tobias was a young woman, she was wealthy could have gotten married if she wanted to, but most of the young men didn’t like women who seemed too smart, and Miss Tobias prided herself on her intelligence and cleverness. She resented the idea that adults seemed to want women to play dumb to get a husband, so she refused to get married and spent most of her time in the company of children. Mrs. Chesterton remembers her saying, “Children like me smart. Grown-ups want me stupid.” She liked to read children’s books, and she often volunteered to read books to children at the library. The children liked her and often confided in her, just like she was their aunt. She spent a lot of her money buying children’s books for her collection. Mrs. Chesterton says that Miss Tobias and her niece never really got along well and that Miss McPhearson used to tease her aunt about her love of children’s books. However, Miss Tobias was rich, and Miss McPhearson didn’t have much money at all. Miss Tobias told her that she would leave her all of her “treasure.” When she died, it turned out that she had left her niece five children’s books – the five that are now missing. The others were willed to the library.
At first, the picture seems like it’s becoming more clear: Miss Tobias had one last joke on her niece by giving her valuable children’s books that Miss McPhearson thought were worthless simply because they were children’s books, and the person who took them recognized what they were worth. However, the situation is actually more complicated than that. A series of strange break-ins have been occurring around town. Nothing else has been taken, but someone is clearly searching for something. Miss Tobias was clever, and her books have an even deeper meaning than most people have realized. To learn Miss Tobias’ secret, Toby and Becky have to learn the secrets of the books themselves.
I really loved the puzzle in this book! There were parts that I got before the kids did and parts that they realized before I did. It isn’t a kind of puzzle that readers call fully solve before the characters in the book because it requires knowledge of their home town to get the full answer.
As an unmarried, childless adult who also enjoys children’s books, I could kind of sympathize with Miss Tobias. Children’s books, like some adults, are often very clever but go unappreciated by people who underrate them for what they appear to be. For example, Through the Looking Glass, which was one of the books featured in the story, involves a game of chess. The author, Lewis Carroll (real name Charles Dodgson), was a mathematician. His books are full of word games and logic puzzles, and the chess game described in Through the Looking Glass is an actual chess game that can be played with real pieces on a real board with a definite ending square, where Alice the pawn becomes Alice the queen (one of the clues to solving the final mystery in this book). To many adults who only know the basic story of Alice, it might just seem like a silly, nonsense children’s story, but they miss the real, clever puzzles planted in the story, just like Miss McPhearson did with her aunt’s legacy.
In the end of the story, Miss McPhearson never learns the truth about her aunt’s legacy, just as her aunt knew she would miss it. Toby and Becky come to an understanding with the real thief about Miss Tobias’ treasure that allows the library to benefit from the legacy, which is something that Miss Tobias would have appreciated. Miss McPhearson decides to give up teaching and leaves town to find another job, working with computers, a very “adult” field indeed. It’s only a pity that she wasn’t mature enough to behave nicely with her aunt and not tease her, so that her aunt would be more generous with her. People who play childish games are sometimes surprised when they meet a better game player.
Like Miss Tobias, I have little patience for people who try too hard to be “adult” or are too concerned with whether certain things are right for adults to do, especially when they show their immature sides in other ways. In the story, Miss McPhearson makes a point of being “adult” in all situations, but she wasn’t above childishly taunting an older woman about her hobbies and still expecting that woman to leave her all of her money. It reminds me of the kids I knew in elementary school who liked to act really grown up at age ten. Kids go through a phase where they start talking about doing grown-up things like having first boyfriends and girlfriends and wearing makeup and watching adult tv shows and listening to adult music, but in between doing all of that, they still act like childish brats because what they’re doing is trying on the trappings of adulthood without the real substance. Until they get some real maturity and better behavior, they’re just kids playing dress-up. Sometimes, I think that some people never quite leave that phase, which is how I view the character of Miss McPhearson.
I think of this every time I hear some adult my age or older talking about how real adults drink alcohol or real women wear high heels and lipstick. To hear them talk, there are quite a lot of rules to being grown up that very few people I know actually follow. Alcohol is expensive, plenty of people abstain for health or religious reasons, and driving drunk certainly isn’t mature behavior. High heels damage your feet the more you wear them, and I’ve forgotten how much makeup I’ve thrown away because, most days, I’m just too busy to even think about putting it on, and they eventually dry out and get gross. To my way of thinking, if you really are an adult and you know who and what you are, you have nothing to prove. If you aren’t mature as a person, things like high heels and lipstick aren’t going to help you, and alcohol just lowers your inhibitions and makes the immaturity more obvious. Maturity is a way of looking at things, assessing situations, and acting accordingly. It can be difficult to define, but you know it when you see someone living it, not just looking the part. Real adults don’t need to “act” like adults at all times because they aren’t “acting,” they’re just being themselves, confident that they are mature enough to handle what life throws at them along the way.
The book is currently available online through Internet Archive.