Banned Books Awareness: “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz”

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When someone mentions The Wizard of Oz many no doubt imagine families gathered around the television to share in the full-color glory of this timeless classic; but did you know that the book that the beloved movie is adapted from has been in the sights of censors since it was published? The common accusations are that it is “unwholesome” and “ungodly.”

L. Frank Baum’s tale was originally published in 1900 and adapted into a stage play in 1902 before arriving on the silver screen in 1939. It remains one of the most well known American literary works over a century later.

The New York Times praised the novel in a September 1900 review, writing that it “would appeal to child readers and to younger children who could not read yet.” The review also applauded the illustrations for being a “pleasant complement to the text.”

Nevertheless, it has come under attack several times. Ministers and educators challenged it for its “ungodly” influence and for depicting women in strong leadership roles. They opposed not only children reading it, but adults as well, lest it undermine longstanding gender roles.

In 1928, the city of Chicago banned it from all public libraries. In the 1950’s, Florida state librarian, Dorothy Dodd said the books were ‘unwholesome for children” and pushed to have them removed from all of the state’s libraries.

In 1957, the director of the Detroit Public Library banned The Wizard of Oz for having “no value for children of today,” for supporting “negativism”, and for “bringing children’s minds to a cowardly level.” Professor Russel B. Nye of Michigan State University publically responded that “if the message of the Oz books- that love, kindness, and unselfishness make the world a better place- has no value today, then maybe the time is ripe for reassess a good many other things besides the Detroit Library’s approved list of children’s books.”

In one of the most noted cases of censorship efforts against the book, seven Fundamentalist Christian families in Tennessee opposed the novel’s inclusion in the public school syllabus and filed a lawsuit in 1986 based on the novel’s depiction of benevolent witches and promoting the belief that essential human attributes were “individually developed rather than God given.”

On the charge of including good witches in the story, they argued that all witches are bad, therefore it is “theologically impossible” for good witches to exist.

HUH?!!

One parent said, “I do not want my children seduced into godless supernaturalism,” accusing the book of teaching children to be self-reliant rather than dependent on God to see them through difficult times. Other reasons for the opposition included the novel teaching that females are equal to males and that animals are personified and can speak.

The presiding judge ruled that rather than remove the book, the children were allowed to be excused from lesson plans centered on the novel. When they appealed the decision to the United States Supreme Court, the court refused to hear the case. The group’s lawyers advised all “God-fearing Christians to remove their children from public schools.”

In 2004 both Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson conspired to get the movie banned from broadcast on public television because of “moral turpitude.” Robertson would publically state that “The Almighty told me that flying monkeys and witches are an affront to all good Christians.”

When asked at the time if either had ever seen the movie or read the book, they denied, saying that they “feared ungodly influence.”

I guess it’s better to be influenced by uneducated opinion and superstitious vitriol.

The book has even been used on the political spectrum, with some claiming that it promotes socialist and Marxist values due to its perceived lack of a divine presence.

Some librarians have also interpreted the book as a parody of American imperialism and racism. They rejected the author’s introductory explanation as an American fairy tale to encourage children to cherish life’s joyous wonderment, going so far as to describe the book as a “foolishly sentimental, poorly written, sensational, untrue-to-life, and unwholesome book.”

In an article posted by Professor Quentin Taylor of Rogers State University, it is argued that far from being a story to entertain children, The Wizard of Oz is actually an allegory for economics, politics, and 1890’s Populism.

In this modern age of YouTube and DVRs nothing ever gets lost, much to the chagrin of many politicians; but in the 1970’s something could be seen by millions and then disappear, never to be seen again, to be spoken about only as an urban legend. Such was the case of a fabled 1976 episode of Sesame Street, which featured Margaret Hamilton famously reprising her role as the Wicked Witch.

It wasn’t matter of a lost reel. The reason was far more bewildering- the Wicked Witch was deemed “too scary for the children watching the show.”

In the episode, the Wicked Witch is flying over Sesame Street when she drops her broom. David, a law student working at Mr. Hooper’s store, finds it. The Witch demands it back, threatening to turn Big Bird into a feather duster. Meanwhile, Oscar the Grouch becomes lovesick for the nasty witch.

She spends the episode trying to get the broom back, even going so far as to disguise herself as a kindly old woman. There’s even am inside joke when Mr. Hooper offers the Witch a cup of coffee and she tells him she can’t stand the stuff. Hamilton was appearing in Maxwell House commercials at the time the show aired.

According to information on the Muppet Wiki, the episode prompted a high volume of negative mail from parents. Typical responses included concerns that their children were afraid and now refused to watch the show, using such phrases as “screams and tears” and “the threat of the witch’s power remains in children’s eyes.”

A somewhat unusual response even came from a Wiccan viewer concerned with the perpetuation of a negative fairy tale stereotype and recommended a segment portraying witches as they really are in the modern world.

Due to the overwhelming reaction, additional test screenings were held from March 1 through the 5th, “to assess children’s reactions.”

Wow, I was three years old at the time and probably saw the episode myself. But, I digress…

The viewings indicated that that children were “exceptionally attentive during the Margaret Hamilton segments,” and those who watched the episode in color were fascinated by her green face. The issue of fear was difficult to fully judge, however, due to confusing answers and the fact that the children were surrounded by their peers and adults, and not watching alone. Despite all of the available information, Anna Herera of the Children’s Television Workshop Research Department suggested that “the Margaret Hamilton show not be re-run.”

What’s surprising is that Hamilton appeared as herself, albeit dressed up as a witch, a year earlier for Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. The footage has found a home and new life on YouTube.

Baum wrote The Wizard of Oz with no intentions of a sequel; but after reading the novel, thousands of children wrote letters to him requesting that he continue the story. In 1904, he published the first sequel, The Marvelous Land of Oz, explaining that he reluctantly wrote the sequel to address the popular demand. He would write sequels in 1907, 1908, and 1909. In 1911’s The Emerald City of Oz he wrote that he could not continue writing sequels because “Ozland had lost contact with the rest of the world.” Children refused to accept this so Baum wrote a sequel every year from 1913 until his death in 1919.

For more information on the Banned Books Awareness and Reading for Knowledge project and the complete list of titles covered, please visit the official website at http://www.deepforestproductions.com/BBARK.html

Sources: Wikipedia, Christian Science Monitor, About.com
© 2013 R. Wolf Baldassarro/Deep Forest Productions

13 thoughts on “Banned Books Awareness: “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz”

  1. While I do agree that there are no good witches, I think we have to take the book as a whole before we decide to trash it because we disagree with a small portion it. And just because I think there are no good witches doesn’t mean no one should get to read it. I think that libraries should have the right to choose what books they carry in them, but censoring a book like this in a broad sense is not a logical decision. Censorship is a very dangerous idea, because we all feel more qualified than the next guy to decide what is best. So who gets to decide? Whoever makes the loudest racket? By the way, I actually found out that The Wizard of Oz first reached the big screen in 1925 with a whole different cast, but it was largely forgotten.

  2. David,
    Thank you for your comment and your opinion. It is much appreciated and I hope you enjoyed not just this article, but find the entire series educational.
    You are quite right! So often those who oppose these books nitpick and choose a single word, phrase, or page and react by grabbing the torches of censorship, demanding the whole be banned. This is arrogant, short sighted, and sad.
    Normally I would not engage in discussion of this topic, but it is relevant to the topic so I will make an exception.
    I am curious why you are of the opinion that there’s “no such thing as a good witch.” I am a practicing Wiccan and active in the Pagan community; I consider myself a very good person- albeit with the normal flaws that any human can and does have at times.
    I would like to know how much actual, personal exposure you have had to those of pagan faiths and what facts you use to base your assumptions on “good” versus “bad” witches.

    Thank You,
    R. Wolf Baldassarro

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