Wicked writers discuss book challenges as Oz in firing line

Wicked writers discuss book challenges as Oz in firing line

by Suswati Basu
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Wicked writers speak to the Authors Guild about book challenges

For over a century, “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz” has been a literary classic, but it has also faced its fair share of book bans and challenges. In modern times, Gregory Maguire’s revisionist novel “Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West” and its immensely popular musical adaptation have encountered similar censorship issues across the United States. Recently, Maguire, the author of “Wicked,” and Winnie Holzman, the screenwriter of the musical adaptation, “Wicked,” joined a conversation with the Authors Guild about the cultural significance of the Land of Oz and the reasons behind the book challenges backlash these beloved stories have faced.

Gregory Maguire’s journey into children’s literature

The New York Times bestselling author’s love for literature, born from his early exposure to books through a library card, shaped his passion for writing for children. Raised in a family of seven children, books became a refuge for him in an otherwise restricted upbringing as his father had “collapsed our liberties.”

“We were not a prosperous family. Nor was my father well educated formally, although he was an autodidact. What we were was a family that relished the written word and the spoken word.”

Gregory Maguire

His deep appreciation for the writers who provided this solace led him to dedicate his creative talents to children’s literature, having lived in an “Edwardian” style repressed existence to the point he was only allowed to ride a bicycle when he was 16-years-old. He recognised the profound impact books can have on vulnerable young readers, offering them solace, encouragement, and a break from life’s challenges.

“That freedom of the intellect, freedom of the imagination that a library card represented to people who otherwise were really rather seriously repressed, was the freedom that allowed me both to become a creator, but also to survive psychologically what might have been a hardship childhood in every other way.”

Gregory Maguire

Wicked: addressing book challenges

As the discussion shifted to “Wicked,” the novel’s challenges in various school districts due to perceived sexual content were addressed. Maguire, who is also professor and associate director of the Center for the Study of Children’s Literature at Simmons College, acknowledged the importance of selection committees in schools and public libraries, emphasising their role in determining what is appropriate for their specific communities. However, he highlighted the distinction between denying access and forcing engagement with a book, reiterating that nobody should be compelled to read something they find objectionable. “Wicked” was published as an adult novel, yet it resonated with a wide range of readers, including children and young adults.

“If the books are there, there is something to be learned from them. And you might not want to read them, fine, don’t read them if you don’t want to read them.”

Gregory Maguire

Defending freedom to read

As general counsel, Davis highlighted the Authors Guild’s commitment to defending the right to read and access books. They oppose legislation that overly restricts access to books based on arbitrary criteria, such as age. They believe in the importance of allowing readers to make their choices while advocating for thoughtful selection committees that consider the needs and preferences of their specific communities.

Read: Texas fights to enact parts of controversial book rating law

As a result, they have filed a number of lawsuits in Arkansas and Texas. Davis said: “Essentially, you could be 17 and a half, and the law would prevent you from getting access to a book because it would be inappropriate for a seven year old. We felt like that’s just overreaching.”

Wicked on the stage

Winnie Holzman, the writer of the musical “Wicked,” shared her experiences with the production, which has received widespread acclaim and acceptance. Despite addressing political and societal issues, the musical has been celebrated across different cultures and regions. Holzman called the wave of censorship “frightening,” bringing attention to the show’s themes of political manipulation, deception, and the empowerment of two young women standing up against a tyrannical leader. She noted that while some viewers grasp the political undertones, others may perceive it solely as an entertaining musical.

“The idea that books are being banned while guns are allowed so familiar to people in Texas, and other places, and guns are so widely available while books are being made unavailable, this is to me – it just speaks for itself.”

Winnie Holzman

Political themes in “Wicked”

The conversation turned to the political themes in “Wicked,” including the rise of fascism depicted in the story. Holzman pointed out that the story serves as a cautionary tale about leaders who manipulate their followers through hatred and divisiveness. She also mentioned that while some understand the political message, others may perceive the show differently, focusing solely on its entertainment value. She talked about rising fascism across the US, turning to Maguire saying “that fascist is actually the wizard of Oz.”

“Wicked” and a surprising visitor

A surprising anecdote emerged when Ted Cruz, a prominent political figure, attended a performance of “Wicked” in Texas. Holzman mentioned that Cruz’s tweet about enjoying the show may not have fully grasped the musical’s political subtext. The discussion concluded with the idea that while some viewers may miss the deeper themes, the power of storytelling allows each individual to interpret a work in their own way.

In a world where books continue to face challenges and bans, this conversation between Gregory Maguire and Winnie Holzman sheds light on the enduring significance of stories like “Wicked” and the importance of preserving the freedom to read and interpret literature in diverse ways.

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