The Perils of Harry Potter (and how the whack-job book burners may have been sorta right)

In my first year teaching, one of my reading groups had chosen Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone as their shared book for that month. And boy did I catch hell from some parents. I got all kinds of nonsense  – from “the scar on his forehead is an obvious allusion to the Mark of the Beast”, to “I don’t want my child reading about witchcraft. I have a hard enough time controlling him as it is”, to “you shove a bunch of goddamned fantasies into these children’s heads and they won’t be able to know what’s real any more.”

Because I believe in books and I believe in Story (and I secretly believe in magic), I laughed off the parents’ concerns, and relegated their voices under the category of “Total Nuts That I Have To Put Up With.” I made some accommodations for the children whose parents wouldn’t budge, but mostly I just thought those parents were being silly – and I told them so.

And I never thought about their concerns again. Until recently.

Two thirds of my children are Harry Potter fanatics. They’ve read those books, re-read them, re-re-read them, and refer to specific passages as they correspond to particular events or decisions in their lives as sixth graders and third graders, respectively.

They can tell you, in exquisite detail, the points at which the movies diverge from the books; they can tell you – chapter and verse – the moments in the books in which character is revealed, in which clues are hidden, in which mysteries are unraveled. They have spent months assembling character-based costumes – both for Halloween, and just for fun – and have assumed the identities completely – Hermione, Bellatrix Lestrange, Mad-Eye Moody and Professor McGonagall. My children live in the Potterverse. Those books have seeped in through their fingers, permeated their bloodstreams, fed their dreams.

And maybe this is problematic.

My husband was driving my oldest home from a basketball game this weekend. As they drove past the snow-covered field, Ella glanced over at a black lab leaping upwards to snatch a red frisbee from the air. Her eyes widened and she let out a panicked gasp.

“OH MY GOSH!” she screamed.

My husband jolted in his seat. “What?” he asked.

Ella sighed and relaxed. “Oh,” she said. “Phew. Never mind.”

Ted, his heart still racing, said, “What happened?”

“Oh,” Ella explained. “It’s nothing. I just looked over at the field and thought I saw a giant spider.”

Ted drove in silence for a moment. Finally: “A giant spider?”

Ella sat primly in her seat, her hands folded in her lap. “Well, obviously. You see something out of the corner of your eye, something black and hairy with legs flailing every which way as it hurls itself into the air. What was I supposed to think?”

Ted, biting his tongue to keep from laughing, stayed silent.

“It was perfectly reasonable,” my daughter insisted.

And maybe she’s right. It likely is perfectly reasonable – if your brain has been hijacked by Hogwarts and your brain is filled to bursting with magical adventures.

Of course, if the book burners had their way, she’d be exclusively reading the Bible and the Left Behind books, which means that, given the imagination on this kid, she’ll be blowing horns at city walls, expecting them to come tumbling down, and will likely assume that every empty pair of shoes is evidence of the rapture.

I think we’ll stick with the giant spiders.

5 thoughts on “The Perils of Harry Potter (and how the whack-job book burners may have been sorta right)

  1. I feel as a writer I want children to be empowered by their natural abilities and not by wishful thinking. Nothing wrong with Harry Potter, it’s just my own ethic as a writer. Crazy stuff happens in my books, but the kids all have perfectly normal kid abilities.

    • I think, as writers, we are profoundly shaped by the literature that we grew up with. When I was little, I lived, breathed, slept, ate and drank fairy tales. We had Grimm, Andrew Lang, and about ninety other collections from all over the world in the house, and I read them over and over and over. Which means that the shape of fairy tales and the language of fairy tales is going to hum through my work – even if I’m writing realistic fiction (which I do sometimes).

      And I *read* fairy tales, because I *needed* fairy tales. For whatever reason, there was some dark stuff going on in my subconscious, and fairy tales gave me the tools I needed to combat it. Other kids will need other things from their books, and they *deserve* access to those things.

      The point is that diversity of story-type, diversity of characters, diversity of narrative, diversity of language and issue and demographic and everything – I just think it’s important. And best to not limit book type based only on the limitations of parental imagination, you know?

      • Oh, I was just talking about books I write and how I think about what I do… it may be that I’m responding to the trends more than anything, trying to do find my niche.

    • Agreed! When I was a kid, the border between the imagined and the real was, at best, a semi-permeable membrane – and sometimes it disappeared altogether. Why would I think my own kids would be any different. Imagine away, my lovelies!

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