Banned Books Week: The Harry Potter Series

I know I’d mentioned I’d be doing this post the first or second day of Banned Books Week.  But I had a little incident involving a defective soap pump, my eyeball and a trip to the ER, which was followed by a good day of flushing my eye out with saline.  Anywho.  Better late than never, is my post on Harry Potter for Banned Books Week.  If you’re doing a post, remember to email me the link by October 1st  so I can do my BBW roundup on the 2nd.  Also, at the National Book Festival, I got frequently challenged book Bridge to Terabithia signed by the author, Katherine Paterson.  And that’s what I’m giving away to one lucky BBW participant. 

Choosing the Harry Potter series as my Banned Books Week book seems almost too easy.  Too much like cheating in its obviousness.  To be fair, as far as I can tell no challenge to Potter has ever been successful (in U.S. public schools or libraries anyway), despite the fact that it is the number one challenged series.  Too many people have read and loved the Potter books for the challenges against them to ever be taken seriously.
And it’s true.  At this point, the people who challenge Potter are a joke unto themselves.  The lunatic fringe, if you will.  They are the Fred Phelpses of the book-banning world.  No one takes them seriously, but everyone is kind of frightened of them and what they stand for.  Also, I’d love to point out that one such book banner, Ellen Makkai, tried to get the book banned after reading an article linking Harry Potter to Satanism. The only problem?  The article she quoted came from The Onion.  (For you non-Americans, The Onion is America’s “best selling” – it’s actually free- satiric newspaper.  Known for writing article such as Justin Bieber found to be Cleverly Disguised 51 year-old Pedophile and New Evidence Suggests God Also Had Incredibly Busty Daughter) Proving once and for all that kids sometimes have a better grasp on the difference between fiction and reality than adults do.  And if that’s not hilariously scary, I don’t know what is. 
So why am I doing this?  Because I’m a Potterphile, something many of you may not know about me.  I actually reference Potter less frequently in my YA blog than I do in real life.  I’m not quite sure why that is.  I’m the huge dork who’s working on a long-running project comparing Severus Snape of Potter to Spike from Buffy the Vampire Slayer.  Not for publishing purposes, but for the purpose of my own sense of self-satisfaction and fangirlishness.  It’s still in the basic outline phase.  And because I’m having baby in a few months, it will likely stay that way until my children are teenagers.  Me having teenagers is a whole different type of hilariously scary.
Anyway. On to the book(s). 
Need I give a synopsis?  Really? OK.  The Harry Potter series begins with a ten year old orphan boy (named Harry Potter, natch) being raised by a neglectful and abusive Aunt and Uncle.  On little Harry’s eleventh birthday, he finds out that he’s a wizard, a son of a witch and wizard who were killed by the most powerful dark wizard of all time, Lord Voldemort. Not only were his parents killed, but when Voldemort went after baby Harry, his killing curse backfired. Harry lived and Voldy died…..or did he?  So begins the best-selling tale which spanned seven books translated in to pretty much every known language on Earth and spawned eight movies and a theme park. Not to mention more fanfic than any other piece of book/TV Show/movie/Comic, several websites, and a lawsuit between the author and an over-eager fan/writer which helped define what is and is not considered intellectual property. 
Harry grows with the series, as the first six books of the series each cover one year of Harry’s at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, with the seventh book taking Harry and his two best pals, Ron and Hermione, on the road in their fight against Voldemort.  The themes and the plot of these novels are far-reaching and deeper than pretty much any theme ever in YA lit.  Toward the end it’s shocking to find such misery and violence in YA novels (and Suzanne Collins, writer of the fantastic Hunger Games trilogy, must thank JK Rowling for paving the way in allowing such darkness in YA.) 

So why is this series challenged?  Mostly because some parents believe that a book about witchcraft is satanic and a threat to Christianity.  As far as I’ve been able to tell, that’s the only reason it’s been challenged thus far, and it’s a pretty silly one, considering many churches are using Harry Potter as a way of teaching about good vs. evil in Sunday Schools.  There may have been complaints about the violence, but that’s also silly, considering it’s fantasy violence.  My almost-four year old has listened to the entire series on audio book.  I’m obviously willing to take my chances on him growing up to be a violent Satanist.  (Probably my letting him watch Doctor Who with me is far more questionable than allowing him to listen to Potter on audiobook. But you know… I’ll let him watch Who, but it’s not like I let him watch Torchwood.  I’m not that bad a parent.)
What would we lose out on if a challenge to Potter had ever been successful?  Well, we’d miss out on some fantastic story-telling.  Say what you will about Rowling’s abilities and style (which I think are good, but not perfect), the woman spins a great yarn and has created an unbelievably detailed universe that seems both amazing and realistic at the same time.  And have I mentioned the depth of character? One of the problems in YA is that characters are often one-dimensional.  Not so in Potter.
We’d lose out on getting to talk to kids about the many (many) fine points brought out in the Potter-verse.  You want to start a good discussion on Potter?  I may have some ideas for you (Discussion points are majorly spoilery if you’re part of the minority that hasn’t read Potter):
  • Throughout the novels, the wizards are assumed to be the good guys.  However, wizarding history is fraught with examples that prove otherwise.   Can the wizards truly be the good guys with their history of treatment of other magical creatures such as giants, house elves and goblins.
  •  How good was Snape, really?  Did the fact that at the end he was always acting on Dumbledore’s behalf completely negate his reprehensible behavior toward Harry earlier in the series?  Does that really make him more just brave than good?  And the fact that he was acting out of a love that would always be unrequited  – does that make his brave actions more or less understandable?
  •  How much does the knowledge of Dumbledore’s past with Grindelwald diminish him as the ultimate good guy?
  • No character in the Potter-verse is all good or all bad.  Even the good guys are terribly flawed humans. Harry is hot-headed and temperamental.  Ron is lazy and prone to bouts of whininess. Hermione is an incurable know it all.  Dumbledore (who comes the closest to being total good) has a questionable history.  As I mentioned before, theses could be written on the complexities of Severus Snape.  The bad guys get similar treatment.  Voldy had a shockingly terrible childhood.  The Malfoy parents are power hungry, but at the end they’re just terrified for their son’s life.  Aunt Petunia suffers from lifelong jealousy over her sisters’ magical power.  Umbridge…OK.  She comes the closest to being all bad.  So does Bellatrix.  Well, maybe there are fewer shades of grey on that end of the spectrum.  Is that a problem? That the good guys are given bad points, but the bad guys are just plain bad?
  • Diggory, Dobby, Sirius, Dumbledore, Remus, Tonks, Fred, Hedwig, Mad-Eye.  All of these (and more) good characters died.  Were any in vain?  Knowing some characters had to be killed off, did JK Rowling choose correctly in which characters to kill?  It was said that Arthur Weasley was given a last minute stay by JK Rowling.  Was that the right choice? 
  • How do you think Harry was affected by so many of his father figures being killed off, his own father, Sirius, Dumbledore, Mad-Eye, and Remus?  What kind of parent do you think that would make him? Do you think it will make him a better Godfather to little Teddy Lupin, also now orphaned? 
  • Did Harry ever use the Weasleys to feel like there was a home he belonged to?  Or do you think his affection for their family was genuine?  Was his love for Ginny genuine, or was it borne out of the desire to belong to the Weasley family?
  • The red-tape of the Ministry of Magic is insanity.  And it seems to ring true to big governments everywhere.  Was the over-reaching power of the Ministry used more as comic relief or as a point the author was trying to make about big government?
Because I’m a big dork, those are the things I think about. If you haven’t read the series, there’s pretty much nothing I can say about it that’ll get you to read it. Because if you haven’t read the series, it’s most likely you’re put off by the hype and are staying away intentionally. And that’s fine with me.  
I’m not about forcing anyone to read anything.  If parents don’t let their kids read Potter, I’ll roll my eyes at them and feel terribly sorry for those children.  But for god’s sake, don’t keep me from sharing this joy with my kid (soon to be kidS) just because you don’t understand it.  And isn’t that what those who challenge books are doing?  Trying to parent other peoples’ children based on their own opinions, beliefs, and fears. 
Taking books out of our libraries serves only to dumb down these fine institutions.  Not allowing  a book like To Kill a Mockingbird on the Junior High shelves, with the theory that it’s a high school level book, does a major disservice to gifted kids.  And this may come as a surprise to you, but gifted kids in this country are terribly under-served. (See here, here and here.) Allowing books some consider too advanced or too risque for certain kids to be taken off our shelves will only result in a nation filled with unimaginative dummies. A nation that strives to be nothing but average. 
Because I guarantee you, the next JK Rowling, the next author who actually can actually get children to open a book en masse, will not come from a family who banned Harry Potter.    If we want to create imaginative geniuses like JK Rowling (or Jonathan Franzen or Michael Chabon or Suzanne Collins, etc.) we have to give kids access to JK Rowling’s fine work. 

About nikkihb

Wife. Mother. Reader. Blogger.
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15 Responses to Banned Books Week: The Harry Potter Series

  1. moxobee says:

    Bravo, beautiful sentiments in there! Harry Potter is not my favourite (although the Stephen Fry audiobook versions are pretty much what every audio narration should be), but I will fight tooth and nail for the right of any man, woman or child to read it if they choose.PS – I should be putting my 1st post, on Fahrenheit 451, up tonight. I'm pretty psyched 🙂

  2. Alison says:

    Well said!I hold Harry Potter responsible for making me take reading seriously. It caught me right at the time when I wasn't being challenged by anything in the elementary school library but the school had no other options for me. It made me and a shit ton of other kids excited to read. What harm is there in that?And J.K. Rowling is an amazing human as well as author. She recently donated over $15m to MS research. Which basically makes her my hero.

  3. Foley says:

    I’m the huge dork who’s working on a long-running project comparing Severus Snape of Potter to Spike from Buffy the Vampire Slayer. I would totally read that. I've always thought the parallels between their character arcs were interesting 😛 (also BtVS is pretty much my favourite show ever).Good blog, though, I agree wholeheartedly 🙂

  4. Kate says:

    I'll never forget once, when one of the more recent books came out, watching a split screen on CNN between two women arguing about the Harry Potter books. One woman said her kids loved them and they were great for children, the other one was representing a Christian group and kept saying over and over "People should know what their kids are reading!" Finally, the "for" woman asked her "have you read any of the books" and the "against" woman kept trying to change the subject, but finally had to admit that no, she had not, she was basing her arguments on things other people had told her. Yes, you read that right, she went on national television to try to ban books that SHE HAD NOT READ. Frightening.

  5. kthomp38 says:

    I actually read the first Harry Potter book in college when I was doing a paper on censorship and I was hooked I read the first six books (all that were out at the time) in about a month. I think that the books are great and that people should read before they speak. I would definently let my future children read them though if they were under ten or so I might want to start reading them with them.

  6. Bravo, Nikki.@Kate– that's the way it is with most challenges. As a Christian, I laugh at people who say it's satanic. Lily Potter dying to save her kid, and her death and love giving Harry protection stronger than any magic Voldy has up his sleeve. Hmm. What's more Christian than that? And, I'm not going to lie, when my dad died earlier this year, I was comforted the most by Dumbledore's reminder to Harry that the dead we love never leave us… and was not so comforted by the idiot assistant minister harassing my mom about food for the memorial. (Rest of the church was amazing, but it only takes one moron to upset you. So, thanks Dumbledore for saying the right thing at the right time. :-)) You raise very interesting questions, and I could talk for hours on them. Alas, it's late. Another bad character with good potential would be Wormtail, but otherwise, unless they had someone to live for (like the Malfoys at the end),they were all bad. That's a shame, because as even Sirius said, unlikable people aren't always evil. I guess it enforces to kids that there are people who don't care about their welfare, period. Oh, here. I gushed on Harry on my blog. I may as well not invade yours with all my opinions. 😀

  7. magnolia says:

    preach, especially about the underserving of gifted kids. in a lot of school systems, including the one my dad teaches in (located in an extremely wealthy county south and west of DC that will remain nameless), don't even let you call the kids "gifted" anymore. it's called the "accelerated academics" program. so for the potter-banning crowd: i always respond to christians who freak out about cultural stuff or the unmitigated temerity of gay people to exist (sniff) with the following:"wow, it's really sad how weak and powerless your faith is."[enraged response usually follows]"oh, guess i misunderstood you; i thought you said [cultural force] was threatening to you somehow.""it is.""well. i thought christian faith was supposed to be so strong that nothing could defeat it. but looks like yours is so small that a [book, etc.] can kill it. that must be sad for you."there's a reason religious people tend not to like me.

  8. Sada says:

    I want to have children just so I can read Harry Potter to them. But OH MY GOD, the fact that book banners are quoting The Onion is hilariously horrifying. Potential book-banners should obviously be forced to pass a rigorous quiz on a book's content before they can even propose a ban.

  9. Boonie S says:

    Very interesting. Thanks.All the best, Boonie

  10. Kristen says:

    Nikki, I am one-such dork who based my entire master's thesis on Harry Potter (seriously. I know! They totally gave me a degree!) In my research, I actually found that one of the arguments against the series (I consider it a strawman argument) was that it badly represented women and minorities. This was in 2003-2004, before books 5-7 had been published, and before Rowling had really developed her strongest female characters. There was really only Hermione, who was obnoxious 50% of the time, and Prof. McGonnagal, who was 100% fantastic, but not around very much. Rowling did a much better job developing her female and minority characters in books 5-7, that's for sure. But thanks for writing about the series! Love, love, love!

  11. Caitlin says:

    I feel like I have a bit of a unique take on Harry Potter because I didn't want to read it as they were being published. I was one of those people who thought it was too hyped to be good. My best friend, who grew up with them and went to midnight readings whenever a new one came out, convinced me to read them jsut this past year. Going through them at 24 gave me insights I never would have drawn at 10 or even 15-16. I think something else that could be discussed in your bullet points is the similarities that can be drawn from the pureblood vs mudblood/squib/muggle antagonism to almost any racist or classist society of today. Rowling really delves into that later in the series. I love this series, so much so that when I was done them all I went through HP withdrawl. I literally didn't read for like three weeks because my murder mysteries didn't have magic in them. Hell, I dreamt about Harry Potter storylines. If nothing else, reading the series let me be more open minded to other overly-hyped books and movies. While I don't hate Twilight as much as everyone else, it certainly doesn't hold a candle to HP for me. However, I never would have read the Twilight series if I hadn't read Harry Potter.

  12. Amiee says:

    I'm one of the minority who just never read the series not through any deliberate effort but just never did. I feel like I should just to have an opinion but obviously I don't agree with banning them.

  13. Michelle says:

    Great post! I completely agree with you on every point. I'm Christian, and know many other Christians, none of whom have a beef with Harry Potter, at least as far as I know. Sucks that a (very) vocal minority puts out that stereotype.I mean, really. It's about love conquering all and loving one another for who they are. How can you get 'AHH SATAN' out of that? Really.

  14. Anonymous says:

    OMG Harry Potter! Sorry, I'm just a huge nerd. My friends and I are all such nerds that we have Enlgish class-type discuissions about Harry Potter, and the theme and characters and plot and everything. Yeah, we do that for fun. And I thought the questions you posed were pretty good questions, and also worthy of an English class-type discussion.


    I recently re-connected christian cousin,which was.fine……until he started posting right wing vitriol and blantantly.anti semetic propaganda that included hitler in a.chefs uniform, they wouldn’t come out the president the n word… the.muslim birther crap showed up. i told him about evangelical right wingers don’t check their facts and cited the harry potter WND article debacle….he probably wouldn’t have believed it, not trusting the the left wing commie liberal, anti christian and godless atheist satirical parody press!!

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