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.
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
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.