Saturday, August 18, 2007

Who's Afraid of Harry Potter?

I love this article so much, I wish I'd written it. The author, a fellow unschooling mom, didn't have a current link, but gave me permission to post it here. Thanks, Amy!

Who's Afraid of Harry Potter?

By Amy Hollingsworth

(Published on

I, for one, am not.

“Always use the proper name for things,” once mused a wise headmaster, gazing over his half-moon spectacles. “Fear of a name increases fear of the thing itself.” The proper name I’m thinking of in this case is Harry Potter, the kid with the lightning scar who’s become a lightning rod for censors.

By now, everyone has at least heard of Harry Potter. All three books about Harry Potter’s adventures as an ill-treated orphan suddenly transported into a world of wizardry have magically hovered atop the New York Times Best Seller list for months now.

Author J.K. Rowling’s freshman effort has been compared to The Chronicles of Narnia; her imaginative style likened to that of Roald Dahl. Not everyone is celebrating the arrival of her British hero, though. Parents in California, Michigan, Minnesota, New York and South Carolina have taken steps to have the books removed from school libraries. They would be happier if the books, well, vanished into thin air.

So, who’s afraid of Harry Potter? I, for one, am not. Sure, I think Professor Snape is a little creepy and well, Voldemort, he’s so bad no one even refers to him by name. But I’m not afraid of Harry Potter.

Not afraid of him, not afraid of his friends, not afraid of how he’s being educated. I see Harry Potter as a sort of Everyman, or more accurately, Every Kid. He’s not the smartest or the strongest or the richest or the best looking. Maybe he’s a little different because he wears long robes to school, plays sports on a broomstick and has a lightning-shaped scar on his forehead, but he is brave and he has a good heart. What’s not to like?

I’m not saying I didn’t have any concerns about my children making Harry’s acquaintance. Like every responsible parent, I’m careful about the company my children keep. Would meeting Harry stir up a desire to delve into the dark side of fantasy? Should my kids be cavorting with wizards, learning to concoct potions, seeing how far evil can triumph?

It’s a legitimate question. For that reason, my children have never even participated in Halloween, except to celebrate a Harvest Party with friends. But I didn’t know enough to make an informed decision.

I asked around, picking the brains of those who had already dared to climb aboard Hogwarts Express. There were mixed reviews, although mostly positive. In the end, I decided the only way to know for sure was to meet Harry myself. Since my library’s 33 copies were all in use, I headed to the bookstore and purchased the first in the series, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. It was worth every cent, or Knut, depending on where you bank.

My initial plan was to read the book myself and then if all went well, to read it to my 8-year-old son. (I’m not in the habit - metaphorically speaking - of chewing up my children’s food for them like some mama bird who doesn’t want her babies to choke, but I do like to know what they’re eating.)

My son knew about this conditional status and would sneak into my bedroom to riffle through the pages like they were contraband. Talk about building interest. After I read each chapter, he would ask for a detailed summary. Midway through the book, I stopped giving summaries and we began reading the book together.

These are the reasons why I’m glad I did.

1. The books highlight experiences kids can relate to. Instead of arguing over who’s got the best bike or the coolest video game, Harry’s friends ooh and aah over the Nimbus Two Thousand, the latest and most coveted broomstick model. They collect wizard trading cards. There’s even a bully (aptly named Draco Malfoy) who makes Harry’s life miserable.

J.K. Rowling doesn’t hesitate to point out the unfortunate fact that people are sometimes divided into social classes, with labels like Muggles (nonwizarding types, like you and me), Squibs (nonwizarding types from wizarding families), and Mudbloods (a pejorative for someone with magically-challenged parents). The books provide a safe place for kids to identify with peer pressure, bullies and injustices in a setting that’s pure fantasy.

2. The books allow you to become a part of history. Reading the Harry Potter series, I feel a kinship with those Britons who paged through Bentley’s Miscellany in 1837 eager to read the monthly installments chronicling the adventures of another famous orphan, one by the name of Oliver Twist. I’m not trying to be dramatic here. How often do you and your children get to follow a tale as it’s unfolding, knowing all the while that it’s destined to become a classic? I see the Harry Potter books this way. I don’t have to wait for any historian to tell me these books will be considered among the very best of children’s literature.

3. The books encourage naming the thing you fear. It was Albus Dumbledore, the wise and noble headmaster of Hogwarts School, who spoke the words I quoted earlier. He cautioned Harry to always use the proper name for things because “fear of a name increases fear of the thing itself.” I think those parents who want to censor Harry Potter, or those who simply refuse to read the books at all, are more fearful of “names” or words than anything else—magic, potions, wizards, witches, spells. But these things are not the central focus of the stories.

The books are not about conjuring up occult powers. The tools of the wizarding trade are merely props, the backdrop for the real drama. And the real drama is the age-old battle between good and evil. The evil, as embodied in Lord Voldemort, is not fictional. The existence of that kind of wickedness in the world is what is to be feared, not Harry’s broomstick. When I read the chilling account of Harry’s encounter with Lord Voldemort to my son (and I must admit here that I did a little editing, just a little), I explained to him that this was evil personified, (im)pure and simple.

Evil is real. It exploits those who give their lives to it and then leaves them for dead (which is what happened to poor Professor Quirrell). That’s what Voldemort represents. What conquers that kind of evil is not a magic wand, but the goodness and bravery Harry is best known for. I’m not really sure why Harry Potter has been singled out. I have a hard time believing that the masses cried foul when C.S. Lewis wrote about a White Witch exploiting a young boy in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe or when the Queen of the Night took center stage in Mozart’s The Magic Flute or when L. Frank Baum unveiled the Wizard of Oz. Maybe they did. But if I had to answer the question, “Who’s afraid of Harry Potter?,” my guess would be: Mostly those who haven’t bothered to get to know him yet.

Copyright, 2000 Amy Hollingsworth

1 comment:

Heather said...

WOW. This is a really great article! I'm going to share it with my husband when he comes home.

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