The Harry Potter series, by J.K. Rowling, has been around for just over twenty years. While the series has won numerous awards, and is loved by both children and adults, it has also been subject to a tremendous number of banning attempts. Unlike many of my peers, I actually did not read the books when they were first released. At the time when my friends were enjoying the first few books, I was heavily invested in The Lord of the Rings, and attempting to read every book J.R.R. Tolkien had ever written. Ultimately this worked in my favor, since I didn’t have to wait for the later books to be released when I read the series.
My affection for Harry Potter came about when I was hired for my first teaching job and was told that I could not include Harry Potter in my classroom library. I hadn’t read the books at that point, but the day I was told that I couldn’t have them in my classroom, I went to Barnes and Noble and bought the complete series. I read all seven books in the two weeks before school started…and subsequently proceeded to spend the next seven years complaining about the restriction.
“I don’t believe in the kind of magic in my books. But I do believe something very magical can happen when you read a good book.”J.K. Rowling
During my time at the school, I frequently recommended the series to parents and students who were seeking quality reading material, especially if the student was struggling to find enjoyment in reading. Over the course of my seven years there, I saw more kids come to love reading through Harry Potter than any series that I actually had in my classroom. One of those students (who initially hated to read) came back after graduating from high school to thank me for suggesting Harry Potter to his parents; he’s now an avid reader and credits Harry Potter with his change of attitude toward reading.
But as I mentioned, Harry Potter has been the subject of a lot of banning attempts, mostly due to its fantasy content.
An article by Pat Peters, Harry Potter and 20 Years of Controversy, published in 2017 on the American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom blog, discusses some of the reasons for the frequent challenges of the series. According to Peters, challengers said that “Harry Potter glorified magic and the occult, confusing children and leading them to attempt to emulate the spells and curses they read about.” Basically, people claimed that the book promoted interest in (and the practice of) witchcraft.
Similar challenges, like the most recent one made by Rev. Dan Reehil, who banned the series from St. Edward Catholic School, have also implied that the books’ inclusion of good and bad magic makes the series itself evil. This particular challenge received a lot of attention on social media.
According to a CBS news article written by Caitlin O’Kane earlier this month, Rev. Dan Reehil stated the following in his email to the school’s parents: “The curses and spells used in the books are actual curses and spells; which when read by a human being risk conjuring evil spirits into the presence of the person reading the text.” The reverend apparently also spoke with exorcists concerning the book, and then removed it from the school.
Outside of using an “interactive wand” at the Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure theme parks in Florida, at no time have I ever been able to use the spells in Harry Potter in real life. Okay, there was one time when I said “lumos” and the traffic light turned from red to green, but I’m 99.9% sure that it was simply a matter of good timing…because it certainly hasn’t worked since.
“Are you a good witch, or a bad witch?”Glenda (The Wizard of Oz, 1939)
As for the inclusion of both good and bad magic, what other series do we know of that contain the same thing? How about The Wizard of Oz? What about The Lord of the Rings? The Chronicles of Narnia? If someone says that Harry Potter should be banned, then why aren’t we hearing about attempts to ban these books from school libraries as well? To be perfectly honest, I don’t have a satisfactory answer…and I’m not sure I ever will.
As you know from yesterday’s post, I see literature as something that is valuable and beneficial to society. So what qualities does Harry Potter have that make it an important series for all of us (not just children) to read? Here’s my list, based on multiple readings:
- The books are well-written, and include characters of different social and economic backgrounds that children (and adults) can easily relate to.
- They include strong male and female role-models, who occasionally make mistakes, but learn from them in the process.
- The books examine the importance of friendship and family, as well as the value of diversity.
- Love and self-sacrifice are at the heart of many important moments.
- The classic struggle of “good vs. evil” is clearly shown.
- Issues of racism and classism are presented and explored.
- The books engage children and adults, making reading an enjoyable activity.
It’s ironic, but most of the people I’ve met who’ve been the most tenacious about challenging Harry Potter (and other series like it) haven’t actually read the books. I think there’s a danger in allowing ourselves to be biased by other people’s opinions before we have the opportunity to form our own. Think about the last time you chose not to read a book because someone else told you it was “bad because of [insert reason here].” This week, maybe try to find a copy of that book and see what you think.
And if that book happens to be Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, then I hope you enjoy it as much as I did!