Diane Stranz on American Life

Harry Potter is not a Role Model
February 22, 2009, 6:47 pm
Filed under: Children and Parenting, Literature | Tags: , , , , ,
Parents are the persons primarily responsible for molding their children into moral human beings of character.  Just as a parent should be concerned about a child’s nutritional intake, a parent should also be concerned about a child’s reading diet.  J. K. Rowlings’ Harry Potter books constitute a very poor reading diet.
I have done research on J. K. Rowling and Harry Potter Mania for years, including that I have read parts of the Harry Potter series for myself.  I am primarily turned off by the fact that Harry and his friends are all very small of character, immature, grudge-filled and essentially mean-spirited.  Fantasy writer Ursula Le Guin, who I respect, holds the same opinion:
When so many adult critics were carrying on about the “incredible originality” of the first Harry Potter book, I read it to find out what the fuss was about, and remained somewhat puzzled; it seemed a lively kid’s fantasy crossed with a “school novel”, good fare for its age group, but stylistically ordinary, imaginatively derivative, and ethically rather mean-spirited.
I am also convinced that Rowling’s ADD type of story-telling actually destroys a child’s interest in classic children’s literature.  There is a young student librarian at our local branch library who told me one day last summer (while I was perusing the shelf of children’s literature awarded the Newbery medal for excellence) that Newbery books are ‘entirely too boring’ for ‘the modern generation’ of readers, and that ever since she read the Harry Potter books she has no interest in any books which do not demonstrate a similar ‘fantasy/action adventure’ pace and story line (hence the rise of more obnoxiously poor books like the Lemony Snicket series, etc. etc.)
As literary critic Philip Hensher wrote in The Spectator in 2003:  “Rowling is not a subtle writer, and one of the tiresome things about her books is how routinely they resort to turning up the volume, rather than describing anything vividly.”  Yes, I agree.  Constant action, violence and emphasis on ‘good versus evil’ does not advance civilization in a peaceful, cooperative, loving, gentle direction — whereas numbers of good children’s books do:  Doris Gates’ Blue Willow, Lois Lenski‘s The Giver, Kate DiCamillo‘s The Tale of Despereaux, Paul Zindel‘s The Pigman, Scott O’Dell‘s Island of the Blue Dolphins, Laura Ingalls Wilder‘s Little House on the Prairie series, E. L. Konigsburg‘s The View from Saturday, Jean Craighead George‘s Julie of the Wolves, Ann Nolan Clark’s Secret of the Andes, Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH.  To name only a very few, of course.
Why waste our children’s time reading trash when there is so much good literature waiting to be discovered?  Horse trainers know that once you train a horse to ride Western saddle (which has far fewer demands and expectations of the horse than English saddle) you can never again get the horse to agree to/cooperate with being ridden English saddle.  I believe that once a child is permitted to indulge in a ‘reading diet’ of Harry Potter type fantasy, you cannot again get him or her back into a ‘meatier diet’ of genuine literature.  I may be wrong, but with my own children I prefer to err on the side of caution and feed only the meatier diet.
To date my 7-year-old son Jeffrey and I have worked our way through only a few chapter books — including Elizabeth George Speare’s The Sign of the Beaver, which Jeffrey loved — and my point to him is that we are not going to waste time on Harry Potter books when there are SO MANY MUCH BETTER BOOKS we still have not yet read!  Books which teach children how to evaluate and respond to moral crises in real life.  Reading should entertain and teach, but it should also help mold character and values.  And it is a parent’s job to care about that.

5 Comments so far
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I’m not a fan of Harry Potter, so I’ll leave it to someone else to defend Rowling specifically, but I did want to take issue with a couple of your statements, namely,

“I believe that once a child is permitted to indulge in a ‘reading diet’ of Harry Potter type fantasy, you cannot again get him or her back into a ‘meatier diet’ of genuine literature.”


“Reading should entertain and teach, but it should also help mold character and values.”

The second quote first. I agree that literature CAN teach a reader ethical behavior by offering positive (and even negative) examples and role models, but I don’t think we should assume that this moral function is the primary function of literature. I prefer to think of storytelling as an end unto itself — that art exists for the sake of art. If a story communicates and transmits a message, then that’s just icing on the cake. I think that when the didactic element is emphasized in the creation of art, then that work of art suffers for it. Art should be given the opportunity to possibly mean something, or possibly mean nothing.

And so to the first quote, which I think suggests a very dangerous idea: that we ought to divide art into two categories — 1) “genuine literature” that instructs readers in the ways of proper morality and 2) literature that corrupts its readers. I’m sure you didn’t intend this, but history shows that dividing reading material up in this way can lead to such atrocities as book banning and book burning. Reading ought to be an end unto itself; the very act of reading — no matter what is being read — is itself a beneficial activity because it pushes the mind and the imagination in directions that it might not otherwise go. I believe that is ALWAYS a good thing, even if the direction is some place sinister and immoral. Art can show humanity at its best and it can also show humanity at its worst, but art should be allowed to do BOTH.

The Harry Potter series may have plenty of flaws, but it is positive in that it gets children to read, children who might otherwise have not started reading for fun. I don’t believe that because a child reads Harry Potter now, that they won’t later on read Shakespeare or Joyce (both authors, by the way, who have been accused of having a corrupting influence on young people; both authors whose works have been banned and burned).

Your son is still very young, so it’s appropriate for you to have a say in what he reads. As he gets older, however, I hope that you will loosen the reins a bit and let him read whatever he wishes — even if it is reading material that you, personally, object to or find offensive.

Comment by J.M. Reep

Thank you for the comment. It is nice to know someone actually saw what I wrote! (smile)

First, I never said that teaching morals is the primary function of literature . . . but it certainly is a primary function of parenting and what I wrote is the truth from a parental perspective and I stand by it. Similarly, I did not say anything about dividing art into categories, and I abhor censorship bans (by adults for adults). It is laughable to label what I wrote as something ’embodying dangerous ideas.’ I mean, please. Let’s be realistic. There are things which edify and inspire people to greatness, and things which do not. That is pretty much all I said.

I completely disagree with you that “Harry Potter is positive in that it gets a child to read.” That is an urban myth which I would like to do my part to help dispel (to put it bluntly). A study I read online recently by one of the national bookseller associations concluded there is no discernible evidence that children are reading any more now as a result of Harry Potter, and that J. K. Rowlings’ profits have not flowed over into the general children’s book market at all. In other words, the rush to buy Rowling’s books reflects our culture’s ‘Potter mania’ and that is about it. I have five children (ages 17, 15, 13, 7 and 6) and substitute teach in junior high, so I spend A LOT of time around young people, and a number who do not read regularly have confided to me that reading Harry Potter did not stimulate a desire to read books other than the Potter series itself. They cite many different reasons for this: if you are genuinely interested, I’d be more than happy to take additional time to discuss the evidence upon which I have based my conclusions — but I’ll stop at this for right now.

I disagree with your statement: “The very act of reading — no matter what is being read — is itself a beneficial activity because it pumps the mind and the imagination in directions that it might not otherwise go.” I read a book of erotica by Anne Rice once in the late 1990’s which stimulated my own imagination in directions I wish it had never gone, and I certainly would never allow my MINOR (i.e., living under my roof, still morally under my care and direction) children to read it just as I would never let them read Hustler. I do not permit my 17 year old son to view pornography online for similar reasons. It is completely absurd and irresponsible to take the position that it does not matter what a person reads or views or imagines: my life experience has shown me it is true that, at least in part, “you become that upon which you focus your attention.”

Finally, I am certainly not alone in my view that some literature is far better and more edifying (on every level) than other literature — not only with respect to the integrity of the values imparted, but also with respect to whether the story is told well, written well, etc. Harold Bloom, a nationally noted authority on the quality of American literature, has similarly ‘blasted’ Rowlings books — on pretty much the same basis as my blog post of this morning — as he has blasted Stephen King’s books! King’s story lines are awesome, but his writing is atrocious, and Harold Bloom agrees with me that with a few notable exceptions, the best way to read a Stephen King novel is to watch the movie!

A P.S.: my approach to instilling ‘reading values’ (if you will) in my children is more about directing their attention to what I consider worthwhile instead of condemning books I think are a waste of their time . . . I just have a pet peeve about Rowling’s books because the hype about them is SO overblown. Anyway, my teen-aged children are grateful for my input, pretty much read anything I recommend, and rarely regret it. (Okay, yes: my daughter Brooke thought Anne of Green Gables was too old-fashioned when she read it at age 9 or 10 . . . but you can’t expect to hit a home run 100% of the time! HA!)

Last year as a freshman my daughter Bethany gave two book reports on books I had recommended to her: Roses for Mama by Janette Oke (a story of love, death, survival and courage in the pioneer West) and Two from Galilee by a female Christian author whose name is escaping me at the moment (the book is her imagined account of the love story of Mary and Joseph, and it is simply fabulous) (3/12/09 update: this author is Marjorie Holmes) and near the end of the school year her English teacher took her aside and said, “How do you find such wonderful, positive books to read?” She said, “My mother recommends them.” Her teacher said, “Please tell your mother that I am in awe at what great taste she has.” My 17 year old son Dustin just read William Golding’s Lord of the Flies and is now into Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure because these are the two books I gave him for Christmas.

I take children seriously because they are the world’s future, and I take all things which contain truth and beauty seriously; the more truth literature contains, the more worthwhile it is to read (in my opinion) whether the truth is difficult and devastating (as in John Steinbeck’s The Pearl or Edith Wharton’s Ethan Frome) or soothing and affirming.

Comment by dianestranz

It’s wide-eyed with mental impressions of my daughter that I’ve read your posts. After all the years of knowing you (even before you KNEW yourself…”tongue in check”!) I can visualize best–from this venture on the Internet–what represents your “views”, “stimulation”, “drive” and “fortitude”.
I just may be one of your most avid readers!
Love, Mom (“…behind the pine curtain” in Texas)

Comment by Mom of Diane

P.S. I’ll validate your knowledge of what’s worthwhile in children’s literature, upbringing and character-development. As I have always stated to you, personally, “You are one of the best mothers ever!”

Comment by Mom of Diane

I am very intersted in your thoughts about “a good, editfying reading list” for kids. Our 8 & 10 yr old girls have already gotten heavily into the land of Harry Potter. I don’t think it has corrupted them, but I am quite open to a reading list that is more intentional about spiritual formation. (We finished the “Little House on the Prarie” long ago. Thanks for your help on this.

Comment by Len

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