Americans have had the book’s release date marked on their calendars for months. It’s Amazon’s top seller. When it’s finally available, many of us will rush to stores to purchase a copy, then fight over who gets to read it first … with 10-year-olds. No, it’s not Hillary Clinton’s White-House memoirs. The most eagerly anticipated book in years is the fifth volume in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series.
Why are Rowling’s books so beloved by adults as well as children?
Harry Potter lives in a world where hats and paintings speak, broomsticks fly and goblins run banks–but these are non-essential details. The essential element is the inspiring depiction of a boy’s triumphant struggles. The series tells the story of an eleven-year-old orphan, despised by the relatives he lives with, who discovers he has a rare talent and works hard to develop it. In the course of his education he learns to think for himself, to be honest and to be self-confident. He finds friends who share his values and he earns the respect of his teachers. He battles the class bully as well as the most evil wizard on earth, and we rejoice when, with considerable effort and courage, Harry prevails.
What is the educational value of this? A child needs to learn concrete facts, of course, but that is not enough. In order to organize and utilize such facts, a child urgently needs as a framework a basic, abstract view of life–and he needs it in the form, not of an abstruse treatise, but of a concise, easily graspable presentation.
This is what literature provides. By means of the theme, plot and characterization–particularly as they involve the hero–every children’s story implicitly addresses such broad questions as: Is the world fundamentally a benevolent or a malevolent place? Can one rely on one’s own mind or not? Is life to be eagerly embraced or fearfully skirted? Can the good succeed or does evil ultimately win?
The Harry Potter series appeals to so many children (and, adults, too) because the answers it gives to these questions are overwhelmingly positive. It shows a world in which happiness can be achieved, villains can be defeated, and the means of success can be learned. When my seven-year-old races around the dining room table swathed in an old bathrobe, with a broomstick made of a mini-blind wand and cardboard, she is not expressing an interest in witches or the supernatural. Rather, she is trying on the personality of an independent, courageous, intelligent individual who conquers evil. She is enthusiastically endorsing a positive philosophic perspective on herself and on the world.
It is a story’s abstract meaning, not its physical setting, that influences the reader. The Wizard of Oz, for example, is set in a land inhabited by witches, Munchkins and talking trees–but it really is about the determination of Dorothy and her friends to attain difficult goals. Little Lord Fauntleroy is not a manual for how to inherit an earldom, but a portrayal of a child whose honesty and integrity see him through adversity.
By contrast, consider the ghoulishly titled Say Cheese and Die! (from the popular Goosebumps series, by R. L. Stine). Here, a cursed camera causes death and destruction whenever it snaps a photo. The main character, who repeatedly capitulates to his friends’ insistence that he use the camera, is cowardly, panic-stricken and ineffectual. The story ends on a foreboding note, as the hiding place of the indestructible camera is discovered by local bullies, who prepare to use the camera again.
This book is appalling not for its supernatural elements but for its sheer malevolence: the “hero” is powerless, innocuous-looking objects wreak devastation, evil is invincible. A child overexposed to the malevolent universe of Goosebumps–or Beavis and Butthead, or South Park–might well wonder why he should risk getting out of bed in the morning, never mind why he should strive to master his schoolwork or to excel in sports.
What crucial need does the Harry Potter series fill? In a culture where fear and cynicism are too often dominant, it provides a reminder that life is good–that it is challenging and full of exciting possibilities. The books are, in short, fuel for a child’s maturing mind. As vitamins and minerals are essential to a child’s healthy physical development, so literature with this view of the world is essential to a child’s healthy mental development.
That benevolent view is all too rare in modern adult fiction – hence many parents anticipate the new Harry Potter as much as their children do. Perhaps I should just buy two copies, so I don’t have to play tug-of-war with my child for it.