Harry Potter won't hurt your kids

Monday, October 2nd 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

By Cathy Brown

Last month, I asked a group of Bowie High School students to complete this unfinished sentence making it true for them. Here are some of their thoughts.

"When people, children especially, read books about witches and wizards, they might learn ...

• the Harry Potter books can help boost a kid's imagination."

• reading can be fun."

• the Potter books are just fun-loving books and nothing bad can happen to the children's minds because the books are harmless."

• about magical places."

• anything is possible."

• witchcraft is good."

• to be scared."

• things they read are real and not fiction, and they might even start to practice such things."

These comments from local high school students show the conflict J. K. Rowling has stirred with her series of books about Harry Potter and his school days at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. While millions of parents are down-on-their-knees grateful their children are reaching for a book instead of a joystick or remote control, others are afraid.

Banned Books Week, sponsored last week by library and bookseller and journalistic associations across the country, have added the Harry Potter books to the list of titles most often requested in the 1990s to be removed from library shelves.

Harry now joins Holden and Huckleberry in a trio of fictional boys who scare some nonfiction grownups. Fortunately, parents in Arlington have enough confidence in their children and in their parenting that no requests have been made to remove the Potter series from local libraries.

Concerned parents whose children are ready to start clamoring for the Potter stories might consider this when deciding if Harry and friends are OK.

The Harry Potter books are certainly about the conflict between good and evil. They are definitely about the tensions children experience when faced with the unknown and the bully and an array of moral dilemmas. But they are only coincidentally about witches and wizards. The witchcraft element of the Potter books is primarily a device to get readers outside their personal experience for a hearty dose of perspective.

And how does a fledgling wizard from England bring perspective to a kid in Arlington, Texas? He does it in two ways, identification and exclusion. First, Harry is a kid who's subject to situations every schoolchild faces. He gets caught in activities the adults see as bad behavior, and he isn't given a chance to explain to them what is really going on. What child can't identify with that scenario?

Furthermore, he is put in situations where he is totally alone and unsupported by anyone in his house. Even kids from the healthiest of homes have felt isolated and unloved on occasion. He faces Draco Malfoy, the big, bad bully, whose dad has power and money and status and who hates the competition Harry presents. Harry plays the toughest position on the school Quidditch team, and by the second book, Draco's team has the newer, better equipment. Kids know how all this feels.

The second technique Ms. Rowling uses to engage her readers is the same one Salinger and Twain used in Catcher in the Rye and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. The hero is outside the system. And nothing gives readers perspective more than seeing the good guy condemned by people the readers resemble.

Salinger's Holden Caulfield, cast out of his culture when expelled from his Pennsylvania prep school, has revealed to teen readers the pain of adolescence. As the young loner wanders through a weekend in New York City, the author builds a theme around the universal experience of innocence lost. Parents who don't want their young people to get any prior warning about the potential for pain as they grow up fear the exposure of their kids to this theme.

In 1885, when Twain published his story about the low-class boy and his summer raft trip with the runaway slave, churchgoing white folks had fits. Twain's sarcastic wit shredded these bastions of society as hypocrites for their low-rent, un-Christian treatment of the outcasts, Jim and Huck. In more recent days, African-American readers, sensitive to Twain's use of the vernacular of the time, have seen the story as a put-down of their heritage instead of a tribute to the loving and honorable relationship between the runaway slave and the homeless boy.

The pattern of the outsider holding a mirror that reveals our human flaws continues in the Potter series. All of us are Muggles - people who can't do magic. So Harry and his friends are different. And because of their difference, Ms. Rowling can bring out her major motifs: the destructiveness of prejudice, the powerlessness of kids, good versus evil, making right choices, the value of loyalty, hard work and learning to get the best out of yourself.

Using books to expose young people to human flaws is the safest exposure they can have to life's realities. Certainly, safer than discovering such flaws for themselves. And far safer than seeing them in movies and on television.

So much about popular culture is bad for kids. Protective parents must make sure their children don't see movies and videos that are beyond their maturity to handle. They must refuse to sanction certain artists and entertainers for the damage their acts inflict. Whatever signature clothing is the fad of the moment doesn't always have to be purchased. Cherished children don't get to do everything everybody else does.

But the Harry Potter bandwagon is an opportunity to be part of the healthy fad and fashion all the kids are into at the moment. Parents, don't be afraid of these books.

Let your children revel in the mind-catching names, such as, Hermione, Albus Dumbledore, the Dursleys, Voldemort. Let their mind's eye squint to watch the flying Quidditch match. Read with them. Discuss with them. And trust them to be attracted to the good and to cheer when evil meets defeat. Learning to tell one from the other, by reading books such as these, will protect them long after you no longer can.

Commentary by Cathy Brown, an Arlington free-lance writer, appears regularly on Mondays. She can be reached through e-mail at amn@dallasnews.com.