CHILDREN'S MORAL READING OF HARRY POTTER: Are Children and Adults Reading the Same Books?

Article excerpt

This study examined the influence of education, expertise, and gender on child, college student, and postgraduate level readers' moral understanding of the themes and characters of the Harry Potter books. The researchers recruited 49 fourth to sixth graders, 19 seventh to twelfth graders, 34 college students and 21 masters/PhD-level participants to complete a measure rooted in Rest's 4 component model of morality. All readers identified courage and friendship as major themes. Older, more educated readers took a more complex view of the characters' moral sensitivity, moral judgment, moral motivation, and moral character, especially for the morally ambiguous character Snape. Harry Potter experts, who we defined as children who had read all the books multiple times, often had more complex understanding of characters than did other child readers. The findings, which support the value of the series for character education, are congruent with Narvaez's contention that the understanding of moral texts is mediated by moral schemas and expert/novice differences.


Controversy over the moral content of the J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter fantasy series has been characterized by an increasingly polarized debate. In general, educators have argued that the books send children moral messages about courage and friendship (e.g. Anatol, 2003; Bridger, 2002) while parents who come from a perspective that holds the Christian Bible as revealed truth have challenged the books on the grounds of their immoral messages about breaking rules and promoting sorcery (e.g., Albanes, 2001; E-mail chain letter, 2001; Kjos, 1999a, 1999b, 1999c). Given the widespread practice of using moral stories for moral and character education (e.g. Bennett, 1993; Gurian, 2000; Kilpatrick, 1993; Lickona, 1991; Tappan & Brown, 1989), it seemed important to empirically examine children's actual moral understanding of this internationally popular series. Our pilot studies of children's moral understanding of the books (Whitney, Vozzola, & Hofmann, 2001) suggested that children were not reading Harry Potter through the same moral spectacles as adults. Narvaez (2001) has found that background knowledge, reading skill, moral schemas and expert/novice differences often filter the moral messages children take away from texts. Using Narvaez and colleagues' methods for examining moral texts (e.g., Narvaez, 1998; Narvaez & Gjellstad Endicott, 1999), we have spent the past 4 years exploring the effect of age/education, expertise, and gender on children's moral reading of the Rowling novels.

When the research program began there was virtually no serious literature on children's responses to the Harry Potter books, only popular press accounts of the novels' popularity and controversy. Recently, an explosion of serious scholarly work has emerged, often representing the proceedings of conferences devoted to the Potter books. Perspectives represented include culture studies (Heilman, 2003; Whited, 2002), reading/children's literature (Anatol, 2003), and even Stoic philosophy (Kern, 2003). These probably reach a much smaller audience than the profusion of nonscholarly books debating the Christian perspective on Harry Potter (e.g., Albanes 2001, Killinger, 2004). With a few notable exceptions (Bridger, 2002; Granger, 2004; Neal, 2001, 2002), many of these works take a rather dualistic approach to questions of the books' impact on children, implying either that no good can come from these books or that children will take away only positive messages from the books. These conclusions are made without solid knowledge of what children are actually getting from the books. There continues to be a limited literature devoted to analyses arising from psychological theory (Binnendyk & Schonert-Reichl, 2002; Bukowski, 2001; Noel-Smith, 2001; Tisdell, 2003; Whitehead & Grimes, 2002) and a lack of analyses from a psychological research perspective. …