Academic journal article School Libraries Worldwide

In Defense of Harry Potter: An Apologia

Academic journal article School Libraries Worldwide

In Defense of Harry Potter: An Apologia

Article excerpt

J.X. Rowling's Harry Potter books are arguably the most popular series ever in children's fiction, but also one of the most controversial. Repeated challenges have led some schools and libraries to remove or ban the books, with even more choosing to avoid problems by simply recommending or using other books. This article presents evidence that Rowling's books should be kept, used, and recommended in libraries and schools because they exemplify three essential qualities of great children's literature: they are intensely engaging; they have significant literary worth; and they raise questions of deep significance to children's social and ethical development.

As I wrote this article, the movie Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets had just finished an outstanding premier weekend, setting a new record by grossing £9.8 million in Britain and Ireland, scoring the third-best opening weekend ever in the United States by pulling in $87.6 million (topped only by Spiderman and the original Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone), and taking in $54 million more in seven other key world film markets (Potter conjures, 2002). After book sales that captured the top three slots on the New York Times Bestseller List for a tediously long time in 2000 (the first time any author has ever accomplished this feat, and rumored to be the reason the Times finally split off a separate Children's List on which two of the Harry Potter books still hold places in the top five), it seems clear that millions of children and their parents are just as anxious to see the movies as they were to read the books. The series is arguably the most popular ever in children's fiction, yet it is also one of the most controversial.

One of the earliest conflicts arose in the US, in Zeeland, Michigan, where the superintendent of schools forbade teachers to read Harry Potter books aloud to their classes because of their positive references to witchcraft, and a self-named group of "Muggles1 for Harry Potter" campaigned successfully to lift the ban (Censorship, 2001). By the middle of 2000,25 school districts in 17 states had challenged the books, and they had been at least temporarily banned in schools in Kansas and Colorado (Jones, 2000). In 2001,60 SeventhDay Adventist schools in Australia had banned the books (Schools ban, 2001), and in December that year, the pastor of a New Mexico church ceremonially burned them, claiming they were "a masterpiece of Satanic deception" (Goldberg, 2002). In February 2002, the books were banned for school use in the United Arab Emirates (Emirates ban, 2002). Perhaps most tellingly, the series has led the American Library Association's "most challenged books" list for the last three years, 1999-2001.

There is evidence that because of these challenges, some teachers and librarians are now shying away from using or recommending the Harry Potter books (Censorship, 2001). Perhaps they sympathize with some parents' concerns about the "witchy" props in the stories: the spells, the potions, and the pointy black hats. Or in a form of self-censorship, they may be tempted to avoid problems by simply recommending less controversial materials. Yet I believe these books have too much to offer our children for us to set them aside or, worse, restrict children's access to them. In fact the Harry Potter books exemplify three qualities I see as essential to great children's literature: they are intensely engaging; they have significant literary worth; and they raise questions of deep significance to children's social and ethical development.

They are intensely engaging

Great children's books must first of all appeal to children. Children read most what they like best, and the more we can encourage children to read, the better readers they will become. Gamoran, in a 1986 study, found that the strongest predictor of elementary children's reading achievement was simply the number of words they had read over the year. This relationship also holds true for second-language learners (Elley & Mangubhai, 1983). …

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