Freedom to Read, Freedom to Think

In 1999, my kids wanted to read Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. Their friends were reading the books, but their mom, and other parents I knew, had concerns about the series. As parents, we agreed I would read the first book and let her know what I thought.
My kids and I had just moved into our new house, and I spent a rainy week in July reading the audio book, performed by Jim Dale. My youngest walked into my room to hear the line,
“Urgh – troll boogers.”
“What are you reading?” she asked, with some surprise.
My kids started reading Harry Potter later that summer. We talked about the books, what they liked, what they didn’t like, and what bothered them.
Over the years, I’ve made it a practice to read what my kids are reading. Not everything, but even if I didn’t have time, or if I couldn’t get a digital copy of the book, we talked about what they were reading. And being able to talk about books meant we could talk about other things—music, movies, or pop culture.
This week is Freedom to Read Week. Reading with kids and talking about books can be the most effective ways to help a new generation become more aware and more clear-thinking adults. And reading together is simply one of the best ways to spend time with kids—I say that as both a parent and a storyteller.
Western culture has a long history of adults trying to control what kids read, going back farther than the eighteenth century. At that time, adults wanted kids to read books that were uplifting, instilled a fear of God, or taught lessons in honesty and working hard. One of the most shocking books ever written for children is James Janeway’s A Token for Children, which featured stories of child martyrs, all dying in the knowledge that their faith in God is secure. But children have always been drawn to those books adults don’t want them to read—both then and now.
If you want to read more about Freedom to Read Week, check out their website. Have a look at this list of challenged books in Canada from the Edmonton Public Library’s website—a list that contains some of my favourite books. And listen to this story from the CBC archives about the challenge to Margaret Laurence’s books in 1985.
The battle over books has gone on for centuries. But it’s not just about books; it’s about ideas and the freedom to think critically. Kids are curious; they want to read, and they want to talk about what they read. Unfortunately, the challenge to most books emerges out of fear—fear of what we dislike, fear of what we see as different, fear of what doesn’t reflect our own beliefs. Much is gained from maintaining a dialogue with children and young adults about what they think—they’re pretty awesome. And they are, after all, those who will inherit the Earth.

The Magic of Reading Harry Potter, or Just the Magic of Reading?

If you have been following the recent Internet buzz around Harry Potter, you are probably aware that studies suggest reading the novels will make you a better person. I’m sure it’s true. I’m never one to argue that reading will help you become more empathetic, more compassionate, and result in you becoming more aware of marginalized groups. However, much of the buzz around this study fails to acknowledge the long-standing connection between reading and empathy, quite apart from the Harry Potter books and their effect on young readers.
The study in question is “The Greatest Magic of Harry Potter: Reducing Prejudice,” which appeared in The Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 2015. You can find the study yourself, if you have access to a university library data base. This group of researchers tested three groups of young people. They set out to test if positive identification with the main character of a particular fantasy series—that being Harry Potter—would result in higher levels of sympathy towards marginalized groups, such as immigrants, refugees, and members of the LGBTQ community. Surprise surprise—the researchers discovered that young people who positively identified with Harry felt more empathy towards stigmatized groups.
The study undeniably makes a point about three select groups of young people who read Harry Potter. And yet, I don’t entirely know what to do with it. Perhaps that’s because I’m not a social scientist. As someone who teaches literature, and someone who teaches Harry Potter on a regular basis, I’m unsurprised by the results, but I am surprised by people’s reaction. A life time of reading has shown me how reading can expand my sense of the world, particularly of people I know nothing about. More important are the interactions that can emerge out of reading-in the classroom or with other readers. Talking to one another about the books we love fosters a dialogue that can become the vehicle for marked and radical change.
Studies on the positive effects of reading are plentiful. Just Google “reading and empathy” and you will see what I mean. Does this take away from the research on Harry Potter? Not necessarily. But it does suggest some perspective is in order.
A piece in Scientific American from 2013, for example, comments on a study examining the benefits of reading literary fiction, while a 2016 article in The Atlantic discusses studies on reading and the theory of mind, which suggest reading, while beneficial, will not give you super powers.
All this to say, reading Harry Potter will help make you a better person, but so will reading C. S. Lewis, William Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor, Alice Munro, Alice Walker, Elizabeth Smart, rohinton Mistry, as well as a thousand others. While social media has expanded people’s spheres of contact in astonishing ways, nothing takes the place of reading, then telling someone close to you about the book that just blew your mind. As the holidays approach and you stock up on books to get you through to the New Year. Remember to come out of your quiet corner now and then to tell somebody about what you’ve discovered. Happy reading!

Twenty Years of Harry Potter

In 1999, on a rainy afternoon in July, I was flaked out in my room reading an audio book. My kids and I had just moved in to our new house. They came home from an afternoon with their mom, and my youngest walked into my room. She heard:

He bent down and pulled his wand out of the troll’s nose. It was covered in what looked like lumpy gray glue.
“Urgh – troll boogers.”

“What are you listening to?” she asked, laughing in surprise.
It was Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. Correction—Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, read by Jim Dale. A neighbour had given me the book on cassette tape (if anyone remembers what those were), and my kid’s mom and I agreed that I would read the book before letting our kids read it. Thus began the obsession.
This June 26th marks the twentieth anniversary of the release of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. These books have been part of my life as a parent, an academic, and a reader for the last eighteen years.
While the Harry Potter franchise has become something of a bloated monster, I mostly simply appreciate the books as books. I’m not a Harry Potter film person, which, to some, makes me a heretic. I don’t spend any time on Pottermore, I don’t visit fans sites such as, and I don’t write fanfic—although I did think about it, once.
The books first entered my life as a parent. My kids and I read the books together, and we mostly listened to the Jim Dale recordings. By the time Order of the Phoenix appeared, you could sometimes hear the voice of Jim Dale coming from three different rooms in the house.
The night Deathly Hallows was released, my kids and I lined up at the south-side Indigo for copies of our books. We listened to the first chapter together, sitting at the kitchen table (it was now after 1:00 in the morning), before scattering our separate ways to read—my youngest and I through the rest of the night. The series gave me one of the many points of connection with my kids, and it carries a particular weight for that reason alone.
Teaching the book is another story. I teach either Philosopher’s Stone or Chamber of Secrets each year in my children’s literature classes, and one year, I taught a senior level course on the series. I’ve published two articles on Harry Potter, and made several presentations at conferences. The books are rich, but as an academic, I read with a critical eye—always reminding my students that I love the series, even if I question it relentlessly on a variety of levels:

Yes, Harry Potter is a Cinderella figure.
Yes, the dialogue often gets awkward.
No, the snake that appears in the first book has nothing to do with those appearing in the second.
No, Harry’s desire to kill Sirius Black in the third book is nothing more than teenage anger and adolescent bravado.
And, did you catch the major plot problem in Goblet of Fire?

In my life as a reader, the wizarding world has an immovable place. That place isn’t that of Narnia or Middle-Earth, but it’s in there. The Harry Potter books, for me, constitute an experience of shared reading—mostly with my kids. My reading life is a private world, which probably sounds odd coming from someone who teaches for a living. But the reading I do for my classes isn’t the same as the reading I do for me: the one is meant for public consumption; the other isn’t.
In celebration of twenty years of Harry Potter, I’m providing some links to other pieces I’ve written on the series.

The Potter Effect and the School for Wizards
The Potter Effect for a Potter Generation
The Birthplace of Harry Potter
More on Harry Potter, The Glasgow Connection

Enjoy! And if you haven’t read the series, do yourself a favour and read the first book. Consider it part of your professional development as a reader. Go ahead and hate it, but you’ll at least get a glimpse into the world many people find so compelling.

More on Harry Potter, the Glasgow connection

many people argue about influences on the Harry Potter series. I mostly think of J. R. R. Tolkien or C. S. Lewis. You could argue for other literary influences on the series, but such influences extend to people and places as well. One of those places, I’m discovering, is Glasgow, Scotland.
I don’t know how much time Rowling ever spent in Glasgow, but she must have visited, at least. Edinburgh, where Rowling lives, is just a short train ride away. And interestingly, the two cities share a similar rivalry to that of Edmonton and Calgary. Both are interesting places, historically and architecturally; and both are home to lovely people.
Edinburgh boasts the elephant House, “The birthplace of Harry Potter,” which I wrote about earlier this week. There’s a view of Edinburgh Castle from the window where Rowling allegedly worked on the first three books in the series. The castle, more like a fortress, is forbiddingly positioned on Castle rock above the town, and it must have figured somewhere into the series—perhaps Harry’s first sight of Hogwarts castle in Philosopher’s stone. But Glasgow has something else—two somethings, in fact.
If you walk up to Glasgow cathedral, a gorgeous medieval structure in the gothic style, you will find right next door St Mungo Museum of Life and Art. Yes, St Mungo. Mungo is the patron saint of Glasgow, died 612, CE, and it’s also the name given to the hospital in the Harry Potter series.
St Mungo’s doesn’t appear in the series until Goblet of fire, but Harry visits the hospital in order of the Phoenix. In the same book, we encounter the Fountain of Magical Brethren upon Harry’s visit to the Ministry of Magic. Here’s the description:
“Halfway down the hall was a fountain. A group of golden statues, larger than life-size, stood in the middle of a circular pool. Tallest of them all was a noble-looking wizard with his wand pointing straight up in the air. Grouped around him were a beautiful witch, a centaur, a goblin, and a house-elf. The last three were all looking adoringly up at the witch and wizard. Glittering jets of water were flying from the ends of the two wands, the point of the centaur’s arrow, the tip of the goblin’s hat, and each of the house-elf’s ears, so that the tinkling hiss of falling water was added to the pops and cracks of Apparators and the clatter of footsteps …”
Tell me the fountain of Magical Brethren wasn’t inspired by The doulton fountain, located today on Glasgow Green, first constructed in honour of queen Victoria’s golden jubilee in 1887, and set on display for the 1888 International Exhibition at Kelvingrove Park, Glasgow. Queen Victoria presiding over her colonies is too much like the fatuous wizard presiding over the witch and other magical creatures to be a coincidence. You may not agree, but it was the first thing I thought as my daughter and I walked round and round that fountain.
Glasgow is a fabulous city. It’s more like home in some ways than I ever thought a city could be. It’s known as the river city, just like Edmonton, except Glasgow boasts two rivers, the clyde and Kelvin. If you visit, you can spend time at the Glasgow Cathedral, St Mungo Museum, and take a walk on the Glasgow Green to check out the doulton Fountain. Many other sites await. Then, hop a train and visit Edinburgh, where you can find the Edinburgh castle and royal Mile, which, if you like castles, is the place to start. If you don’t, you won’t ever be without something to do. And don’t forget to drop into The elephant House for coffee or lunch—and bring a laptop or pen and paper so you can write in the back room and stare pensively at the walls of Edinburgh Castle as you do.

The Birthplace of Harry Potter

If you take a bus tour of Edinburgh, you can climb the narrow steps to the upper deck of the bus and get a bird’s-eye—or sort of bird’s-eye—view of this fascinating city. You will start your tour at the Waverley Station—the train station named for the novels by Sir Walter Scott. The bus takes you up the royal Mile, and under the imposing walls of Edinburgh Castle. The bus wanders through the old town, then travels into new town, built in the mid eighteenth century under the reign of George III. And never once during your one hour bus tour will your entertaining guide say anything about J. K. Rowling or Harry Potter.
Last August, my daughter and I visited Edinburgh Castle, but we didn’t have the chance to visit the elephant House, which claims to be the “birthplace of Harry Potter.” This time, we managed it.
We took the train from Glasgow to Edinburgh. I always love riding the train. We arrived at Waverley Station and walked up the Royal Mile to the Castle, checking out the shops along the way. We found a Harris Tweed shop, which I had a hard time leaving—I love tweed.
We spent time in St. giles’ cathedral, which was beautiful, before going onto the National Museum of Scotland, where we saw a fascinating exhibition of Celtic artifacts. I could say much about the innumerable ways popular culture has come to misrepresent the Celts, but I’m trying to keep this post short.

We ended our day with dinner at The elephant House, the “birthplace of Harry Potter.” I know that Rowling spent time in a café working on the first book, but I also know that calling the café the “birthplace of Harry Potter” is something of an exaggeration. I have read that she started writing the book while living in Spain, and I also read that she had the idea for the book while riding a train in England.
When I visited Oxford last summer, the tour guide on the bus claimed J. R. R. Tolkien wrote most of Lord of the rings sitting in The Eagle and Child—a ridiculous, if quaint  exaggeration. First of all, he had a job and a family, and he probably visited the pub a couple of times a week. However, you understand why these places want to lay claim to such writers. Its business, for one, and it’s a way to perpetuate myths about the writers we love. The problem with such claims is that they misrepresent and romanticize the lives of these authors.
Rowling no doubt spent time in The Elephant House working on the book about the boy wizard. However, I won’t for a second believe that she was sitting in the back of the cafe, gazing out at Edinburgh Castle in the distance, when she suddenly got the idea for Harry Potter. Of course, if by birthplace the elephant House means the protracted, painful labour of writing a book, then I’m more willing to accept their claim. Whether it’s actually the birthplace of Harry Potter or not, it was nice to sit and have dinner in the cafe. My daughter had beef casserole, and I had haggis, neeps, and tatties, which is haggis, turnip, and potatoes. A lovely way to end an interesting day.

The Potter Effect for a Potter Generation

Commenting on the Potter Effect in my last post, I suggested that it’s more than just a trend towards longer and longer books for children and young adults. It’s as much about how a generation of kids has learned to read.
The last few years have seen a more wide-spread conversation about the Potter Effect. Both ScientificAmerican and Psychology Todayhave published stories on how reading Harry potter will make you more empathetic and less prejudice. And these aren’t just opinion pieces. Recent studies on kids who read the Harry Potter books have brought scholars to similar conclusions, such as the authors of “The Greatest magic of Harry Potter: Reducing Prejudice.”
The Harry Potter generation—and there is debate over what constitutes such a generation—have a particular approach to reading books. And before you get offended, defining a Potter generation is about a demographic; it’s not about fandom. Being born outside the generation doesn’t make you less of a fan.
I’m not alone in counting the Potter generation as those born between 1985 and 1990—those young people who were old enough to read the series as it was published. These are young people, my own kids included, who had the chance to experience the series as it unfolded. We can extend the dates to those born up to and including 1995, but these kids would be coming to the Harry Potter books late in the publication of the series.
The Potter generation has a particular way of reading fantasy, and even film. The series has empowered a generation of readers, but in such a way as to often place it at the centre of their personal reading canon. Such readers will begin with, move out from, and return to Harry Potter.
I’m not finding fault, and perhaps it’s no different than what I did as a teenager with Tolkien and Lord of the Rings. However, I teach children’s literature every year, and I see how students use the Harry Potterbooks as a reference point for other texts. For example, if a student comes to Tolkien’s The Hobbit for the first time, she might comment that the book doesn’t use magic the way the Harry Potter books do. That may be true, but Rowling couldn’t have written Harry Potter without having read Tolkien, Lewis, Le Guin, MacDonald, Nesbit, or half a hundred others.
My point is that I teach texts in context, both historically and culturally. Many of my students read relationally, which means they understand books in relation to other books, but they are often unaware of the gaps in their own reading experience.
Again, I’m not finding fault; I’m just trying to learn how to teach people who, I think, read differently from me. And maybe their way is better. Last fall, I put Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets early in the term—my way of getting my students to begin with something familiar in order to incorporate those books into their canon that were less familiar. It seemed to make a difference, but I’ll have to try it several more times to be sure. Whatever its effect, recognizing the impact of the Harry Potter books on a generation has helped me to become, I hope, a better teacher, and to align myself more closely with those students who come through my classes every year.