Time Harry Potter came off the banned list?

harry_potterLast week was Banned Books Week, an annual even run by the American Library Association to highlight challenges to our freedom to read. As always this event comes with a reminder of which books groups have campaigned successfully to have prohibited from school and public libraries. Children’s authors who frequently show up on the list  include J K Rowling, Phillip Pullman and Jacqueline Wilson often because religious groups feel the texts are at odds with their own beliefs. The other key reason given for a ban is that the book is  deemed to contain content inappropriate for children, such as sex or drugs.

It was a surprise to me that Harry Potter was so frequently on the banned books list. I never read any of the novels when they were published (why as an adult would I want to read a children’s book was my thinking at the time). It’s only because of my course on children’s literature that I ended up reading the first in the series Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. I know there are some among the literati who were very sniffy about this series. The critic Anthony Holden  for example called the books ‘pedestrian, ungrammatical… patronising, conservative…derivative. ”

That seems rather harsh. Rowling’s narrative may not be as multi-layered as say Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials but we should give her credit for reinventing the traditional school story as a form of fantasy. The magical elements have cited by various religious groups as reasons to restrict children’s access to the series but it seems this rather misses a key point. Yes the books contain wizards and spells but the magic is not set up to be a superior force – in fact it’s logical reasoning, not spells, that enables the trio of Ron, Harry and Hermione to discover the philosopher’s stone. Nor is the magic used without fetters – from his first connection with the non-Muggle world, Harry is instructed on the proper and improper, legal and illegal, uses of magic. He is not to use magic in the Muggle world during summer vacations, for example, and while at Hogwarts he is expected to follow the rules around the appropriate and inappropriate uses of magic.

Focusing so much on the magic also seems to miss the point that this is a novel that is firmly grounded in the kind of morality and codes of behaviour that surely parents want their children to understand and follow. Read beyond the magic and you’ll find Harry gets several ‘lessons for life’ during his time at Hogwarts. This is a novel very much in the tradition of the Bildungsroman where Harry changes from an unkept, unloved, abused child to the hero of the hour who has defeated the forces of evil. Along the way he learns the importance of study, of loyalty among friends and that while it’s fun to challenge and break the rules, there are undesirable consequence. By far the most important thing Harry learns in this novel, however, is not that he is special and has magical power but that it matters how he uses this power. He has a choice to use it on the side of goodness or to follow the example of Lord Voldemort and go over to the dark side. Every challenge he encounters at Hogwarts are tests of his character and his resolve to be the good guy.  young readers can identify with Harry not just because he defeats Voldermot but because he makes the right choices. Why would that be something dangerous for children to read about – instead of seeing him as something bad and dangerous, isn’t he in fact a good role model for children?  Instead of trying to ban the spectacled kid, shouldn’t we embrace him?


About BookerTalk

What do you need to know about me? 1. I'm from Wales which is one of the countries in the UK and must never be confused with England. 2. My life has always revolved around the written and spoken word. I worked as a journalist for nine years then in international corporate communications 3. My tastes in books are eclectic. I love realism and hate science fiction and science fantasy. 4. I am trying to broaden my reading horizons geographically by reading more books in translation

Posted on October 5, 2016, in Book Reviews, British authors, Children's literature, fantasy and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 25 Comments.

  1. I AGREE! It’s about time Harry Potter is free from any banning.

  2. I couldn’t agree more 😀

  3. I suspect people who ban certain books or call for them to be banned have never actually read the books in question. The whole concept of book banning seems a peculiarly American thing…

  4. Your argument is impressively rational and well-considered. Unfortunately religious conviction is impervious to such counters! It seems people are baffled as to why conservative Christians are so against Harry Potter. My theory is that it is for the same reason that Scientologists attack psychotherapy or, for a contemporary example, the reasons behind Donald Trump’s personal attacks. That is, it is a case of projection resulting from insecurity. In essence, conservative Christians do not want children to read Rowling’s books filled with magic and moral lessons; they would rather children read their book filled with magic and moral lessons. They especially don’t want both books to coexist lest children ask why the magic in one is to be considered fictional and the other not, or why the moral lessons of one seem more reasonable than the other. For the same reason, Scientologists want their adherents to believe that their methods of self-actualisation are valid and the others are false. Trump harps on about his opponent’s appearance, temperament, health issues, dodgy charities, business dealings, marital histories, etc, because he is insecure about his own.

  5. I’ve read and loved all the HP books and have listened to them on audio too read by the wonderful Jim Dale (such a treat!). Book banning is not a logical thing and those who advocate it are generally not coming from a logical perspective but an emotional one where they somehow feel threatened or perceive a threat for their children. You can’t really blame them but it is also hard to argue logic against emotion.

  6. OK, just read Risa’s comments about the occult. My knowledge of that is pretty dim so can’t really comment.

  7. I’ve never quite understood why exactly these books were banned. So there is magic, how exactly does that violate any religious belief? Based on that logic, then so many books would come under that ban.

  8. Well said! If parents object to their kids reading HP, or any other book, that’s fine, but if they try to ban others from reading certain books, then that’s not ok. Those few parents I’ve spoken to who object to HP have not even read the books themselves, and that annoys me. How can you judge what’s appropriate and what isn’t without knowing what it really is? Furthermore, these same parents have no problems with their kids watching TV shows that are far worse than anything you could object to in HP (in my opinion anyway).

    • How can you campaign to ban something just on the basis of what other people have told you? Doesn’t that fall into the category of prejudice. OK if they had read it and then decided they didnt want their child to have access to it, thats their prerogative but to ban a whole state on such a flimsy pretext is wrong

  9. Those sniffy comments have been a source of great annoyance to me. I remember selling Harry Potters to children who were so eager to read the book that they could hardly wait for me to get it into a bag for them. That’s what’s important!

  10. I’ve read the whole series and I enjoyed myself. See, you can enjoy Proust and Harry Potter.

    I agree with the content of your post and this list of banned books is very puzzling, seen from my corner of the world.

    I see that this time The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie is not on the list. Good for the kids, it’s a great one.

  11. The danger of anything being forbidden is that it immediately becomes the one thing everyone wants to have. I think if a writer wants to sell, having their book banned would be a fantastic way to go about it. Hahaha! =))

    Harry Potter… I enjoyed this series. It was beautifully fantastical, ingenious and fun. But I must admit that I understand where the religious factions are coming from on this one — in Christianity anything to do with the occult is forbidden. And Harry Potter is occult from beginning to end.

    Personally, on its own, I think Harry Potter is a good read. But combined with all the hype it gets along with all the commercialising, video games, Pottermore and all that gizmo, the Harry Potter universe is actually quite real to many impressionable youngsters. It might sound ridiculous, but young teens and pre-teens are very susceptible to the allure of the Harry Potter franchise. And all it takes is a tiny step to lead to many more that become confident strides into the Forbidden Land. If the religious factions are objecting it is because they understand the danger of those tiny steps.

    • Sure children can be impressionable but I haven’t seen a huge increase in the number of witches since the Potter phenomenum materialised……:) I think many children will understand this is fantasy not reality just as they understand they can’t fall down a rabbit hole and meet a mock turtle, or escape into Narnia though the wardrobe

  12. I’ve read the Harry Potter books to both of my children multiple times (and am currently midway through the third one with my daughter….. again!). I think it’s ludicrous that they are seen as promoting interest in the occult and are dangerous. I’ve met people who think just that, and tellingly, none of them had actually read any. I do think that the writing can be a little pedestrian at times, but I love the emphasis on the importance of loyalty, courage and integrity over success at any cost.

  13. Well, I’m one of those who don’t care for the series, for much the same reasons as I don’t care for Enid Blyton, *but* I agree with everything you say about how daft it is that this book is banned. (As a children’s librarian, I read three, Nos 1 & 2, which I think are fine for primary school children, and no 7, which is IMO, treading a fine line, but – as I assured parents at assembly at my school after *groan* spending the weekend reading it after its high profile release – is ok for mature 11 and 12 year olds.) The books do focus on the choice between good and evil. Perhaps what the Religious Right doesn’t like is that God isn’t involved in the decision. HP, like any good humanist, makes his decisions from his own secular moral framework.
    What I found really interesting about this series, BTW, was that although there were some children at my school who wanted to read HP, despite the relentless hype, most of the multiple copies I had, stayed on the shelves for most of the time. I think that’s because for most Australian children boarding school is an alien experience. Only kids who live in remote areas go to boarding school here, and the rest think that it would be truly terrible to be sent away from your family. (And sadly, many of my kids had families not unlike the abusive one that Harry has). As well as that, I promoted Australian children’s lit to my kids, and that’s what they loved best.

    • Ive heard a similar comment elsewhere about the boarding school setting being something not all children can relate to. I find that odd because my favourite book series when I was a child was set in a boarding school yet I went to a regular grammar school. To me the boarding school was a form of escapism but I never thought of it as real……
      As for banning books because God isn’t present and involved, all I can say is that there will be few books left it that is the rationale for a ban…

  14. I feel we should embrace him. I enjoyed reading the Harry Potter series and believe that Rowling is a wonderful writer.

    • It’s not as ‘literary’ as some other children books but it clearly hit the mark with its target audience so in a sense, who cares what adult readers think

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