Thursday, July 19, 2007

Harry Potter & The Seriousness of Childhood

I'm not a parent. I'm not really... around children all that much (serving hog dogs and french fries to the obese little buggers in a family restaurant while the adults at the table demand more soda pop and extra mayonnaise--doesn't count). That said, I do know a thing or two about being a child--having been one within the last decade or so--and about living around young adults who persist in acting like children. I live cheek to cheek with this phenomenon that Ron Charles calls "cultural infantilism" in his critical article about the Harry Potter books.

When it comes to the Harry Potter phenomenon, there is one important fact to keep in mind: they are children's books. They are not "serious" adult novels, they do not grapple with the complexities of foreign political policy, the devastation of war, the moral ambiguity of conflicting desires for "the good", the insecurities of a materialist, isolationist culture, the obstacles to healthy partnerships between the sexes... They're just cutely-illustrated books about a bunch of child-wizards waving wands around and playing at puzzle-solving within the imaginary world of Hogwarts. Right?

Let me say it again: these are children's books. Any self-respecting adult might be embarrassed to admit enjoying a series of books meant for children, especially when there are plenty of "adult" novels that address serious subjects like war, sex, morality, politics, religion, and so on. The question the Harry Potter phenomenon begs is not whether they are good books for children--they must be at least as good as the latest "Barbie Goes to the Mall" picture book, after all--but why so many adults are reading them (and why this bothers certain people so much).

One easy answer is that the first Harry Potter book was published ten years ago. Ten years ago, I was fourteen, and my little brother was twelve, more interested in climbing trees and playing soccer than in reading books (but, happily, not at all interested in video games or the internet, let alone cell phones or iPods). Today, I'm a young woman whose college experience was defined by 9/11, religious and political fear-mongering, and the waging of an unjust, unnecessary war despite worldwide protest; my little brother is now a young man, about to graduate with a B.S. degree in marketing, who finds himself uncomfortable with the way aesthetics and psychology are warped and number-crunched into base methods of manipulating consumers into buying unnecessary products beyond their means. What does that have to do with Harry Potter? On the surface, nothing at all. But look again, and you discover that we are both--as grown, mature and intelligent adults--wading knee-deep in a culture of insecurities, over-reactions, emotional turmoils, immediate gratifications and damn-the-consequences agendas... We're adults stuck in an adolescent world.

Neil Postman has some interesting things to say about the "disappearance of childhood" in our modern Western culture which, because of the dominance of television and other multi-media, has destabilized the socialization of children into adulthood. Contemporary ritual theorists bemoan the lack of clearly defined social moments of initiation into adult life, replaced instead by relatively individualized benchmarks like first car, first sexual experience, first cigarette, first beer, first full-time job, etc. As childhood slowly shrinks, the in-between "adolescent" stage seems to grow ever more expansive, reaching back to include children of ten and younger, and forward to embrace adults in their early (and sometimes even late) 20s who are still living out the irresponsibility and frivolity of their college days. When our ubiquitous multi-media culture isn't busying shrinking childhood, it occupies itself with idealizing and romanticizing it. We've suddenly come to believe that children "shouldn't have to confront" difficult issues like war, violence, sex, diversity and free will. Parents lobby school districts to ban books they feel are "too adult" for their children to read. Even widely admired classics (not to mention books that address censorship and ignorance) aren't safe from our romanticization of a childhood free from struggle, risk and, in the end, growth.

Enter J.K. Rowling, and a charmingly normal, bit-too-skinny, ten-year-old boy named Harry Potter who suddenly discovers he has power and potential none of the adults around him want to admit, and furthermore, he has the chance to develop and utilize these powers either creatively, or destructively. Now, gee, why would anyone living in the modern world, struggling to emerge mature and whole from the mire of unending adolescence, be even remotely interested in such a silly story? After all, what are the Harry Potter books, class? They are children's books.

You can guess by now where this critique of Charles's review is going. Charles sees the Harry Potter sensation as a cause of or contributor to infantilism. What other reason could there be for adults reading books meant for kids? he demands. But I disagree. I see it as a symptom of, and a legitimate response to, the increasing dismissal of childhood as a "serious" stage of life, and the need to recapture--and perhaps relive--the transition into adulthood in a socially-shared way.

The remarkable aspect of the Harry Potter books is that the characters do grow up. The angst-ridden, isolated Harry of book five (The Order of the Pheonix) is not the same innocent, wide-eyed, puzzle-solving youth who fought a troll in the girl's bathroom in book one. By the end of book six, Harry has already confronted a large number of complex "adult" issues, including:
  • the importance of friendship, and the appreciation of diversity and difference as necessary for a thriving, challenging community;
  • the struggle for truth, and the ambiguity of "good" and "evil" in complex social and political institutions;
  • the reality of death, and the existence of unmitigated injustice to which different people respond with different emotional needs;
  • the potential for any human being to choose creativity and growth, or destruction and death, and the need to make such choices deliberately, conscious of their consequences;
  • the role that hope (rather than despair), love (rather than fear) and sacrifice (rather than self-preservation) play in the inevitable initiation into adulthood.

Charles describes "the unique pleasures of reading a novel" as "that increasingly rare opportunity to step out of sync with the world, to experience something intimate and private." Far be it for me to disagree, when I've only just written an ode of my own to solitude, stillness, contemplation and engagement. However, what Charles fails to consider is that, in a world that is increasingly "out of sync" with itself, the "thrilling unity" of the Harry Potter phenomenon may in fact serve a social function that has been increasingly neglected. After all, Harry Potter fans don't just watch the movies, buy the action figures and attend the midnight costume parties... they also read the books. What they respond to is not simply the hype of a mass-media experience, but the sense that others are also engaged, on a large scale, with the complexities and ambiguities these books address: that childhood is not frivolous, that it is not inaccessible to a jaded adult population, and that it can be an on-going source of growth and community even as it is transcended.


  1. A brilliant essay, although I do find it quite ironic that a housewife in Gwinnett County here in Georgia actually has campaigned to ban the Harry Books. After all, wizardry and witchcraft are not appropriate fantasies for good Christian youth. They harken back to paganism, of all things!

  2. Really? You thought it was brilliant? Aww, shucks. :) After I finished it, I felt as though maybe I overshot a little. By the by, a friend of mine working on her PhD in literary criticism (with a focus on "genre" literature such as sci-fi and fantasy) did me the great honor of chiming in with her own thoughts about the article over at my personal journal. Check it out, as she has some brilliant things to say as well. :)

  3. Amazing reading through your post. Sadly, children are thrust into adulthood far too quickly and a great deal more is expected of the from a very young age. I have a daughter of 14 with whom I get along with very well, but we do sit and talk about the importance of childhood, and not to forget what it was like.
    As for Harry Potter, for a lot of adults it is also escapism into a fantasy world away from the pressures inflicted with everyday life. I do think that it is sad that so many people are forming vast queues now to get their hands on the last edition, as in a few months time the stampede wil be well and truly over.
    Well put article though and great reading, thank you.

  4. You write beautifully. I loved the essay. Thanks for the insight!

    I've added you to my favorite bloggers. :-)

  5. While I don't think the Harry Potter books are great literature, they are at least as enjoyable as most other mass market fiction, for adults as well as children. And yes, they are about growing up, and do have a lot to say about growing up to kids.

    Thirty years ago, long before Harry Potter, a lecturer from a teacher training college spoke to a church youth group about education. He started by asking them to define intelligence, and after they had suggested various things, he gave his own: intelligence is what you do when you don't know what to do.

    And, in a way, that is what the Harry Potter stories are about. The education system may be gortesque, but how can you use it to learn what you need to learn. Harry Potter and friends find ways to circumvent the Dolors Umbridge's of this world, and perhaps might inspire some other kids to do the same.