Harry Potter and the Banned Books

Anthropologists, historians of religion, and professors of literature will all tell you that the rule in traditional cultures, and even in cultures such as ours, is that story, in whatever form, is meant to instruct and change us.

-John Granger, Looking for God in Harry Potter

The Harry Potter series celebrates its twentieth birthday this year. It’s been appearing on banned book lists for as long, regularly condemned for promoting witchcraft and satanism. I knew of the controversy long before I read the series – to be honest, I picked up Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone in a fifth-grade classroom for the first time about fifteen years ago, read the first couple of pages, and wasn’t especially gripped either way. Not until Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows was about to be released did I take the real plunge. I had attended a conference with a group of children’s lit MFA candidates, who described the coming of the final book and their anticipation of it with eyes gleaming like those of beatified saints:

“I ordered it and when it’s delivered, I am going to lock myself in the bedroom – I told my family not to bother me, I am going to be reading this book, and I need to be left alone.”

I swear I saw tears shimmering in their wide eyes.

So, with a just month to go before the release date, I read all six preceding books, even went to Barnes and Noble to get my own copy of Deathly Hallows at midnight on the release date.

In short: The books are magical, all right, but not in the sense of spells, wands, sorcery. These appear in the books but aren’t the real draw, are not what the books are really about. The draw – the thing that puts the gleam in the diehard fan’s eye – is caring about the characters, the need to know what’s going to happen to them. The age-old theme of good versus evil, making choices to preserve life or destroy it. The big umbrella from which the stories hang is love – think of why Voldemort really cannot win in the end.

What we take away from the Potter books is that as long as as there is love, there’s hope. A young boy with a lot of hard knocks in his early life is willing to sacrifice himself to save others. He’s successful, and because he is, in his not-exactly-perfect-hero example, we know we can be, too. After all, he’s just a child.

The books don’t entice children to practice magic; they entice readers to be their better selves, to strive, to overcome darkness within and without.

I was an avid reader ever since I can remember. Every summer when I stayed with my grandmother in the far, coastal reaches of North Carolina, she took me to the tiny, dusty county library. I checked out stacks of books, more than I could carry by myself – Grandma had to help. One year I saw a title that compelled me. I had heard about the movie,  that people at my church said it was really bad; I knew people were afraid of it. Naturally, it piqued my interest. I put the book in my stack and, wonder of wonders, Grandma didn’t notice, or I surely wouldn’t have been allowed to have it.

That book was The Exorcist.

It was well beyond my developmental level, to say the least, and it was the first cover I opened when I got back to Grandma’s house. After maybe four minutes of attempting to decode words with multisyllabic chunking, before I even knew that was a real strategy, I was horrified by the images I could and did glean. I closed the cover and hid the book from my sight, fervently wishing I could just leave it outside until the return trip to the library.

I was maybe ten years old.

What I learned at that young age is that you have to be your own judge.

This is something that Harry does exceedingly well.

Every book that we read changes us; we take away some learning, some new thinking, some depth of emotion. Agreeing or disagreeing with the content, our given tastes in that regard, are not primary considerations – our freedom to decide is. We must be careful of what we are advocating – for, if a book containing stories of magic, sorcery, and evil acts should be banned, then that includes the Bible itself.

 

 

 

My book bag

Bookbag

Everywhere I go, my customized book bag is a topic of conversation.

First of all, it’s literally a BOOK bag, sending the message “I’m a reader.”

Then people realize what the “book” is about. A play on Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, my book bag bears the title “Magical Worlds and Where to Find Them.”

Opening a book, for me, is akin to Newt Scamander opening his suitcase – we step in and walk through magically expanded worlds. Whatever the book, it’s a passport to the minds and souls of other people, where I find myself reflected not always as a writer or thinker but as a fellow human being on the common, complex journey of life.

That’s the message I want to send to my young students, who are frequently in raptures over my book bag: Read. Expand your world, your mind.

My book bag actually sends more than one message:

Bookbag spine

It’s an homage to my favorite fantasy writers and the worlds they created, old and new.

Much is written and debated, perhaps, on the importance of reading fantasy. Here’s a favorite quote on the subject:

The problem with people who are afraid of imagination, of fantasy, is that their world becomes so narrow that I don’t see how they can imagine beyond what their senses can verify. We know from science that there are entire worlds that our senses can’t verify. 
-Katherine Paterson

The magic is a draw, certainly – in regard to Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia, who wouldn’t want to experience singing stars and merfolk, a centaur, talking animals? Who wouldn’t want a chance to feel the tingle of the box of dust from the lost island of Atlantis and ride on the back of a huge owl? Truth is, the bigger, deeper exploration is not the mysteries of the magical world but the real workings of the human heart – we read fantasy to escape our world, to live in another for a time, and all the while we’re looking into a mirror. This is where our thinking truly broadens – in understanding self, then in pushing the parameters of possibility.

Dr. Seuss said:

Fantasy is a necessary ingredient in living, it’s a way of looking at life through the wrong end of a telescope, and that enables you to laugh at life’s realities.  

The lines between the fantasy stories we love best and the world we live in are much blurrier than we realize. It’s where the impossible and possible merge – who’s to say where all the boundaries really are?

Which is fun, sometimes even comforting, to think about.

So everywhere I go, I carry a little fantasy, a little magic, with me.

Via my book bag – a messenger bag, indeed.

Bookbag back

slice-of-life_individual

Six-word memoir

Words pour in

“What do you love best? How can you use the things you love to represent you, to describe who you are, in just six words?”

I pause to let the fifth graders think.

“One thing that I love,” I continue, “is the sound of cicadas. Have you heard that sound?”

Hands shoot up. I nod to a girl who replies: “Those bugs that buzz really loud.”

“Yes. Every spring I look forward to hearing the cicadas again – they will buzz all summer long. They remind me of summers spent with my grandparents. The sound was deafening in the thick woods around their home. Hearing cicadas now makes me feel happy and safe, no matter what else is going on. It’s one of the things I love best. So I might try to write my six-word memoir about the sound of cicadas.”

With pencil on paper, using the document camera, I write:

Nature sings to me. I listen.

I see heads nodding.

“I might keep working these six words to see if I can make them represent me better. I might decide to work on another idea. Today you will make a list of things that you love – maybe things you love to do, or favorite objects, or even dreams you have of things you want to do or be – and think about how each thing represents you. Then we will work on capturing and hammering out those descriptions in just six words.”

Off they go around the room, to brainstorm.

I brainstorm, too. What else can I write? What’s another example I can give them?

Well, as far back as I can remember, I loved reading and writing – it’s who I am. It’s what I do. It’s why I’m in this very room this very minute, teaching it.

I think about it all night, and am ready for the next lesson.

“So, ladies and gentlemen, yesterday we brainstormed ideas for writing our six-word memoirs. We thought of things we love and how they might represent us. I thought of something else to represent me. Let me ask you: What do you think represents me? Think about what I do and what you know about me.”

A boy waves his hand: “I know! Harry Potter!”

The class giggles and a few say, “Yessss!”

I laugh. “Excellent. But think bigger than Harry Potter, if possible! Think about who I am and what I do.”

A quiet girl’s hand sneaks up. “You teach reading and writing.”

“There you go. I’ve loved reading and writing all my life. I think this idea might be a great choice for a six-word memoir. It really describes who I am. I have to think now about how to capture this idea in six words.”

With pencil, paper, and the document camera, I write:

I read, I write, I am.

Heads nod – and an image materializes in my mind just then.

A pitcher, a glass, water pouring . . . .

“I just got an idea of how to make this better!”

I write:

Words pour in. Words pour out.

The children study these words.

“What do you think this means, ladies and gentlemen?”

A boy says, “First you wrote I read, I write, I am and you said you could make it better so I think you mean that if words pour in, you’re reading, and if words pour out, you’re writing.”

Across the room, faces light up.

I smile. “Well done. For a few minutes, share your ideas with your partner and talk about possible ways to begin writing your six-word memoir. Then we’ll all write.”

I listen as the ideas flow in and out, with a hum as vibrant as that of cicadas.

(If you’re interested in reading an earlier Slice on the sound of cicadas: Cicada rhythm)

slice-of-life_individualEarly Morning Slicer

Lighting the way

Lumos

Yesterday a fifth-grader caught me in the hallway:

“Mrs. Haley, do you have a copy of Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets in your room?”

 “I have two copies. Ask your teacher if you can walk with me to get one.”

He did. As we walked, I said, “The Chamber of Secrets is a great book. I enjoyed it more than The Sorcerer’s Stone.”

“Yeah, I haven’t read Chamber of Secrets. I saw the movie and my favorite part is when Harry gets the cloak of invisibility and finds that mirror where he sees his family.”

“Ah, the Mirror of Erised … I just read that aloud to two classes at another school last week while they were studying fantasy.”

In that chapter, Harry receives the cloak of invisibility at Christmas with an anonymous note explaining that it had belonged to his father; he is admonished to “use it well.” He sneaks around Hogwarts, hidden by the cloak, and ends up in a remote, off-limits part of the building in what appears to be a storage room. He finds a large, ornate mirror. Erised backwards is desire – looking in the Mirror of Erised shows a person the deepest desires of his or her heart. Harry’s family is dead; he desperately wishes he could have known them. He is transfixed by their images in the mirror – they wave at him, and his mother wipes away her tears as she smiles at Harry.

I think, as I rummage through my basket of Potter books, Fascinating how it’s the humanity that draws us, more than the magic. 

“Here you, go,” I say to the student. “The Chamber of Secrets.”

His face lights up when I place it in his hands. “Thanks, Mrs. Haley!”

“Read it well,” I call after him, as he walks away, flipping pages.

I look around my room, my own chamber decorated with Potter memorabilia that draws children from across grade levels. They love to drop by to show me their owl collections, to ask if I’ve read The Cursed Child, to share anything Harry Potter that they’ve recently acquired. The Harry Potter club meets here twice a month, students from third through fifth grades, and we talk so much more about what motivates the characters than the magic they employ.

My Lumos glass box gleams in the corner by the doorway. I think of all the times that teachers might wish we had magic wands to show us everything the kids need, to fix all that needs fixing. I recall J.K. Rowling’s quote from her 2008 Harvard speech, now connected to her Lumos charity on behalf of children:

“We do not need magic to transform the world. We carry all the power we need inside ourselves already.”

It’s apparent whenever I read with the kids, whenever the Potter club meets and someone has an epiphany about a character, whenever I walk into a classroom to write with students and teachers. The essence of teaching, of reading, of writing more than anything else, is the connection of human minds and hearts. It’s all part of same story, the triumph of the human spirit. Teach it, read it, write it well – tap into all you’ve known, all you’ve loved, all you’re wrestling with, and watch their faces.

It’s all inside you. Light the way.

slice-of-life_individualEarly Morning Slicer

 

 

 

My Patronus

As a headmistress and co-founder of my school’s Harry Potter Club, I was recently admonished to take the Pottermore Patronus quiz, as all other Patronus quizzes are essentially heresy. I approached the task with a bit of trepidation, having heard of people attaining aardvarks and the like.

For the non-Potterite: The Patronus charm produces a silvery animal guardian, usually representative of the individual casting it.

Being a fantasy fan since childhood, and considering my headmistress role, it was necessary: I plunged into the virtual dark forest to seek my symbolic protector. On the site, ghostly words appear in groups of three amongst the trees; the seeker chooses one and is moved onto the next set. At one point in this quest, when I paused too long, the words evaporated with a reprimand: “You are too slow. This game requires quick reflexes.” Silently chiding myself for overthinking simple word choices, certain that this blunder would land me with an armadillo or caterpillar, I picked up my pace. At last, in the ominous forest, a silvery shape materialized.

A white mare.

Beautiful and powerful, my white mare galloped through the forest, luminous against the darkness. Enchanting.

My next quest, naturally, was looking up the symbolism.

From various sites, the synthesis is that a white horse represents wisdom, power, loyalty, heroism, nobility, victory – encouraging, yes, but also inversely raising an intrinsic, lofty bar: am I worthy of the white mare? Do I deserve her? Never mind the fact that I gained her by playing a game with an end product based solely on word choices, not short answers or soul-searching responses. The writer in me delves deep into the metaphorical.

I already knew that white horses can symbolize death or the end of the world. They are considered psychopomps, creatures that guide human spirits on their journey from Earth to the afterlife.

As I pondered these connections, my Patronus suddenly conjured up road trips with my father and sister. Three hours is an eternity to young children cooped in a car, so to pass the time, Daddy taught us a game he played as a child:

“When we go by any horses, if they’re on your side of the street, you get a point for each horse. If you have a white horse on your side, it’s worth ten points, because you don’t see many of those.”

My sister and I instantly glued our faces to our respective windows, for we’d been by these random pastures before. We’d often seen horses grazing, strolling, sometimes galloping. I was sure – I just knew – I’d get a white horse. Maybe more than one!

“The thing is,” Daddy continued, “if we pass a graveyard, and it’s on your side of the street, you lose all your horses.”

So we played the game. My sister and I gained horses with glee, then lost them with loud groans, without realizing that one of us would win on the journey to the destination and the other would win on the return trip.

Daddy drove on in peace, smiling to himself.

How many horses I won and lost, I’m not sure, nor do I recall how many were white, only that they were there by the wayside on a long, tiresome journey. Those white horses are obscured by time now, very dim, but still real, ever more priceless, in my misty memory.

Enchanting, indeed, that one should reappear as my guardian after so many years, and that I should have gained it in a game venue that didn’t exist when I was a child.

Daddy, I think, would be pleased. Perhaps he is, from his place on the other side.

Reflect: What creature might symbolize you, and why? I’ve often played a game with students, challenging them to think of an animal that begins with the first letter of their first names (I’ve always chosen fawn in these scenarios – perhaps I should change it to foal?). No two can be the same, so each student ends up with a unique animal and has to think of ways the animal might represent them or their lives. Think – and write. 

 

The Harry Potter club

harry-potter-club

Every semester a new group of them arrives, fresh-faced, wide-eyed, often clutching owls or wands, quivering with excitement and  ready to be sorted into one of the four houses … no, they’re not at Hogwarts. These are third, fourth, and fifth grade students who signed up to be in the Harry Potter club at our magnet school.

A colleague and I are the founders, the “co-deputy headmistresses” of the club, formed in conjunction with the school’s mission to expand arts and science integrated opportunities for the students. Staff chooses what to offer; students can sign up for anything from cooking classes to a foreign language to astronomy. Since it began, the Harry Potter club has operated at maximum capacity. Once we know students’ names, they receive their own rolled parchment letter of acceptance (as yet not delivered by owl, but we headmistresses are working on that).

My colleague and I expected to have fun – after all, we chose a theme that was fun for us. We expected that the kids would have fun, and they do. From Day One when they are sorted with the help of an online quiz  – we call it the “technological Sorting Hat” and we always end up with an alarming number of Slytherins, prompting discussions about character traits – through sessions of making their own wands, Quidditch pencil brooms, golden snitches, and patronus pictures, the students savor every moment. One of us, a teacher or student volunteer, reads aloud from the books while the club members work on their crafts. As students are sorted, someone reads Harry’s sorting experience to the group; when students make wands, one of us reads the scene where Harry goes to Ollivander’s for his wand. All students chime in right on cue, because they’ve seen the movies and they know: “The wand chooses the wizard.”

What my colleague and I didn’t expect were the far-reaching effects. Parents frequently tell us: “My child is SO excited about being in the Harry Potter club!” We didn’t expect the depth of the discussions students would initiate on their own, regarding various characters and their motivation:

“Professor Snape was really protecting Harry the whole time, not trying to hurt him.”

“That’s because Snape loved Harry’s mother – they knew each other when they were little, before she knew Harry’s father.”

“It was Harry’s mother’s love that protected him – she died to save him, and that’s why Voldemort couldn’t defeat Harry.”

One would have expected students to be drawn most by the magic, the fantastic, or the old good vs. evil theme, but at the ages of eight to ten or eleven, the students talk more about love, the huge, shining thread that winds through the stories and ties them all together.

My colleague and I certainly never anticipated one student’s attending the club from its inception to the day he left for middle school. As the club is in high demand, repeaters are not usually allowed. One of his teachers made the appeal: “He doesn’t like school, but he loves the Harry Potter club. He’s always here on club days. Can he please be in it again?”

His mother said: “It’s all he ever talks about – the Harry Potter club.”

Our young friend turned out to be a jubilant Gryffindor (as is yours truly, for the record). By his third go-round in the club, he was made Head Boy; he coached newcomers on club matters. He occasionally stopped by my room to discuss Potter trivia and other topics of his interest, always smiling. When he graduated from the fifth grade, my colleague and I presented him with a Hogwarts T-shirt. He wore it for the ceremony.

Just before his departure, our veteran member was asked why he loved the club so much. His brow furrowed in thought for a moment before he replied: “It’s this whole story about a boy who loses his parents and everything is hard for him all the time, but he still tries to save everyone. He’s so brave.”

He paused. We listeners wondered, with tears brimming, what sage, profound connection might be coming next. Our Head Boy just shrugged: “And there’s no Star Wars club.”

Ah, perspective.

Reflect: The power of story is limitless. Read a story to someone. Tell yours. It matters.