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Banned Books Week 2013: Defending Harry Potter by Geri Diorio

It’s Banned Books Week! The most magical week in a librarian’s year! Every day, librarians celebrate the free and open access to information, but during this week, we really flaunt it. “Free and open access” includes being able to read whatever you wish, and that might mean the best-selling book series in history, a series that has been translated into more than sixty languages, a series that has a theme park, and whose author announcing that she’ll pen a movie based in the same universe as her book causes headlines worldwide. Yes, I am talking about the universally know Harry Potter series by J. K. Rowling. But being universally known doesn’t translate to being universally loved. The Harry Potter series is ranked number one for the most frequently challenged books of the last decade. 

Why was it challenged so often? What reasons did people give when attempting to have these books banned? Three reason were given most frequently: it promotes the occult, it has anti-family themes, and it has violence.

If your belief system tells you to avoid witchcraft and supernatural, mystical, or magical things, the Potter series certainly does seem to give you a conflict. But would it help to know that J. K. Rowling does not believe in magic? She has stated this, outright. For Rowling, magic is simply a plot device; it moves things forward in an interesting manner. And since she is very clear about good and evil in these books (good people do good with the plot device of magic and bad people do bad things with it, just as in real life, good people do good with tools and bad people do bad things them) she even has her child characters learn Defense Against the Dark Arts as part of their schooling.  But perhaps simply stating that the magic in these books is a fiction won’t help people who are concerned about this. Perhaps we can show that the spells in Harry Potter’s world don’t work in ours. Bill Peel did a elegant proof of this years ago.

The charge that the Potter series contains anti-family themes is confounding. The friendships in the book are so strong as to practically constitute familial love. The main trio of Harry, Ron, and Hermione love, respect, and watch out for each other from the moment they meet on the train. The Order of the Phoenix bond together to fight for their cause, even though individuals may differ widely in their viewpoints. Even the organization of Hogwarts, with students sorted into different houses, makes students bond into familial-like units. Perhaps it is the close bonds of these friendships that upset the people who challenged the books. Let us consider the actual families in the books. Certainly the Dursleys are mean to Harry, but real families are not always loving and supportive. The Weasleys are among the most loving families ever portrayed in fiction. Molly and Arthur have created a warm and open household for their children and their friends and spouses. The Weasleys even showed the great patience that comes from strong love while waiting for Percy to return to his senses after he went to work for the corrupt Ministry of Magic. Neville’s devotion to his family is enormous and heartbreaking. Luna Lovegood and her father Xenophilius share a lovely relationship. Xenophilius raised his daughter on his own after his wife died. He showed great strength and love for his little family of two.  And James and Lily Potter look out for their boy even after their deaths; you just can’t get more loving and family friendly than that.

As for violence in Harry Potter, well, yes, in these books people are hurt and killed out of jealousy and hunger for power, but sad to say that is no different than what happens in reality. (The United States’ war with Afghanistan is currently in its twelfth year; violence is a constant in the news.) The books do get darker as they go on and as Harry’s confrontation with Voldemort draws closer, but not every book is intended for every reader, and good parenting means being involved in what books your children read. There are ages for which Harry Potter is appropriate and only you as a parent can determine what those ages are for your family. Only you have the right to determine what books your children read. Conversely, that also means that you do not have the right to determine what books other people’s children read.

Overall, the Harry Potter series actually offers a rather traditional Judeo-Christian take on morality.  Good and evil are very clear cut, even as Rowling shows how hard is can be to do the right thing. (Think of Dumbledore’s oft quoted choice between doing what is right and doing what is easy.)  Characters in Potter do not seem to be affected by traditional racism, and those who are prejudiced against non-magical people are clearly the bad guys. The heroes of the story are ordinary people who find themselves in extraordinary circumstances and rise to the challenge. Those same heroes are often prepared to make enormous sacrifices for the greater good. Sure, Ms. Rowling’s story is fantastical and strange at times, but at its core, it is about love, family, and doing the right thing.

~ Geri Diorio

Geri Diorio is the Teen Services Librarian and the Head of Children’s Services at the Ridgefield Library in Connecticut. She reviews books and audio and movies and apps for School Library Journal, VOYA, and Audiofile magazines and she blogs for YALSA’s The Hub. The Ninth Doctor is her Doctor, vanilla is better than chocolate, and stand-alone novels are preferable to trilogies. If you’d like to debate any of those things, you can reach her at @geridiorio.

Comments

  1. I do indeed love Banned Book Week! Love this post ~ jane

  2. Eloquently said!

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