Harry Potter and the Inevitable Question

Books Featured Parenting
Some of our Harry Potter Books. Photo by Derrick Schneider

My daughter, a rising first-grader, is an advanced reader. When her reading level comes up, inevitably the next question is “Have you read Harry Potter?” It happens with adults. It happens with kids. It’s a total thing. And it rankles. It’s as if “she’s a strong reader” gets answered with “prove it.”

The Boy Who Lived is now less touchstone than milestone, an arbitrary measure of when you get to qualify as a reader.

We own the books. She’ll read them when she wants to. We’re not pushing them on her or even really suggesting them.

For one thing, even the comparatively frothy first book is pretty dark. Dahl-esque relatives and teachers, parents murdered while protecting their baby, and an evil lord tucked into the back of a teacher’s head. Just because you can read the words doesn’t mean you can handle the intensity. Our daughter once declared a book too scary because it featured a librarian who wanted to come in and dramatically change the library. Introducing her to a dark wizard who slurps up unicorn blood and tortures people seems like a bit of a leap.

Second, it’s such a blatant illustration of male privilege and patriarchy that one is tempted to think Rowling wrote it as satire. Why bother with that when there are plenty of books where the hard-working, smart, innately powerful girl isn’t a sidekick to a dude who gets celebrated just for showing up and who only succeeds at first because of luck and other people taking pity on him? A Mighty Girl has a tailor-made list for this. Or find a used copy of Great Books for Girls.

It may seem peevish to criticize adults trying to engage with my daughter as a reader, but bringing up Harry Potter feels like a cop-out. While one can hardly blame adults without kids in the right age range, I always want to say “but there are so many more books!” to parents whose children are similar in age to ours. I’ve only been paying attention to children’s books for six and a half years, but even I know that there’s been an explosion of great books for kids of all ages and types. There’s no need to rely on the Potter crutch. So here’s a better question for the children reading around you: “What have you read recently that you really liked?”

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4 thoughts on “Harry Potter and the Inevitable Question

  1. Good article. Libraries are excellent places to let kids roam free to see what’s interesting to read. After reading my mom’s Nancy Drew books, I found Hardy Boys in the library to keep on reading kid detective stories.

  2. It does seem peevish. Whether adult or child, these folks are attempting to bridge a gap with your daughter and show interest in something she excels at. These inquisitors may not be entirely familiar with the content of the series or with children’s literature at or around her ability level, so they are pulling from their own prior knowledge/exposure and making an effort to engage in conversation. Because of Potter’s popularity among both school children and older folks, perhaps they believe this is their best shot at finding commonality with a young child or her parent. In an era where video games and phones are more venerated than the written word, there needs to be more conversations about literature, not less just because someone’s comment doesn’t meet standards or agree with personal perspectives. Instead of wanting to say, “but there are so many more books,” say it! Continue the conversation. Share your thoughts. Maybe someone’s never considered your view before. Or maybe you have not heard theirs. Exchange ideas. That’s what makes us all wiser and more aware.

    Yes, especially compared to the era in which I grew up, there are a multitude of books available to young girls whose protagonists are mentally/physically/emotionally smart and strong girls. As the mother of seven and nine year old girls, I couldn’t agree more that is the material we need to expose our daughters to. However, it’s unfair to toss aside a series that has motivated millions of people to spend time reading. These are books, whether of literary quality or subject matter that you laud or not, that have made readers of individuals that otherwise would find themselves with a screen in front of them instead of a book. This is a series of books that my own nine year old daughter has voraciously read five of in the last six months. And, oh, the conversations we’ve had discussing the relationship between Harry, Hermoine, and Ron, as well as the characteristics of female characters like Cho, Luna, Professor McGonagall, and Umbridge, not to mention the topics of fear, courage, inclusivity, honesty, and compassion! Children learn not only from pedestal role models, but from honest discussions about the personalities/choices of those that we disagree with. We all need to read and talk to one another more!

  3. Thanks for the comments!

    Libraries are indeed a great resource for finding new books.

    And I agree that starting a conversation about other books is a great tactic, but I often feel like when someone starts with Potter right away, they sort of pin the conversation to that. So we start with a “negative” — she’s not read it — rather than a “positive” — what are you reading that you’re excited about?

    And I do know that the Potter series has made many people into readers and I don’t deny that they’re modern classics, whatever I may personally think of them. I just think the field is so much richer than just that series.

  4. Great article! As a feminist dad of a boy I’m trying to raise to be a full human (not crippled by toxic masculinity), I find the casual sexism of kids’ books very troubling and saddening. It’s small comfort that the world is bending to please my son more than his female peers.

    One book he loved around age 7 was THE WILD ROBOT (plus the sequel, THE WILD ROBOT ESCAPES). No humans I believe. Not sure what the gender treatment was.

    The podcast BEDTIME STORIES FOR REBEL GIRLS is excellent.

    Can we just get some books where boys and girls appear in equal number (like our world) and with equal stature and respect (like the world we’re hoping to build)? Why do so many leads have to be male, and if they throw in a girl sidekick, they also add a boy sidekick for a 2:1 ratio? Ugh.

    I’d love to hear about other recommendations. Thank you!

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