Harry Potter and the Inevitable Question

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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