I live in close proximity with two young nephews. The older is six and has discovered Harry Potter.
I mean, he is a real, true Potterhead. The Harry Potter books are almost the only ones he will actually allow me to read to him (though he has developed a taste for Neil Gaiman’s Norse Mythology, loving the story of how Thor got his hammer). He adores the movies. He will listen to the audiobooks for hours. He and his mother, my sister, have made Harry Potter accessories out of modeling clay. He had my sister dress him up as Harry, using her makeup to draw in the lightning scar. He imitates the goblin in the first Harry Potter movie, saying, “Key please!” When he wants everyone to accompany him somewhere, he says, “Come, Gryffindors!” He plays rather rough Harry-inspired games with his younger brother. My sister and I have had to remonstrate with him for using “Mudblood” as a swearword—the Harry Potter universe is that real to him.
Reading Harry Potter with my nephew is a strange and wonderful experience. It is marvelous to watch him sit, spellbound (almost literally) as I read aloud from his favorite book, Prisoner of Azkaban. He loves Harry and his friends, and hates their enemies. His delight and enchantment, his sheer joy in the wonder of Harry Potter and his world, are palpable and precious.
At the same time, my nephew is facing some rather adult questions in these books. He asks, in real confusion, why the wizards are torturing the Muggles at the Quidditch World Cup; he expresses puzzlement and anger over Aunt Petunia’s behavior toward Harry. We had a rather productive heart-to-heart about that, concerning jealousy and its evil effects on people, as well as discussions on societal violence and oppression. We are having important discussions that we would not otherwise be able to conduct.
It is eye-opening to see the effect that good fantasy fiction can have on children. My nephew is facing questions that he must confront as a human being—questions of justice, violence, abuse, emotion—but in an accessible format. In the Harry Potter context, my nephew can not only face these questions but consider them productively, without the pain and incomprehension that real-life situations would bring. Reading Harry Potter has been educational for him, in a way that other formats would not be. Fantasy provides a framework for his thoughts, and a very good one.
Re-reading the books as an adult, I find my eyes are opened too. Certain practices and behaviors that did not bother me as a child or teenager, such as the wizards erasing Muggles’ memories, now strike me as deeply disturbing. What right do the wizards have to control Muggles’ reality to this extent? The elitism of the books is something I cannot ignore: the wizards are consistently superior to the Muggles in every way. While Rowling keeps saying that you can’t judge a person by their background, you repeatedly can throughout her books: all the Malfoys are bad, all the Weasleys are good, etc. Also, leaving a baby on someone’s doorstep is an appalling thing to do, both to the baby and to the owner of the doorstep. Indeed, I find I have a certain sympathy for Aunt Petunia these days: not for her abusive behavior, but for her feelings. What Dumbledore is basically saying is that she’s not good enough to be a witch, but she’s good enough to do the extremely hard and dirty work of raising this kid she never asked for, who Dumbledore will take away forever the minute he turns eleven. Oh, and he’s not giving her any financial assistance whatsoever. Petunia Dursley does not have the right to abuse Harry, but she does have the right to be angry.
But my nephew, of course, does not understand these concerns, and I cannot share them with him yet. The questions he is already facing are serious enough—and his joy in the books is not something I intend to tarnish. This pure delight is valuable and beautiful, and will hopefully lead him to other books in the future. It is important for children to discover magic in books early—and Harry Potter has plenty of that.