Fairness for Harry Potter critics?
Schools should extend fairness, respect
to parents concerned about Harry Potter
By Charles C. Haynes
NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)--Unless you live on a remote desert island, by now you
know that Harry Potter has worked his magic on millions of children and on a
surprising number of adults as well.
But not everyone is wild about Harry.
A California superintendent recently called to tell me that a group of angry
parents have demanded that the district ban Harry Potter books from the
This isn't an isolated incident. According the American Library Association,
the wildly popular books by J.K. Rowling have been challenged in at least 13
What's all the fuss about?
Some of the critics view the books as too violent. Others question their
But the most serious challenges come from conservative Christians who object
to the images and themes of witchcraft found throughout Harry Potter's
exploits. Some parents have characterized the books as "evil."
For the uninitiated, Harry is a wizard who is taught to use the powers of
sorcery to fight the evil Lord Voldmort, who murdered his parents.
So what should that beleaguered California superintendent do? Here are three
1) Don't overreact.
Earlier this year a Michigan superintendent found out the hard way that
ordering teachers not to read the books aloud and removing them from displays
in the library doesn't work. He may have satisfied the few parents who
to the books, but his actions inspired a huge movement in support of Harry.
May, the superintendent rescinded most of the restrictions.
2) Listen to what's really being said.
Some supporters of the books dismiss objecting parents as extremists who
can't tell the difference between fantasy and reality (or who don't trust
tell the difference).
But fear of the occult is not entirely unfounded in a society where every
of "religion" imaginable is practiced -- including religions that are
violent, occult and dangerous.
Moreover, many conservative Christian parents feel frustrated when public
schools won't allow Christian stories to be read but will assign stories
witches and wizards. Although Rowling may not intend to promote witchcraft in
her stories, she does create a world that many Christians find antithetical
These parents aren't against stories of imagination and adventure. But as one
critic asked, would public schools allow teachers to assign the Narnia tales
C.S. Lewis and discuss the Christian symbolism with the class?
(Narnia, you may recall, is also a fantasy world where magical and miraculous
things happen to children. But Christian convictions about good and evil,
salvation and redemption inform the meaning and significance of the stories.)
3) Try to respond with fairness and respect.
Start by making sure that parents are familiar with the books that are
or read by teachers. Informed parents tend to be far more supportive than
parents who feel like outsiders.
Be sure to let parents know that they may request to have their child excused
from a particular reading if the assignment violates their religious
convictions. But if the parents still insist that the book be removed
follow a fair, consistent process for addressing the issue. A broadly
representative group of parents and educators should be at the table, with
school board making the ultimate decision.
A final word of advice:
This challenge is an opportunity to re-examine the curriculum as a whole.
sure that a variety of perspectives and worldviews are represented.
If Rowling is read, how about including selections from C.S. Lewis, J.R.R.
Tolkein and others? Are all of the assigned stories secular, or are some
from various religious and cultural traditions? Designing a curriculum that
fair and balanced takes work.
Since I'm a bit of a muggle (Harry-speak for a non-magical person), I don't
think that this controversy can be made to disappear by waving a wand.
But maybe it will push us to listen to one another, to discuss our
with civility and, where possible, to find common ground.
Haynes is senior scholar for religious freedom programs at the Freedom Forum
First Amendment Center in Washington. Used by permission.
>I read that the publisher thought that Americans wouldn't buy a book,So publishers may think, narrow-mindedly. I like to think that even
>especially for children, if it had "philosopher's" anything in the title.
>Alas! Probably too close to the truth.
Americans might find a phrase like "philosopher's stone" intriguing rather
than off-putting. I do, and certainly children are attracted to such
things, even if some adults are not. I first read about the Philosopher's
Stone in Flash comics in the 1960s, when DC were throwing all sorts of
education at its young audience without us realizing, and liked the sound
of the words as much as the concept.
Rowling's publishers, both of them I gather, of course also felt that no
boy would read a book by a female author, hence "J.K." rather than
"Joanne". It never bothered me as a young reader who wrote a book as long
as it was good, and there can be few male Harry Potter fans now who don't
know that Rowling is a woman.