Wednesday, July 20, 2011

A Value to Reading Harry Potter?

A few days ago I had an e-mail exchange with my oldest daughter (public HS English teacher) and AVI over the original contention that the Harry Potter books were ideal for young readers, in spite of the occultic subject matter. Since the last HP movie was just released, I was intrigued by a brief NPR segment on their take on the HP effect and what follows. I've excerpted portions of the e-mail exchange between myself (SHS), my daughter (DA), and AVI below.  Apologies to both if I inadvertently changed any meaning or emphasis from the original. Free free to set me straight!

SHS. So the Harry Potter book craze was going to encourage young readers’ interests, huh? Such a positive thing, right? But look what young ladies are interested in after 10 years of HP.

Michele Norris of NPR interviewing Judy Bulow, book buyer for Tattered Cover books, on Thursday July 14. (My underlining of course).

Ms. BULOW: Well, Harry Potter was such a phenomenon from the first book to the last movie, and the website that is now Pottermore. I don't think anything is going to fill that gap in that way for a while.

But there is a series called "The Hunger Games," which is for slightly older readers, and it's about a girl who must fight other kids her age for her own livelihood and for the livelihood of her family.

And it sounds like it's very violent. It is, but the way the author has written it, it works very well.

There's one called "Before I Fall," which is Lauren Oliver. It's sort of a "Groundhog Day" for teens, where she is dying, but she kind of relives her day.

Or there is one called "If I Stay," which is about a girl who's in a coma, and she tries to decide whether she really wants to stay alive or whether she just wants to give up her life, which is not the ideal life. They're great books. I don't know if they'll be made into movies, but they would be wonderful movies.

NORRIS: If someone was just tuning in, I think they might be surprised to know that we're talking about young adult fiction. These movies are really dark.

Ms. BULOW: Yes, it's very dark. I think teens and the demographic we're talking about after Harry Potter really like the dark dystopia.

Full NPR interview here.

DA. Yup, it's what kids read. Hunger Games (the first book in the series) is actually one of my sophomores' summer reading books. And the girls are in love with Jodi Picoult books, which follow variations of suicide packs, family members with cancer, or rape/unintended pregnancy. They're all Lifetime movies waiting to happen. But have you thought back to the good ole "classics"? They're not much better. My sophomores read Brave New World (let's teach little kids to have sex with each other so they don't think it's a big deal), 1984 (obey us or your face will get eaten up by a rat), Night (the reality of concentration camp life), A Separate Peace (pressure from boarding school life & jealousy causes a boy to push his best friend out of a tree, the friend eventually dies), and To Kill a Mockingbird (the "happiest" of the bunch, where a black man is unfairly tried in Jim Crow Era Alabama and dies).

There are obviously merits in these books we find that make them worth teaching that I doubt I'd find in a Jodi Picoult book, for example, but kids are already exposed to worse language, graphic scene descriptions and ideas in our classics than at least Harry Potter exposes them to.

And going back to the questions you or NPR asked, kids are still avid readers because of HP. They've just moved on to poorer quality fiction a la Twilight.

SHS. DA, good points all around (and I was certain you’d come up with several!). I’m always arguing the power of critical thinking and explaining why I can listen to literal commentators and the like without buying into their specific political message. But I guess for me the book series-movie issue is similar to violent video games or just watching mindless TV junk all day - eventually “you are what you eat.”

AVI. As to youth reading, the Judy Blume era was also problem-focused, and we've had decades of dying dogs. I think dogs were that era's acceptable way to practice painful emotions. A lot of kids read Stephen King or VC Andrews. Heroic fantasy can be dark - it wasn't accidental that it took a maker of horror films to do Lord of the Rings. Lots of adventure reading is pretty dark. I think the observations are true, but I don't think they are new. At least, not so much to the boys. What may be different is how dark the girls' reading is.

DA. Also have found that many students are disenchanted by Night when we start to have the discussion of truth in nonfiction. I teach The Things They Carried with my AP students and we do a whole unit on memoirs and a synthesis essay on truth in memoirs (documents from the fallout after A Million Little Pieces, excerpts from Dillard & Zinsser, etc.). Always sparks great discussions.


Erin said...

As I make my way through a re-reading of the HP series this summer, I'm reminded that age of readership plays an important role. The HP books are best read, I think when the kids are the age of the protagonist. The series starts when he is 11 and continues for 7 years, ending at age 17 or 18. The first three books are short, formulaic, and more about the pull between wanting to fit in and enjoying being special. The violence is minimal and the hero always has more than enough support to keep him from truly being in danger. As he progresses in age, so does the level of danger and time spent focusing on darker materials. Again, it is a classic good vs. evil conflict, though. This one happens to use wizards and that brand of magic as the backdrop, but I don't seem to see it--at the core--as that far off from many of the other epic heroic tales: Star Wars, King Arthur, LOTR, Beowulf, etc. I don't want to generalize too much and I certainly wouldn't group the writing quality of all of these as equal, but I think the heart of these stories (and what most kids reading understand) is that fighting for justice, freedom, etc. comes at a price, and often the violence or loss is worth it for the life that follows. It isn't (as so many video games offer) just violence for the sake of violence.

Erin said...

Harry Potter can be credited, at least to some extent, for bringing in a generation of readers. From my experiences working with middle and high school students, some go on (as I would hope) to greater challenges. They move on to Tolkein or stray off into science fiction classics. Some love Stephen King. (I love his writing style and talent, though I must admit I find many of his characters too dark, perverted, or otherwise "slimy" to read much of what he writes.) I still have many female avid readers who love a good Austen, Bronte, or Eliot. One can't get enough of Steinbeck! The ones that pick up the "trashier" novels...sorry, err, "beach reads"...Nicholas Sparks, Jodi Picoult, or the Twilight series are generally students who aren't that interested in reading to begin with. I have to wonder if novels such as these are keeping them reading on their own at all, and if so, is it better to have students reading poor writing (don't get me started on the atrocious writing & grammar problems in Twilight, forget the stereotypical & overdone plot) or should I hold a purist's classics or nothing approach? They read what they watch: Picoult fans love Lifetime type shows and teen romance movies; the Twihards watch True Blood and other vampire or supernatural melodramas. So I guess at least they're not in front of the TV as much...?

Getting the majority of students interested in "quality" literature is always a struggle. Ask AVI's wife or any other elementary school librarian or teacher about the Captain Underpants series or other "let's get boys to read more" campaigns. But now I'm straying on to a whole other and much more complicated topic...

Erin said...

OK, really I can't resist. This woman has taken the painful time to point out why Twilight is horrible example of writing for teens. And she achieves it in such a delightfully snarky way! You can skip around the site or go to the archives and begin in August of 2010 when she began documenting her reading experience.