Product Review: Harry Potter Book Series1
Harry Potter is currently the hottest book series out on the market for children today. Forget Snow White and Cinderella; today, it is all about the savvy cool of Harry Potter and his sidekicks. Of course, there are those who are opposed to the books because it is rooted in magic and magic is unnatural, immoral, and just plain evil. That is the religious debate. In the science community, some argue that the glorification of magic in the series causes kids to become disinterested in the art of scientific reality. Those are arguments that I am not concerned with because they should be reserved for the readers and the parents to make judgment on, as many literary critics have argued2. I am solely interested in making obvious some of the cultural themes in the series that may not be obvious to parents and discussing why the series are popular among children.
For those who have been living under a rock for the past five years, the Harry Potter series is about an orphaned kid (Harry Potter) who lives with a magic hating family. And just his luck, he turns out to be a wizard, who is whisked off to Hogwarts School to learn magic. And while he's there, he fights the evil Voldemort with the help of his magic friends, Ron and Hermione. But Voldemort never dies because the series is based on the battle between Harry Potter and Voldemort and there are still three books to go3.
One of the common themes in the Harry Potter series is the reinforcement of the nuclear family. Of the three main families in the series, all of them are of the nuclear nature. Harry Potters’ parents, although they are dead, and the Dudleys are both of the upper-middle class, Caucasian, and suburban variety. The Weasleys are also Caucasians and nuclear: Parents, working father while mother stays home, and a clan of kids. However, the only difference in this family is that they are of the struggling working class. Although the author may not of intended this (as she is a single mother herself), the nuclear family indeed represents traditional values.4
The second theme that comes up in the series is the adultified child. In communications’ literature, there has been significance research done on the emergence of the child with adult abilities in modern film5. The use of children as heroes is not particularly new in children literature. However, the extent to which Harry Potter and his sidekicks are adultified in the series is quite remarkable. For example, Harry is the one to save the day by outsmarting the adults when the teachers of the school do not believe him that someone is trying to steal the magical stone6. In a second example, Ron and his brothers are the ones to save Harry (they read all the signs to realize that Harry is held captive), but in a very non-adult like fashion7. However, very often, the reason why the kids have to jump into their superhero costumes is because the adults are incompetent, despite the fact that they are supposed to be superior in power to the children. In a sense, the adults have become the incompetent children and the children have become the competent adults.8
Although there are many messages that kids may infer from the series, I would say that there is one that I, in particular, found to be particularly strong. One of the reasons that the books are so popular amongst children is that the main characters in the book are empowered with magic to make them unique from the usual. And children today, with their television, Internet, and video games, may not necessarily feel empowered, because these forms of kids’ culture have saturated their life. By immersing themselves into the books, kids are able to not only entertain themselves, but be able to fantasize about magic empowering them. Children are powerless in fighting the forces everyday life imposed on them by adults,9 but the children characters in the books are full of power. They are quick on their feet, sassy, and special in their own groups; above all, they are adept in magic.
Children have been raised on magic (think Disney); through the Harry Potter books, magic has been humanized, as the magic of Disney is usually reserved for mice. It is assuring to the kids that both Harry Potter and Hermione are from regular human families who have been given the power of magic by nature. Thus, children, who live in everyday lives, can situate themselves in the roles of Hermione and Harry and believe that they too may be wizards. Children, who live in poverty, can situate themselves in the position of Ron to believe that even without money, they can have a happy life as well. Bettelheim argues this very point: “by identifying with [hero], any child can compensate in fantasy and through identification for all the inadequacies…of his own body”10.
Although there are many debates circulating around the appropriateness of Harry Potter for children, I would say Harry Potter is one of the few collections that have been able to grasp the reading attention of children. The books are not strictly limited for ages 7-12; rather, they are books that are capable of transcending time so that anyone can take enjoyment out of the books. In fact, that is one of the qualifications, if you will, for a good children’s book11.
For this review, I do not claim to make some moral judgment about the Harry Potter book series; that is reserved for the reader. Rather, I hope to have been able to point out some of the themes in the series that children may not pick up explicitly, but would have an implicit impact. It is up to both the children (the readers) and the parents to decide whether they feel the material is appropriate for their reading pleasure.
Bettelheim, Bruno. The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales.
New York: Vintage Books, 1976.
Jenkins, Henry. “Childhood Innocence and Other Modern Myths.” In The Children’s Culture
Reader. Ed. Henry Jenkins. New York: New York University Press, 1998.
Kincheloe, Joe L. “Home Alone and ‘Bad to the Bone’: The Advent of a Postmodern
Childhood.” In Kinderculture: The Corporate Construction of Childhood. Eds. Shirley
Steinberg and Joe L. Kincheloe. Boulder: Westview Press, 1998.
Kline, Stephen. “The Making of Children’s Culture.” In Out of the Garden. Ed. Stephen Kline.
Toronto: Garamond Press, 1993.
Townsend, John Rowe. “Standards of Criticism for Children’s Literature.” In The Signal
Approach to Children’s Books. Ed. Nancy Chambers. London: Kestrel Books, 1980.