The Harry Potter Wars. For Real.

A colleague just wrote me to tell me about the Harry Potter wars erupting in her daughter's third grade class. What's a Harry Potter war? Check it out: the vast majority of the class is obsessed with Harry, but one child's parent refuses the let her child read the books. At all. Or watch the movies. Or…have anything to do with them. The person who wrote me noted that she fully understands and appreciates this mom's attempt to stem the raging floods of pop culture, though they don't necessarily agree on what is most harmful (interestingly, this same colleague banned High School Musical when her daughter was in kindergarten).

But the issue is that recess has been taken over by "spell wars," along with "Do you think you're a Gryffindor or a Ravenclaw?" debate. And the left-out child finally spat out (sort of predictably), "Well, Harry Potter is stupid anyway, and so is anyone who likes him!"

Ah, youth.

Said incident culminated in colleague's daughter refusing to sit with her at lunch if she said that, and left-out child telling the teacher, and colleague's daughter being dressed down. And yes, yes: there were offers from colleague's daughter to left-out girl to tell her the whole story, beginning to end, so she would know what was happening. These offers were summarily refused in the vein of "I don't want to hear it because it's a dumb story and anyone who likes it is dumb."

So let's all take a moment and be grateful that what they're fighting over is books, rather than, say, who gets the cigarettes. And also to acknowledge the universality of "You're talking about something I don't know about/am not allowed to know about/don't understand, therefore it is dumb and I will go cry now."

When I heard about this, of course I wanted to write about it here. But now that I am, I am not entirely sure what I want to say about it. Surely it is that kid's mother's prerogative to choose what her daughter may and may not read—especially given that the girl is 8. And there is something sad and noble about the girl trying to back her mother up on it. No doubt she feels conflicted; she wants to be part of things even while she knows she is specifically not supposed to. It's a tough spot to be in. And we can empathize, too, with the kids who are just freaking swept up in the thrill of finding a whole fictional world big enough to accommodate them. And not knowing how to deal with the kid who won't cross that Rubicon to join them in their new thing. Sure, they know they're supposed to be inclusive. But come on! Finding out who is supposed to be a HufflePuff is too compelling to just let it drop like that to spare one kid's feelings.

I suppose, on reflection (look! I'm reflecting! It makes me feel very mature), this is more a question of playground etiquette than a literary, uh, conundrum. It's strange though, isn't it? It makes me wonder about the strange power of Harry Potter, which is so powerfully pop culture, so un-bookish in my old-fashioned, loner-focused, outdated view of what being involved in a book really means. I always thought of books as uncool, and then somehow that uncoolness was cool. And then here's a book that is just…cool. (Yes, I know what's cool for 8-year-olds isn't necessarily cool, I know. But to them it's cool.) So what does it mean, exactly, when a book is cool? It makes me wonder.

15 thoughts on “The Harry Potter Wars. For Real.

  1. Not that you’re asking for advice, or perspectives, or any input…but I feel for that girl. My own daughter is almost 8, and although Harry Potter hasn’t become an issue, Star Wars (kind of) has. The issue? My kid gets scared easily. Also, she likes books about real (or realistic) people. I’m not keeping Harry Potter from her–I’m happy to read it with her when she feels ready, which may just be never–but I can fully see one of those discussions starting, and her being the one to declare it’s stupid.


  2. I’m with the poor girl and her mother. I am not happy our seven year old read the book with his dad (I know, I’m such a first-world whiner!) but only because of who he is–he frightens easily, and becomes angry and confrontational when upset–it was not a good match for him. And this mom may have her reasons. For the same reason, we have banned Star Wars here–but we are happy to talk about it, explain it to him so he can talk the talk and play the play at school. But he does not need to see some of the violent imagery of the actual movies (the cut-off arm at the Cantina, the aunt and uncle after the stormtroopers find them, etc.) to be able to play.
    I was honestly surprised he liked HP at all (which, to my relief, he did) because anything vaguely “fantasy” related does not usually fly. But I skipped High School Musical for my kids also–not because it’s offensive in any way, I think it’s cute–but I don’t want them to get in their heads before they are even finished kindergarten that athletes don’t try out for musicals, or smart kids can’t play ball.
    I’d be interested why the girls’ parents have put the hammer down on HP. And kudos to the girl who offered to explain. But that the girl refused even to hear it tells me either she is very bonded with her parents, or the parents are merely backing up her instinct, which is that she doesn’t want any part of it. When I was little I was late to the Nancy Drew party because I thought “mystery” meant “it wouldn’t be solved by the end of the book and you’d always wonder what it was,” which sounded annoying or even a little sinister; perhaps the anti-HP girl thinks the same way about the wizarding world. I hope this works out better with the next pop culture phenom all around.


  3. Poor kid. But I hope someone explains that she shouldn’t attack what she doesn’t understand. Also: its odd to hear about this Lord of the Flies playground drama revolving around books. As for the Fonzie quotient: I think I was too uncool to even question whether books were cool or not. To me reading was like respiration — not something I questioned or could have stopped had I wanted to.


  4. It’s unfortunate that the kid’s response was “you’re dumb for liking it” because a) it’s not nice b) that sort of comment reflects poorly on her and will only intensify the others’ reactions and c) poor thing apparently doesn’t feel confident in her own stance if she feels the need to say that.
    But the Harrry Potter/Star Wars thing?
    I have never read Harry Potter myself because there are a lot of other things in the world to read and I put it off thinking I would read it with my kids one day.
    Enter A, my 4th grader.
    She Will. Not. Read. Harry Potter. I have suggested it several times. Everyone in 3rd grade read it (although a very highly esteemed teacher @ her school said he didn’t think it was actually the best thing for all the kids, especially the later books–that 3rd grade was a great time in life to read books with younger protagonists.)
    I think she thinks it will be scary, but she loves Nancy Drew, read all the Sisters Grimm books, and is now relishing the Mysterious Benedict Society (haven’t read it so I don’t know if it is scary, but the title makes it seems like it could be). The other thing, though, is I think she may just inherently not want to follow what everyone else is doing PRECISELY because… it’s what everyone else is doing. When there is such pressure to conform to what everyone is reading/watching/wearing, just skipping the whole thing should be a legitimate choice. Fortunately, my daughter is grounded enough (or maybe just socially skilled enough?) that I don’t think she’d accuse the other kids of being dumb. She’d just leave the Harry Potter wars and find something else to do.
    Confession: “Inherently” might not be the right word above because I (and to some extent my partner) probably model that reject-the-norm behavior ourselves in many things. That said, I am sure I have sometimes thrown out the baby with the bathwater in the effort to barricade the mass market from my brain and body (and those of my children).


  5. Sorry, you just didn’t actually ask a question–it seemed more like just processing your own thoughts in a public domain. Usually you’re so clear about when you need advice!
    MemeGRL, we did the same thing w/ Star Wars–got a couple of the DK books, looked at pix of the characters, explained who some of them were (at least the ones from the original movie, since I’ve never seen the new ones), and she looked at Darth Vader and said “Too scary.” But at least she knows something about what she’s saying no to.


  6. I had at one point actually considered trying to force my daughter (10) to read Harry Potter – fearing social repercussions for her along the lines you describe. She loves the fantasy genre and reads just about everything else on the planet … but picked up the Potter books and didn’t exactly say she disliked them, just sort of ho hum, not interested. I read the first one myself and was also not enthralled by the writing and the pretty passive and uninspiring Harry, though the messenger owls were kind of a nice idea. A glance at the NY Times bestsellers list each week underscores what generations of critics have known, that cool/popular does not necessarily equal good. However maybe my daughter and I are being unfair to Harry by assuming the reverse of that argument, i.e. it it’s cool it must be bad … okay my daughter has started looking over my shoulder and says she will chime in with her own Potter post .


  7. I just never got into it. While everyone was reading Harry Potter, I was reading Artemis Fowl or the Mysterious Benedict Society or something. I have nothing against Harry Potter, I just never liked it. No war ever broke out in my school, but I was encouraged to read them. I am perfectly happy to stay out of Harry Potter for the moment and to read more interesting things. I wonder what it is about the Harry Potter that is so wonderful. Maybe that it’s about wizards/witches. Anyways, I think arguing over it is just dumb because either way someone is going to get mad at you. So Harry Potter wars are pointless, and I think teachers should acknowledge that.
    Note: Dike is not my real name, it means Justice in Greek and I like it


  8. I am so happy that there is a discussion! And I’m sorry to all I wasn’t clear about asking for opinion—I always want them, I always like to know what other people are thinking.
    My daughter, too, is big on Artemis Fowl, and for a long time was opposed to the very idea of Harry Potter. Then she read it, enjoyed it, and now views it as “Good, but not as good as other fantasy/wizard books” she’s liked. And, Dike, I would say that just because either way someone is going to get mad at you, doesn’t make it pointless to argue something (not that this particular argument makes sense). Sometimes the things with the most point (?) are the very things people get mad at you about. And to me, there is something moving about people caring so much about something that they are moved in this inchoate way to lash out at each other. That motivation is meaningful, even if the action is not.


  9. Weirdly, we’re not a Harry Potter family — have completely missed the boat despite the fact that my sons are and have been the perfect ages to have grown up with the guy. I read the first one, liked it a lot but had no interest in moving forward. I’m not sure why as I have always been the wormiest of the bookworms.


  10. kk, I am right there with you. Except my husband and I have read all the HP books. I made the mistake of telling my daughter who was 8 at the time she should read them. Ugh. What a rookie mistake that was. She is an avid reader but she refused to touch HP or even Harriet the Spy because *I* told her she would like them. Sigh. I have backed off totally and if she never reads them, so be it. But I will be sad for her 😉
    My SIL and BIL will not let their children (uh one is entering college in the fall) to read HP because of the witchcraft in the book. Unfortunately my nephew was one of those knee jerk, well it’s dumb kind of kids. He was very much thrown when his uncle (my husband) who he respects said to him that he read them and likes them. Ooops sorry rambling now. I will stop.


  11. Timely post! Our 8 year old son is deeply into HP (he’s on the 6th book now), but luckily no wars have broken out in his classroom yet.
    But what books do we try to steer him toward once he finishes the HP series? We’d like it to be a bridge to other (and better) literature, but what’s a good first post-HP book? Prior to HP, he was reading graphic stuff like Babymouse, Captain Underpants, and Bone. Any suggestions greatly appreciated.


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