When I left the staff room yesterday, I wanted to punch someone in the face. I really have no idea why I go there. Nothing good is ever said there (except at Friday Breakfast Club), but I wanted to sip my morning tea and gaze out at the sunshine.
A friend walked in who had been on a weekend trip with students. He was tired, dead tired, and another colleague greeted him with “Geez, you look like Hagrid!” He responded politely with, “Well good morning to you, too.” I wanted to throw in some levity and asked “Where is your dog? Wait a minute. What was his dog’s name again? I can’t believe I’ve forgotten this.”
Then it happened, that thing that pushed me over the edge. “I think Harry Potter is one of the worst books ever written. Its terrible!” exclaimed the teacher sitting next to me. The others holding court at the table began to chime in with their equally scathing assessments of JK Rowling. The one who was the most critical then pushed it a little bit further and said “It was so bad I couldn’t even make it through the first book.” It was unfortunate that the conversation had to go there.
Now this isn’t the first time I have heard this kind of rubbish. The anti-Potter believes that JK Rowling is a terrible writer. They believe that marketing made the book sell, not her stories of friendship, coming of age, and adventure. Her characters, to them, are uninteresting, her vocabulary horrendous, the story…dumb. The anti-Potter believes that he or she is the true guard of the Literary Canon. They sit and trash this part of a book or that part, and after each bit of argument there can be heard rounds of “here, here”, “right oh, good chap”, “yes, yes”.
After all, how could any serious scholar of literature advocate that we should teach “Fantasy” to our students? Um…didn’t you crack pots ever read the Faerie Queen at University? Er…don’t we teach Midsummer Night’s Dream? And don’t forget we love to teach big bad monster stories too, like Frankenstein.
Here is why I think we should teach Harry Potter in schools and why the anti-Potters should suck it:
JK Rowling got kids to read and this got kids to read CS Lewis and even Tolkien. Later kids began to read other works. They realized that the land of magicians, mythology, and quests for justice were everywhere. To the reluctant reader, Harry Potter was a gateway drug.
The Heroic Cycle: It is important for all students of literature to be able to understand that stories are not new. They all seem to be confined to previously created frameworks. The Heroic Cycle is framework they will see again and again. Just like Odysseus, Harry’s parents were out of the picture. Just like Odysseus, Harry had friends that seemed to look to him for guidance, yet they made silly mistakes that would always get him in trouble. Just like Odysseus, Harry’s pride always got the best of him. Just like Odysseus, Harry had a guide to help him when times were tough.
Character & Dialect: Harry Potter, his pals, his foes, are wonderfully created with visible descriptions, foils, and flaws. Students for the first time will also see that the use of dialect helps to form our impressions and interpretations of a character. We know Hagrid is a simple fellow not just because of his description, but because of his dialect. His dialect helps to endear him to the reader. We feel more sorry for him because he seems unaware to the evils of the real world. And if a 7th grader can understand why Rowling used dialect to form her characters, they will also understand why Steinbeck uses dialect in Of Mice and Men.
Imagery: I love the pictures Rowling paints with words. She uses strong verbs and descriptive adjectives. And sometimes she even sends students on a vocabulary adventure to the dictionary. But I love her use of imagery. One passage that has stuck with me was in the 5th book, Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince. The second chapter begins with: “There was not a sound apart from the whisper of the black water and no sign of life apart from a scrawny fox that had slunk down the bank to nose hopefully at some old fish-and-chip wrappings in the tall grass.”
If I can get students to love this kind of imagery, I might get them to love the imagery found in Victorian poetry, Shakespeare, or Poe.
And it is because of her exquisite descriptions that so many kids got upset while watching the movies. What they saw on the screen was not what they had envisioned in their heads.
Other Elements of Literature: Part of every literature course is learning your literary terms so that you can analyze a story. With each class year, the teacher usually increases the difficulty of these literary elements. A 6th grader can find alliteration, a 7th grader can diagram an author’s use of juxtaposition, an 8th grader can find allusion, a 11th grader should be able to describe the author’s use of syntax.
The Harry Potter series has it all. A student could make a portfolio of examples of JK Rowling’s use of a variety of literary elements. You don’t need to go to the Literary Canon to find these kinds of elements in Literature.
A New Vocabulary: Much like Shakespeare and other writers of Fantasy, she has created her own vocabulary: Qudditch, Muggle, Pensieve, Half-Blood, Expecto Patronum. Her words are now part of the slang of the English language. When someone sucks the life out of a staff meeting, we usually call him or her a Dementor.
So Suck it Anti-Potter!
I think I made my point. Literature is literature when if contains certain elements. We don’t love all literature and we don’t have to. We can appreciate the Literary Canon without always liking what is in it. But we shouldn’t let the Canon limit how we teach or what we teach, we should use literature that entices our students to read, that entices them to want to dig deeper into the story’s structure and nuances. We shouldn’t kill kids with what we think is good. Reach them where they are and teach them, and then we will be able lead them toward less accessible works, like Frankenstein. And maybe, just maybe, they will be able to appreciate the rest of the Literary Canon, too.
I know that I’m right. A few years back, we needed to kill some time in home room. My 11th grade Diploma students decided to have an impromptu debate on who would win in a wizard throw down: Dumbledore or Gandalf? One of my students grabbed the white board marker, made a t-chart on the board, and began writing down various students’ points. Another acted as the moderator to ensure that all points were heard. Seriously? Yes, this was serious. They did not joke about such things.
They analyzed various parts of the two series. They picked through the characters’ strengths, their weaknesses. They commented on the types of spells and powers each had. And they discussed the relationships the wizards had with the other characters that might add to their powers. The level of depth of analysis was shocking. Well, not really. They were talking about stories they were passionate about.
So get them passionate about books. Once they are hooked on the drug, they won’t be able to stop reading.
What stories or novels really get your students going?
And Harry Potter isn’t just for kids anymore. Check out this university thesis analyzing the syntax of spells in Harry Potter. http://linguistics.cornell.edu/people/upload/DiesingMcCG.pdf
**Thanks Barb for reminding me that Odysseus’ father was still alive when he returned to Ithaca. I don’t know why I was thinking he returned to his son on the beach, not the father.