Charmed and Challenged

By Kathleen Kennedy Manzo — November 14, 2001 8 min read
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A poster for the first Harry Potter movie immodestly proclaims, “The Magic Begins November 16.” For many parents and teachers, it had already begun when the wildly popular book series by J.K. Rowling charmed even reluctant readers away from TV sets and computer games and into cozy chairs for hours of focused reading.

Now, as children await the release of the film adaptation of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, some educators and children’s literature experts predict a new wave of popularity for the books. But beware: Their brew of supernatural fantasy and adventure could cast another spell of controversy over students’ access to the books in school.

Just as the books have primed young readers for the fictional world of wizardry, they’ve held their own lessons for teachers and administrators. The debate over Harry Potter, some experts say, has led many districts to strengthen their policies on clearing books for classroom or library use and handling parent complaints.

“More schools and libraries have a policy for selecting and reviewing books for students” than was true just a few years ago, said Eliza T. Dresang, the co-author, with John S. Simmons, of School Censorship in the 21st Century, published this year.

Maggie Smith plays Professor McGonagall in the Harry Potter movie, which is expected to increase complaints about the books.
——Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

“They are in a much stronger position to defend what selections they make, they’re more aware of what might happen, and they are more prepared” for potential challenges, she said.

The Harry Potter series has been the No. 1 target of such challenges over the past two years, according to Beverley Becker, the associate director of the American Library Association’s office of intellectual freedom. The ALA gathers information on hundreds of formal requests made each year to school districts and public libraries to restrict or eliminate access to certain books.

From those reports—646 such challenges were recorded in 2000—the Chicago-based group generates its annual list of “the 100 most challenged books.”

Challenges to Ms. Rowling’s work began surfacing especially after the third book, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, was released in September 1999. As the popularity of the series skyrocketed, observers say, the books became a target in particular of conservative Christians and community groups with objections to the books’ undercurrent of violence and occult themes.

The publicity surrounding those complaints and the allegations that the books gave children the tools for casting spells and brewing potions, or set them on the path toward satanic worship, set off a wave of inquiries from parents around the country. Within weeks, the Harry Potter series had risen to the top of the ALA list.

Since then, the adventures of the orphaned wizard have attracted enough protests to earn the series a spot among the most challenged books ever recorded. On the ALA’s list of those challenged most since 1990, Harry Potter already has surpassed such perennials as J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye and R.L. Stine’s Goosebumps series. And the series is poised to overtake such literary classics as The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Of Mice and Men.

As teachers and librarians embraced the Harry Potter phenomenon to raise students’ interest in reading, writing, science, and other areas, critics launched a campaign against the books, arguing in Internet chat rooms and on television and radio talk shows that the dark fantasy tales were inappropriate for children.

While Ms. Rowling herself suggested in an interview with the BBC last year that children younger than 6 might be “disturbed” by the stories, the British author said she had never intended to promote witchcraft.

But her critics are not appeased.

“This is not only about Harry Potter, it is about the bigger issue of the promotion of witchcraft on a large scale to our young people,” said Linda P. Harvey, the president and founder of Mission America, a nonprofit group in Columbus, Ohio, that provides information on conservative Christian viewpoints. “I think that if public schools are really serious about diversity, they ought to honor the concerns of [parents] who see Harry Potter as a direct assault on Christian values.”

Many of those parents, Ms. Harvey said, are intimidated by public opinion and are afraid they will face ridicule for their opinions.

Acceptance of wild rumors appears to have undermined some of the critics’ arguments, however.

In one e- mail group for conservative Christians, for example, a participant urged members to spread the word among clergy members, parents, and teachers that the Harry Potter series was encouraging children to worship Satan. The message attributed quotes to children, and to Ms. Rowling, defaming Jesus.

But the original source of the information was The Onion, a satirical newspaper. The children in the article were fictitious, and the comments attributed to the author were made up.

The Power of Policy

Policy experts recommend that school administrators take complaints about books seriously, but not allow a parent or two to exercise veto power over what other parents’ children may read.

“Everyone has a right to voice a complaint about a book used in the curriculum or a book in the school library,” said Ginny Moore Kruse, the director of the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Cooperative Children’s Book Center, which helps teachers and school districts in book selection. “But can we really expect a school district to grind to a halt because we’ve decided something isn’t right for our child?”

In Jacksonville, Fla., last month, a parent asked that the Harry Potter books be removed from school library shelves. School officials didn’t balk at the challenge, but instead set in motion a detailed review process, according to John C. Fryer Jr., the superintendent for the 128,000-student Duval County district.

Access to the books was temporarily restricted while a committee was formed to evaluate the series. After reading the books, gathering reviews, and researching the arguments pro and con, the committee recommended that the district continue to give students unrestricted access.

District policy allows parents to limit their own children’s access to the books and lets students choose alternative reading materials if they or their parents do not approve of an assigned book.

“The process really allows everyone to be satisfied,” Mr. Fryer said. “On the one hand, you have a representative committee that decides whether the book is appropriate and meets our selection standards. But a parent still has a right to restrict his or her child from reading it.”

A district in rural Michigan had a similar policy. But officials chose to quietly sidestep it after a parent complained about Harry Potter in late 1999. Anticipating further contention in the conservative community of Zeeland, Superintendent Gary Feenstra decided to require students to get parental permission to read the books.

Teachers and students quickly organized a protest over the action.

“That [decision by the superintendent] went around prescribed board policy concerning books that are challenged,” said Mary Dana, an 8th grade teacher who organized a petition and rallied students to protest the decision. “Requiring permission immediately put a chilling effect on their access. Those books didn’t receive fair hearing until months and months after the restrictions were put in place.”

The school board in the 4,500-student district eventually reinstated the books after a committee review. Meanwhile, the incident inspired students to form their own advocacy group, “Muggles for Harry Potter.”

“Muggles” are characters in the books who do not possess magical powers.

Societal Shift

Few complaints actually result in restricted use or outright bans on books, according to the Ms. Becker of the ALA. But many challenges are handled informally, which worries some advocates of intellectual freedom.

“To avoid problems, the districts simply aren’t buying the books,” said Christopher M. Finan, the president of the American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression, a nonprofit organization based in New York City.

The foundation has become the sponsor of a national student- advocacy program, modeled after the “muggles” group, that has drawn 18,000 members since last year. It also hosts a Web site, www.kidspeakonline, to keep students informed about their First Amendment rights and about challenges to the Harry Potter books.

“Schools have a responsibility to analyze books and select those that are age-appropriate,” Mr. Finan said. “We don’t think that every book is appropriate in every school. But once they’ve made a decision, they should stick to it—not pull it off the shelves because they are under pressure to do so.”

Ms. Dresang, the co-author of the book about censorship, believes that J.K. Rowling’s series may be under more intense scrutiny than past books because of literary and societal shifts.

An associate professor of library studies at Florida State University in Tallahassee, Ms. Dresang is developing the Center for Research and Information on Content Access in Libraries, or CRICAL, and has studied changes in children’s literature over the years.

“There have been remarkable changes: in form and format, with the rise of the Internet; in the perspectives they offer; and in the boundaries they cross,” she said. “A lot of things that were taboo before have now been brought into books for young people.”

Ms. Harvey of Mission America, meanwhile, notes that youthful characters with strange powers have been the subjects of a recent spate of TV series, such as “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.” With such shows and the Harry Potter books, popular culture has made dabbling in the occult seem intriguing to young people, she says.

And, as part of their marketing, she points out, some bookstores have “wizard diplomas” or other gimmicks to attract children’s attention.

For most experts on children’s books, though, it amounts to lively writing, imagination, and good, old-fashioned fun. The critics, they say, are reading too much into the Harry Potter phenomenon.

“From a scholar’s point of view, there are many literary illusions in the Harry Potter books, and all kinds of things you can teach from them, in addition to their being entertaining stories,” Ms. Dresang said. “It’s silly to even say there would be literature without violence or illusion. If Harry Potter got sanitized, no one would read it.”

The bottom line for the University of Wisconsin’s Ms. Kruse? “Those books made it cool to be a reader,” she said. “I think they’re wonderful.”

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A version of this article appeared in the November 14, 2001 edition of Education Week as Charmed and Challenged


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