People have been trying to ban J.K. Rowling’s “Harry Potter” books ever since they hit shelves more than 20 years ago. Just this week, a Catholic elementary school in Tennessee removed the books from its library because one of the school’s pastors believed “the curses and spells used in the books are actual curses and spells; which when read by a human being risk conjuring evil spirits into the presence of the person reading the text.”
At this point, though, there are movies, comics, plays, games, sports teams, podcasts, museum exhibits, fan art and even whole amusement parks dedicated to these books. The story of a boy wizard going to a magical school and learning to fight evil with the power of love (and wands) has become such a part of the cultural zeitgeist that kids can’t avoid the franchise no matter how hard some school officials, religious figures and parents might try.
And honestly, this particular school has an absurd reason for trying.
Accusations that children, teens and young adults who read this series could become susceptible to the spells within its pages have always astounded me. “Harry Potter” is hardly the first or even the most popular franchise to prominently feature magic as a main element, and I don’t see anyone trying to lock all the classic Disney movies in a vault for a little “Bibbidy-Bobbidi-Boo” (though the Maleficent movie did get some folks riled up).
But upon further reflection, maybe this particular school official has a point, albeit not the point he thinks he’s making. Maybe the “Harry Potter” series can cast a real spell on young readers.
And maybe we should let it.
“The ‘Harry Potter’ books did cast a spell on me. Because of ‘Harry Potter,’ my classmates and I became spellbound by reading.”
I was an avid reader in my youth. I started reading at the age of 3 and quickly advanced to chapter books before first grade (encyclopedias were my favorite things to read, don’t judge me). Even though I was very good at it, reading was really only a thing I did to advance in school, to impress adults or to occupy myself during moments of boredom.
It wasn’t until my fifth grade teacher read “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone” to our class that I realized books could be more than a distraction from my loneliness at the cafeteria table. Reading could be fun. Really fun! Even the kids in my reading class who absolutely detested books and could only read at kindergarten level were absorbed into the pages and were soon pretending to be little witches and wizards with supernatural powers.
The “Harry Potter” books did cast a spell on us. For the sake of clarity, the spells and incantations in “Harry Potter” had no real-world applications in my life (though I’m still disappointed every year my Hogwarts acceptance letter doesn’t arrive via owl post). Rather, because of “Harry Potter,” my classmates and I became spellbound by reading. I learned to really enjoy reading. I became part of a global fandom that’s helped me form lifelong friendships. I learned to form unique thoughts and opinions all from reading a story about a boy wizard and a magical school.
That’s the real magic of these books and others like it. When we give children access to books with relatable protagonists, far away worlds and, dare I say, a little magic and fantasy, we allow children to expand their imaginations. And when we expand their imaginations, they expand their worlds.
Banning books has the opposite effect and slams these doors to the world shut right in their little faces.
The entire reason we learn how to read in school is to learn how to comprehend. To take words on a page and develop thoughts and use those thoughts to create our own ideas and come to conclusions about the world around us.
Good literature helps shine a light on cultures, ideas, people, places and experiences we may never gain access to in real life. Censorship of that literature through removing certain content from the books or banning them altogether keeps our future generations in the dark. Blocking ourselves from knowledge breeds ignorance, and that ignorance can lead to fear, distrust, bigotry and lack of empathy and imagination.
In 2018, 483 books were challenged or altogether banned, according to the American Library Association Office for Intellectual Freedom. To be fair, I don’t believe all people and organizations who ban certain books and stories do so for nefarious or absurd reasons. Some books are challenged in an attempt to protect readers ― particularly children or other vulnerable members of society ― from harmful images or information. However, the real danger comes from labeling certain books as “harmful” just because we don’t understand them or disagree with their content.
Books open us up to new worlds, new personalities and new perspectives. By reading banned novels like “Persepolis” by Marjane Satrapi, I was able to learn about the Islamic revolution in Iran ― something I’d never even heard about in school! ― without ever leaving my couch. Angie Thomas’ “The Hate U Give” taught millions of teens (both Black and white) about police brutality and the ongoing fight for racial justice in a way they could understand. “George” by Alex Gino helped middle schoolers (and their parents) learn about life through the eyes of a transgender girl.
The best way to fight ignorance is with knowledge and awareness. Where can children (and adults) gain that knowledge and awareness? In the pages of a good book.
If we let children read the “Harry Potter” series and other fantasy and adventure books like it, maybe they will become as spellbound by reading as I was. Maybe they’ll learn to be clever like Hermione, humorous like Fred and George, or brave and justice-oriented like Harry. Or maybe they’ll develop a nerdy obsession with cosplay and house colors (go, go, Gryffindor!). Basically, the more we let kids read, the more they’ll learn and the more fun they’ll have while doing it. And that’s truly magical.