Harry Potter and the Consequences of Overthinking Children’s Literature
As I mentioned in a previous post, I’ve spent much more time lately thinking about Harry Potter than is typically considered healthy for a grown man. Over the past few months, I’ve rewatched the movies, played the Lego games, read most of the books, listened to podcasts, and spent a bunch of time reading the wiki and digging through fanfiction.
It’s a fundamentally different experience, engaging with it as an adult than when I first encountered it. I loved Harry Potter, I still do, but I have a much different perspective now and it’s not quite as awesome as I remember it. As an adult, as a teacher, as a writer, as a feminist, just as someone that hopes to be a decent human being, these books have problems. They’re still wonderful and compelling, though.
As I started reading and listening and thinking, I began to wonder what a Harry Potter book would look like if many of those more problematic aspects could be ironed out. Then I started to imagine how that story could be told within the themes, framework and context of the existing Hogwarts canon without undermining or changing the existing stories.
Then I accidentally wrote a whole novel.
I’m getting ahead of myself.
What exactly do I imagine the problems with the Harry Potter stories to be?
First, there’s the rampant child abuse and criminal negligence perpetrated by almost every adult in the books. Many of the adults that Harry encounters, including teachers and parental figures, are actively cruel and violent. The adults that are written as “good” characters are often grossly negligent, allowing him to remain in abusive situations, encouraging him to engage in life-threatening activities, refusing to listen to him or treat him with any respect, and offering little to no guidance or emotional support. The only consistently responsible adult in the whole series is Molly Weasley, and her concern for the wellbeing of children is treated as overbearing and is openly mocked.
This seems entirely unnecessary. It is possible to tell a story where children have adventures and get themselves in and out of danger without needing the adults around them to be monsters. What would it look like if the adults in charge of the care of children, actually cared for children? They could still be flawed people trying their best to help children navigate what is a very weird and dangerous world. What if they cared for children like normal adults do, even if the children resented it or failed to recognize it?
Next, there’s the problem of representation. Harry Potter is broadly about a collection of exceptionally intelligent, talented, able-bodied white male youths. There are opportunities for other readings, but it takes effort. There are very few wizards of colour, nobody overtly queer, and there are a lot of really dodgy race politics going on with the non-human species like goblins and centaurs. This seems a real shame.
One of the greatest draws of the wizarding world of J.K. Rowling is that it makes you want to be part of it. Everyone is special and unique and powerful at Hogwarts and everyone has a place they fit in. You get a wand that chooses you, everyone creates a unique patronus, and everyone is placed in a house which reflects their deepest character. It promises to recognize everyone as an individual and provide a loving family. It’s extremely compelling for those of us who feel like outsiders and it is unfortunate that the story is mostly about, well, jocks.
Imagined a collection of students who don’t quite fit in, aren’t exceptionally clever or skilled, or white. What would their life at Hogwarts would be like? What if they weren’t neurotypical, or middle-class, or white, or cis-gendered, or heterosexual?
Another issue with Hogwarts are the distressing pedagogical practices. Most of the teachers in the original books are absurdly terrible at their job. Could an equally interesting story be told if the teachers were competent? Does Hogwarts provide the opportunity for excellent teaching? Would the structure of the institution and the culture even allow for it?
Finally, there is a question about other forms of evil in the magical world. The original books were mostly about an absolute kind of evil. Voldemort is fundamentally evil and irredeemable and monstrous. There are more banal and insidious forms of evil in the series, though, sometimes recognized and sometimes not. I wanted a story exploring the consequences of amorality more than immorality. How does the lack of compassion that seems deeply inherent in much of wizard society create opportunities for evil, and how does that reflect our own society?
So I wrote a book.
It’s a complete novel about a new group of eleven-year-old students going to Hogwarts for the first time. The aim is for it to be a believable sequel to the original series, a new “Book One,” this time about Hufflepuffs and Ravenclaws rather than Gryffindors and Slytherins.
It was a fun challenge. I spent an unreasonable amount of time thinking about Rowling’s writing and doing research to make it fit into her canon. I worked to replicate the personalities of the returning characters, while making them believably older and wiser from the experiences in the original books.
I did my best to include people with variety of backgrounds and perspectives, genders and races, and tried to do it in a way that wasn’t too ham-fisted. I think I was reasonably successful, but it’s still kind of white. It is harder than I thought it would be. It turns out that I have the strength of imagination to write about wizards and magic and monsters without effort, but struggle to write about an ordinary black girl from Liverpool. I didn’t have a lot of opportunity to explicitly explore issues of gender identity and varied sexualities because most of the characters are eleven. I didn’t feel right assigning anything specific to them at such a young age.
And so I present to you:
Featured Image property of Warner Brothers