Harry Potter


"The Trouble With Harry"

by Marguerite Kelly ("Washington Post," February 14, 2001)

Q Our first-grader has a vivid imagination and a sudden fear of being alone.
It began when we read one of the Harry Potter books to him. He loved it, but now he follows me everywhere. He doesn't want to be alone at night either. We tuck him in after reading and chatting, only to have him sneak downstairs moments later. We even gave him a tape player loaded with soothing music, but he still came downstairs and told us that monsters were reaching up from under the bed. In desperation we let him sleep on the couch in the living room while we watched TV in the den but it has become a nightly pattern.

We talk to him calmly about his fears but that doesn't help.

A Harry Potter has probably turned more children into readers -- and delighted more parents -- than any literary character in the last century, and he has also scared some little children silly.

The Potter books teach children that some people are good, some are evil, some are stupid and bigoted and not to be endured. These are important lessons, but they are too much for a 5- or 6-year-old.

Most books for older children don't upset the younger ones, because they can't follow the plots, but J.K. Rowling writes so well and so clearly that her adventures may upset sensitive children.

A spokesperson for Scholastic, which publishes the Potter books in America, says that they are fine for children between 8 and 10 -- if the parents think they are ready -- but most knowledgeable reviewers think 10 is a better starting age. If a child is super-sensitive, however, she should probably be a little older, particularly to read the later books, since each new title is a little darker than the last.

There are many other adventure stories written for children between 5 and 8 like "The Magic Tree House" series by Mary Pope Osborne (Random House; $3.99) and for slightly older children, "My Father's Dragon," a trilogy by Ruth Gannett (Random House; $4.99). Every chapter is a cliffhanger but the books produce no monsters.

To get rid of the ones that Harry brought home, let your son's biggest stuffed animal stand guard outside his door and make up a bottle of dream spray -- one drop of perfume in a cup of water -- and spray his pillow with it every night and maybe another bottle with a drop of soap in water to squirt under the bed. Monsters hate soap.

If they still reach out for your son, grab a broom, chase them out of his room and out of the house, fussing like a harridan all the while. Your son will laugh but he will also be amazed at your audacity.

Anything that makes your child feel safe will be good for him, but have him sleep in his own bed, instead of the couch, because children need to know that they can put themselves to sleep. That actually makes a child feel more secure than having a parent nearby.

Your son should start sleeping in his own room in about a week if you lead him back to bed each time he comes downstairs, spray his pillow again and give a kiss, but don't fuss, don't talk much and don't dally.

And when your son gets older and his fears are long gone, pull out "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone" (Scholastic; $3.99) or play the tape on a long car trip.