"J.K. Rowling's Potter Books Have It Right"
by Laura Sessions Stepp ("Washington Post," August 10, 2000)
|Harry Potter was the last thing I wanted to read at the beach. Anything but Harry!
But a not-so-still, small voice kept after me. One of Harry's house-elves, perhaps? "You write about kids for the newspaper," this pixie whined. "How can you not acquaint yourself with today's best-known young teenager?"
Elves are nothing if not persistent. And so, on the morning of our family departure, I stuffed all four Potter books into our station wagon. And, cursed with clouds and rain for most of the vacation, I managed to read them.
I'm glad I did. But not for the reasons that have attracted so many adult fans--the plots, whimsy and satire. What impressed me was how completely author J.K. Rowling understands, and obviously enjoys, young adolescents, a group many adults don't understand and don't enjoy. Her popularity among these young readers doesn't surprise me one bit. Like everyone's favorite middle-school teacher, Rowling gets it.
She gets, for example, that in those preteen and early teen years, things are never as they seem. You think you've memorized the layout of your new, humongous middle school but end up taking a seat in Spanish when you're supposed to be in science. You glide around the lunchroom with the grace of a ballerina one day and trip over your own feet the next. A classmate sticks up for you in English class only to turn on you in math. When life is chaotic or, on good days, only confusing, it doesn't seem out of the question that the 142 staircases at Hogwarts School of Wizardry and Witchcraft might lead in one direction on Thursday and another on Friday. Or that a kindly professor such as R.J. Lupin might turn into a werewolf.
Harry is 11 when the series begins and ages one year with each book. At those ages, nothing is more confusing than you. What kind of person are you? Where do you fit in? What do you do well? What is your purpose in life? Such questions dog Harry every day. Raised by a non-wizard uncle and aunt--Vernon and Petunia Dursley--who really don't understand him, he is first introduced to his roots when a lovable giant named Hagrid pays a visit to the Dursley home.
" 'But yeh must know about yer mom and dad,' [Hagrid] said. 'I mean, they're famous. You're famous.'
" 'Yeh don' know . . . yeh don' know. . . . Yeh don' know what ye are?' "
Hagrid shushes the Dursleys, who object to Harry finding out his identity, and announces, "Harry--yer a wizard."
" 'I'm a what?' gasped Harry."
He's no ordinary wizard, mind you. He is small for his age, with uncontrollable hair and glasses that keep breaking. He hears voices that no one else hears, sees visions that no one else sees. Worst of all, in his mind, he bears a lightning-shaped scar on his forehead that is a constant, public reminder of the distinction that sets him apart from all other wizards: Lord Voldemort, evil incarnate, tried and failed to kill him when he was an infant.
Like preteens everywhere, Harry feels his differentness acutely. When, in "The Sorcerer's Stone," he approaches the magic hat that will place him in the proper house at Hogwarts, "he did wish they could have tried it on without everyone watching." In "The Goblet of Fire," when the goblet announces that he must take part in a tournament reserved for older students, "he could feel hundreds and hundreds of eyes upon him, as though each were a searchlight." More than once during the tournament's three-part challenge, he wishes with all his heart that he could just be sitting in the stadium crowd with his friends Ron and Hermione, watching.
Some of his happiest moments occur when he dons what every young teen would die for: an invisibility cloak. But, also typically, he takes pride in being seen when he does something especially well--as when he helps his team win a match of Quidditch, a game resembling soccer played on broomsticks in the air.
Harry comes to define himself by what he is increasingly capable of doing, whether capturing the golden ball of Quidditch, called a Snitch, or rescuing a young girl in a lake. Rowling has captured in Harry, and in Ron and Hermione, the adolescent's desire to be really good at something both useful to others and valued by them.
She also has identified kids' keen sensitivity to issues of fairness and justice. Hermione drives her friends crazy trying to organize and liberate the servant house-elves at Hogwarts. Hermione, Ron, and Harry take every opportunity to fight the prejudice shown by some wizards and witches toward Muggles, as the non-magical population is known. In "The Goblet of Fire," Harry learns the nature of the first obstacle prior to the tournament and shares that secret with competitor Cedric. "It's just . . . fair, isn't it?" he says to Cedric. "We all know now . . . we're on an even footing, aren't we?"
Of course, adolescents also can be devilish. They can steal their parents' car and crash it into a tree, as Ron does. They can lie, as Harry does over and over. They can be pure-and-simple mean like classmates Draco Malfoy and his sidekicks Vincent Crabbe and Gregory Goyle, who torment anyone younger, weaker, or different. They also can play mean tricks on people they don't like. Poor, despicable Aunt Marge: Harry inflates her to the size of a giant helium balloon. She deserved it, still . . .
As Harry and his friends age, they experience spells of sullenness, anger and jealousy. Rowling gives a shape and name to the negative emotions we all remember from these years. There are the boggarts, for example, who assume the figure of whatever most frightens their intended victim, and the Death Eaters, who ally themselves with Voldemort. Among her most brilliant creations are the dementors--slimy, gray creatures clothed in black who "glory in decay and despair. . . . Get too near a dementor and every good feeling, every happy memory will be sucked out of you." So that's what occasionally grabs hold of every 13-year-old!
Despite their occasional bouts of alienation, Harry and his friends assist each other in avoiding the dementors and navigating a world that seems stacked against them. Just when Harry, locked in his room at the Dursleys, despairs of ever returning to Hogwarts his second year, Ron and Ron's brothers spirit him away in a flying car they filched from their father's garage. When Harry receives a new magical broomstick from an unknown benefactor, Hermione insists that it be checked out for evil curses. When Ron is tempted to slug it out with Draco Malfoy, Harry and Hermione pull him back.
"If you want to kill Harry, you'll have to kill us too!" Ron shouts to Sirius Black, an accused murderer in "The Prisoner of Azkaban." Rowling reminds us that while peers sometimes encourage our kids to take stupid or dangerous risks, they also frequently inspire our kids to be smarter, more generous, more compassionate and more loyal than they might be otherwise.
What friends cannot do is answer the why and how--why the world seems topsy-turvy and dangerous and how they can manage to stay right-side-up and safe. Harry and his friends look to adults to answer those questions.
They have plenty of alleged grown-ups, living and ghostly, to choose from: at home and school, in portraits, behind armor, floating in the air. But these men and women do not necessarily inspire confidence. They complain about their jobs, moan about the way other people treat them, obsess over rules, order and especially over power. The worst of the power freaks torture and kill people who have none.
Ron's parents are a likable but dotty couple consumed by work and the sheer logistics of keeping up with seven children. Hermione's parents are Muggles and thus not much help explaining wizard ways. Harry's parents are dead and his foster parents, Rowling tells us, speak of Harry "as though he wasn't there, or rather, as though he was something very nasty that couldn't understand them, like a slug."
At Hogwarts, Professor Snape, the crabby Potions teachers, and Filch, the caretaker, assume when anything goes awry that Harry or his friends were responsible. Professor Minerva McGonagall, who teaches Transfiguration, is fair-minded but not exactly a confidant.
The kids know a couple of decent adults, among them the giant Hagrid and Sirius Black, Harry's godfather. It is Sirius whom the 14-year-old Harry thinks about, in the beginning of "The Goblet of Fire," when he wakes up one morning with a searing pain around his scar. He has had a nightmare about Voldemort--terrifying because his dreams tend to come true--and he realizes he has no adult to share it with.
"What he really wanted (and it felt almost shameful to admit it to himself)," Rowling writes, "was someone like--someone like a parent: an adult wizard whose advice he could ask without feeling stupid, someone who cared about him, who had had experience with Dark Magic."
He sends Sirius a letter by messenger owl--Sirius, whom he has known for all of two months and who, as a suspected felon, must stay in hiding.
The one caring and stable adult in Harry's life is Albus Dumbledore, Hogwarts's headmaster. Dumbledore sits too high up in the Hogwarts hierarchy to approach on a regular basis. But he listens well and responds wisely on the occasions when Harry does summon up enough courage to talk.
He also gives Harry and Harry's schoolmates the one thing kids their age prize above all else: respect. He answers their questions honestly. He sets up tasks that call on their resourcefulness and growing moral awareness. When Harry agonizes at the end of "The Chamber of Secrets" over why he didn't kill an enemy, Pettigrew, when given the chance, Dumbledore assures Harry that in that case mercy was both noble and wise--and that he, Harry, will realize that someday.
Someday looms large for Harry and his friends, with ghouls outnumbering good guys. Dumbledore knows this, and understands his students' fear. Rather than try to shield them, as adults are wont to do, he prepares them to stare the Dark Side in the face and learn to fight it.
Harry begins the series as a child terrified of his aunt and uncle and just about everybody else. By the end of "The Goblet of Fire" he is able to take on both the Dursleys and Voldemort.
"I'm not supposed to show you what illegal Dark curses look like until you're in the sixth year," one of Dumbledore's hires, Professor Mad-Eye Moody, tells Harry's class of the Dark Arts in "The Goblet of Fire." "You're not supposed to be old enough to deal with it till then. But Professor Dumbledore's got a higher opinion of your nerves, he reckons you can cope. How are you supposed to defend yourself against something you've never seen?"
A few months later, in a fight for their lives, Harry and another experienced, good-hearted classmate battle the Dark Side.
Harry escapes, barely, but his classmate doesn't. It is to Rowling's great credit that she doesn't spare her young readers life's occasional disappointments and defeats. She surely knows that they were thinking about them anyway.