Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Why We are Gryffindor: Reading and Magic

Why We are Gryffindor: Reading and Magic

It's late, past 9. Way past bedtime for small folk. "Mommy I think I know what's in the Chamber." "Hmm?" "A basilisk--because of Hermione's note. I think they're going to use a rooster to kill it because its crow is fatal to it." He scratches his left ear and yawns but seems really determined. I just grin as he goes back to his room. My boy is this psyched over a story? coolest.thing.ever.

I posted this as a Facebook status update on Good Friday evening.  My son was staying up to finish the second in the Rowling series, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets.  I got some likes from friends, a few excited and happy comments from others, and yet, another friend messaged me saying that she’d gotten criticism from friends for including Harry Potter into her small son’s world.  With her permission, it went like this:

Friend: “Your status made me smile. We are avid readers here and I have caught so much negativity due to thinking that Harry Potter and other stories are great. That they encourage an imagination. And to me that is so, very important.”

I wrote back thinking of the bees being stirred in my bonnet about it, this crux of Christianity and imagination.  I couldn’t let it go.  So I asked her if I
could talk about it to you and she said absolutely, and “It bothers me that people do not see an imagination as a spiritual gift. It is. Especially for kids today who are surrounded by negativity,” so here we are.  But this isn’t just about the Church and J.K. Rowling because the story seems to garner some controversy everywhere church or not.  When I was volunteering at the boys’ school library last year, I got some surprised mentions when I said Joe was reading the first in the series as a second grader.  “I’m shocked you’d let him read that.”  “He’s a little young.”  “Those situations are horrible.”  “I think it’s terrible what those stories talk about.”  (I wondered if this is the same cadre of folk who also touch your belly when you’re pregnant without asking.)  So I did what I normally do, and squatted down, pulling books to line on the edge of the shelves just like any self respecting former Borders employee and said, trying not to wince—squatting is not intrinsic to my nature—“I think kids are great self-regulators.  My kid especially (emphasis s-t-r-u-n-g out.)  He will lose interest if he can’t understand.” 

I am met with blank stares.  And I do an internal sigh that stretches my abdomen and pricks the fear that resides in it.  That fear spot has gotten smaller as I’ve grown surer in self over the years, but it’s still there.  No one likes being the only girl at the table. 

You know, when I began to think about this and write about it, I began to research the opposition to the series because I wanted to know what was considered so wrong about it.  As near as I can gather, the consensus seems to be on the emphasis of magic and not made up magic either, because Rowling has reference to runes, divination, and necromancy in her series.  There is real concern to those on the other side of the fence that children can look up these subjects and begin to practice them. Yet, strangely enough, there is not such fervor against Tolkien’s trilogy or the Narnia series by C.S. Lewis.  It seems to stem from the fact that Tolkien was a staunch Catholic and his friendship with Lewis who was a lay theologian and Christian apologist.  So, the inference to be drawn is that the books are risky because Rowling’s religious views are not clear?  This makes my head spin badly.

 To me, the emphasis in the Potter series is on love, that love is the best and most enduring magic.  Even at the end duel between Voldemort and Harry, Harry
challenges Voldemort to guess the power that can finish him, and in characteristic evil fashion, Voldemort mocks Harry’s mentor, Dumbledore’s insistence that “love” can conquer anything.  So much of the series points to courage conquering fear, good triumphing over evil, understanding dissolving division and love overcoming hatred.   Dumbledore, Harry’s surrogate father figure, and great wizard, often talks about the courage needed to stand up for what is right over “what is easy,” that music is the “greatest magic,” that compassion is necessary for justice.  Even in the last book, we come to see that as a young man, this great wizard was seduced into thinking power would equal happiness but comes to realize he cannot be trusted with it, because power should go to those who don’t seek it, that they are often the best stewards of it.  Where in any of this, I wonder, is the wrong?  

My eldest son started reading early and precociously.  He quickly went from easy reader books to chapter books in literally a blink.  I was thrilled being kin to reading, it was an escape for me of the most sublime kind. 
Even now, banned as I was from reading at the table, eating a sweet nothing while reading a story is a highlight of treatdom for me.  So now, I could fathom a cocoon of oneness with my son, whose reading speed and zest matched my own.  Yet, Joe loved what I did not.  Science fiction, fantasy, magic, suspended reality.  I tried, of course, to introduce him to some of my favorites, but they just didn’t take.  So I saw him taking flight with the Guardians of Ga’hoole, delving into the Secrets of Droon, minding the mysteries of Encyclopedia Brown.  As he grew older, he wanted more challenge and our weekly library visits became more intriguing for him.  He read and finished all the Magic Tree House books, and he kept hanging around Harry, a

 boy wizard who resembled him in stick uppity hair, a late summer birthday, and a thirst to learn.  It was his goal to finish the first story when he was in second grade.  And this is where I first had the stymying resistance to all things Hogwarts.

So here we are, I think, universally agreed that reading is important, and adventures of the mind even more so and I believe that parents are smart and know how these are connected.  Books open up the imagination, and once the imagination is freed, everything and anything is probable.  And that first lies in the story.  “The story is the thing.”

Stories have the power to do a lot for us, to put into words our exact feelings of isolation or ebullition, record our personal manifestos and grieve our losses.  Children are the keenest of audiences and so writing for them is no mean feat.  They can sniff out an impostor, and they know what rings true.  For a child to love a story there has to be a spark of recognition to what they know and believe.  Do I think that my child reading about Harry will make him check out all sorts of books on witchcraft from the library?  No.  I don’t.  Even as he creates dragon spit at brunch or discusses the finer points of quidditch (and I’m sorry, I’m still not interested, despite it being a wizarding game), he knows that a story is a story.   And that it can be a beginning to all sorts of amazing.  

No matter what else, J.K. Rowling opened a world of magic for children at a time when technology and hand held devices race for their attention more than any moment in history.  The books pulled children away from the computer and into a cozy nook to read.  They brought parents together with older children to read together, so that stories could be explained and understood.  Even if Hogwarts isn’t for you, the entrée into the world of books offered by the series, made trips to the library something to look forward to again.  The story became important.  Talking about it even more so.  Without it, the next generation of dreamers will be staying in a static space.  Stories mean movement.

I feel that everything for children has been built on the buoyant foundation of a story first.  There would be no Disney, no Universal, no video games, and no films without the origin of a tale.  And tales did more than just amuse or pass time, story telling has been going on and on to record histories, impart lessons, give caution, and to allow room for understanding.  Some have been so beloved that the alteration found in adaptation seems horrifying, consider Hollywood’s latest foray into that compromise with Saving Mr. Banks.  In it, P.L. Travers was worried
© Disney Pictures 2013
that her beloved Mary Poppins would be somehow taken away from her and fashioned into someone she could no longer recognize.  That’s how much our created sense of words becomes proprietary and inspiring.

Travers’ Poppins stories are incredibly rich, filled with magic of a prosaic kind.  One of my memories in reading Mary Poppins, was the time Poppins goes into Michael’s drawer and pulls out the gold foil stars from some gingerbread wrapping he has saved.  She passes them along to the owner of the shop, Mrs. Corry and her two daughters.  The women place ladders upright and Mrs. Corry and Mary climb them with buckets of glue and begin to paste the stars right into the sky:

"Then Jane and Michael saw a most amazing sight. As soon as she arrived at the top of her ladder, Mrs. Corry dipped her brush into the glue and began slapping the sticky substance against the sky. And Mary Poppins, when this had been done, took something shiny from her basket and fixed it to the glue. When she took her hand away they saw that she was sticking the Gingerbread Stars to the sky. As each one was placed in position it began to twinkle furiously, sending out rays of sparkling golden light.
© Mary Poppins
'They're ours!' said Michael breathlessly. 'They're our stars. She thought we were asleep and came in and took them.'"

Our stars!  Ours.  That’s what happens when you read a story, it becomes yours.    As soon as you enter the story, you become an active participant in it.  You can take that leap with Wendy Darling and believe, you climb the peak, you face your fears and you can fly.  
As the school year ends and summer looms before us, I have been giving a lot of thought to stories and books and reading and dreaming.  We’re embarking on a summer reading game in our house that will have each child reading and writing a report for me, which they will present every couple of weeks.  Talking about the story will reinforce it for them and this will allow even their little brother a crack at it because he can tell me what he thinks over what we read together.  Whoever has the most reports at the end of the summer wins a cash prize.  Do you want to do this too?

 I’ll be reading a lot of these stories, especially for my middle son, who is at best, a reluctant reader.  His reading has not been seamless, and it makes me grumpy.  Sam’s interest also lays far afield from my own, as he likes gore and all things scary.  Magic appeals to him as well, so Harry is on his mind as much as his brother and the first film he has seen have been able to make it real for him.  The trick seems to be to find stories that appeal to Sam in order to turn on his own passion and interest.  The story is the thing, after all, to build up a brain.  Remember that scene in Mary Poppins that I mentioned to you?  Well, Michael’s sister, Jane, doesn't say much until the very end of the chapter:

'What I want to know,' she said, 'is this: Are the stars gold paper or is the gold paper stars?'

Before the summer’s over, you can read with your kids, and find the answer out together.  So come on, join us and paste up some stars in the sky of your littles.  
Here’s the form we’re using and you can get a poster up with a chart and stars, stickers, smiles, whatever you need to keep track of this in your house.  (Consider getting it laminated at Staples or Office Max since that will allow you to use dry erase markers on it and stickers can peel off.)

And to help you get started, here’s some titles that have been selected by some very savvy kids:

A Few Fun Titles for 8 and Under by Joe and Sam

Note: Mom will be adding to this list as we go to the library, so check back throughout the summer for more!


Harry Potter Books 1-3
The Chronicles of Narnia
The Boxcar Children
Pippi Longstocking
Encyclopedia Brown
The Secrets of Droon
The Pirates of the Caribbean, Jack Sparrow
Origami Yoda Books
Magic Tree House
Dr. Proctor’s Fart Powder
Field Trip Mysteries
The Guardians of Ga’hoole
Ripley’s Bureau of Investigation
The Genius Files
Mighty Monsters
The Notebook of Doom
Zeke Meeks (in the tradition of Diary of a Wimpy Kid, these books also have a glossary)
Greetings from Somewhere (mysteries that also teach about other parts of the world)
Transformers Classified (based on the animated series, the type font is large and easily spaced for newish readers)
Nate the Great
The Time Traveling Adventures of the Robbins Twins
I Survived (series is historical fiction with serious themes of nazism, slavery, war and natural diasters.)
Infinity Ring (children travel back in time to fix history and save the future, companion map and online resources.)


Lost in Bermooda by Mike Litwin
Super Chicken Nugget Boy and the Massive Meatloaf Man Manhunt by Josh Lewis
Zeke Meeks vs The Big Blah-rific Birthday  by D.L. Green
The Notebook of Doom by Troy Cummings
The Trouble with Chickens by Doreen Cronin
Einstein the Class Hamster by Janet Tashjian
The Scream Team: The Zombie at the Finish Line by Bill Doyle
Danny's Doodles by David A. Adler
Your Backyard is Wild by Jeff Corwin

A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle
The Tale of Despereaux by Kate DiCamillo
Jedi Academy by Jeffrey Brown
Phineas L. MacGuire Erupts! by Frances O’Roark Dowell
Sammy Feral’s Diaries of Weird by Eleanor Hawken
The Candy Shop War by Brandon Mull
Mary Poppins by P.L. Travers
How to Eat Fried Worms by Thomas Rockwell
Catherine, called Birdy by Karen Cushman

Here’s to a well read summer and happy imaginationing!

*Images above may be subject to copyright.  Original artists' names could not be found for attribution.

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