Saturday, February 19, 2011

I finished reading Harry Potter to my kids!

That was a cool, fun trip! I have fond memories of my mom reading to me and my siblings when I was a kid, and I've enjoyed passing the tradition along!

And now -- since this story has been taking up so much of my brain of late -- I have to give you my promised critique:

1. The evil-just-for-the-love-of-evil villain. My kids already spend enough time on commercial stories that are designed just to sell toys (eg. Lego Hero Factory, Planet Heroes) where they make a simplistic division into bad guys and good because its the easiest way to give your hero a conflict. And I know that Voldermort had some depth and character development (he sure a hell better have some, in 4176 pages...), but I think that an excellent children's series ought to have a more imaginative quest/conflict than the usual "We have to stop Dr. Evil from destroying the world because he's so evil just because he loves evil."

I found Lord Voldemort to be an incredibly boring villain. The series makes up for it a bit by having a number of interesting side characters, like Snape. I liked most of the teacher-characters, though (as my husband pointed out) it's a bit odd that none of the teachers are married or have a significant other. Did Rowling forget to mention that accepting a teaching position at Hogwarts means you have to take a vow of celibacy?

2. The monotonically increasing level of evil. To borrow some Dungeons & Dragons terminology, Rowling's series feels like "Lawful Evil" compared to, say, some works by Roald Dahl which feel more "Chaotic Evil". In Potter-land you don't get the feeling that anything might happen (unlike, say, Alice in Wonderland). It's more like Science Fiction than like magic -- the characters have a specific set of additional powers/technologies and a particular set of alien creatures, and they're all plodding towards the epic battle. And if there's X amount of violence and death in book 1, then the amount in book 2 is X+1, etc., so that by book 4, it's already pretty questionable whether it's appropriate for children, and by the last book, so many people were dying noble, glorious deaths in battle that I felt like I was reading a Klingon opera.

3. Underdog! After the beginning of book 1, Harry's not really an underdog anymore, and yet a lot of the story seems to rely on the reader rooting for poor Harry. Some of the situtions the author constructs to repeatedly try to put him back to underdog status (he's stuck at the Dursleys' again, Snape is mean to him, Dumbledore won't tell him everything) seem contrived and petty. I feel like I'm not explaining my point very well, so just consult this Potter Puppet Pals episode:

For such a long series, it might have been more interesting if the POV didn't always follow Harry. As I said earlier, I felt the "Dark Materials" trilogy did better than the Potter series at having peripheral characters take important independent actions rather than having all the action revolve around one or two battling champions. (And those battle scenes! Everyone picks a partner and starts duelling, as though it were the Yule Ball.)

I have a couple of other picky complaints, but I'll just leave it at this. Despite the occasional annoyance, I really did enjoy reading these to my kids. But now that it's done, they're asking me to go back and read them selected chapters! I'm happy to keep reading to them, but I'd like to move on to something new. Suggestions...?


Anonymous said...

Interesting critique. I did love the series. Rowling's style is very engaging. She does take what starts out as a children's story to some very adult levels when it comes to dealing with death and evil.

Reading to my kids (they are no longer kids) used to be my favorite time of the day. If you haven't read "Holes" with your kids, they may enjoy that one. It was a favorite for mine. All the Roald Dahl books are also excellent reads for kids -- James and the Giant Peach, Matilda ... The Willie Wonka series is great fun.

Chronicles of Narnia is also a fun series -- although we read that when I didn't have any problem with the fact that Lewis was teaching kids about Jesus Christ through his character Aslan. Still, that can be dealt with. The stories are fun.

Louise said...

I read the first few Artemis Fowl books (Eoin Colfer) and thought they were interesting and amusing. I've heard that Gary Paulsen is good, but have not read anything by him yet. I liked the "Series of Unfortunate Events". I also loved Roald Dahl. Then there are always the classics - Charlotte's Web, The Secret Garden, Bridge to Terabithia, I loved The Borrowers. Maybe my favorite as a kid.

Have fun!

mathmom said...

I second the vote for Holes---it's my favorite children's book published after my own childhood. May I suggest Shel Silverstein? They're poems, but can be read over and over and over... The Hobbit is probably appropriate.

To my chagrin, my older daughter doesn't really like fantasy or science fiction---she prefers history (Anne of Green Gables, the Wouldbegoods, the Great Brain, etc.).

I thought your comment on the "rules" side of magic was interesting, but I'm not clear on whether you'd prefer magic to be wilder, or if you don't mind the rules. Conscious "rules based magic" may have started with E. Nesbit, who thought that magic that did one thing once and then changed completely the next time was unfair to the reader, not to mention boring (like someone coming in at the end to "save the day," instead of solving problems from the inside). I know she inspired Edward Eager (some more books to look at...) and probably C. S. Lewis, and probably J. K. Rowling, since Nesbit is one of the preeminent early children's fantasy writers.

I also agree with the comment about the progressively violent tone of the books (I wish it had slowed down a bit). It's just as well my daughter doesn't like fantasy, she would probably be freaked out by the death. I'm not sure about the first comment (having Voldemort be evil for the sake of evil): it might depend on what age the books are supposed to be read. Earlier, kids pretty much see things in black and white, and from what I've read it's a matter of development, not of education. Later on, discussing the complexity of the bad guy is important, but at 7?

Sorry for the long comment, but one more thing. My favorite nit to pick with the books was that there was always the person or advice that seemed trustworthy but wasn't, and the person who seemed untrustworthy, but wasn't. It seemed unnecessarily repetitive, at the time.

Let us know what you're reading next! We're in early American history (Johnny Tremain, Witch of Blackbird Pond, Calico Girl...) I think we'll be here for a while.

C. L. Hanson said...

Thanks for the suggestions, all!!! I'll have a look at them.

So far, I've just gone to my bookshelf and pulled off The Mysterious Disappearance of Leon (I Mean Noel). They seemed to like the first chapter. And I'm kind of tempted to start on the "Little House" series next...

Re: Earlier, kids pretty much see things in black and white, and from what I've read it's a matter of development, not of education. Later on, discussing the complexity of the bad guy is important, but at 7?

Yes, I know, I'm probably being unrealistically idealistic. Yet, I still find it grating when my 7-year-old engages in play where it's great that the "good guys" hurt or kill the "bad guys" because the good and wonderful when that happens. I don't attempt to debate him on it (much) for the reasons you mention, but I don't like going out of my way to feed that mentality by selecting stories for them that reinforce the lesson that harm and violence is a glorious adventure as long as it's directed at "bad guys". Not every childrens' book is built around that trope.

gburnett said...

Hey C.L.! i couldn't agree more. I particularly tired of the whole "Oh no, we're going to get kicked out of Hogwarts" theme that kept popping up. Like that was ever going to happen as part of the underdog theme. I also tired of the 1-D Voldemort. I didn't make it to the fourth book as a result.


Varina said...

I second the vote for "A Series of Unfortunate Events". Once you follow them all the way down the rabbit-hole, they are probably the most morally complex children's books I have ever read. They actually have dilemmas about who is a bad guy and what makes people turn to violence, etc, and how far you can go combating the bad guys without becoming one yourself. Also they are always surprising and teach good vocabulary.

mathmom said...

Hi Chanson! I hadn't thought about Leon (I mean Noel) for a long time, which is funny, considering that The Westing Game (also by Ellen Raskin) is my all time favorite children's book. Wasn't there also a book about a tatooed potato? Hmm, time to get some books.

I responded to the second part of your comment (on the goodness of killing bad guys) on my blog, but it didn't turn out the way I wanted. Oh well =)

Gem said...

I can recommend Ursula Le Guin's Earthsea Series, although it might be better to wait until your kids are older. I think I read them when I was 8 or 9 (definitely before middle school) and absolutely loved the first 3 books.

Anonymous said...

I agree with your first and third points, but want to mention something about your second point. My youngest son started reading the Potter series when he was 9 or 10 (he's now 20). He grew up with the series, and the characters pretty much grew up along with him. I wasn't bothered by the increasing violence and death (and the characters' growing sexual awareness) because, by the time the books got to that stage, he was ready to deal with those issues.

Now that the series is complete, I can see how it might seem like a bit much for younger children to handle while they're still young. I guess that's the difference between growing alongside a children's series, and growing into the finished product.

JentheHumanist said...

I am just about half way through the first book with my son who is five now. He is really enjoying it.

I would suggest The Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings. My dad read these aloud to me when I was young and to this day, I think of reading aloud as a family as an act of love. One of the reasons I fell for my husband is because he had the LOR trilogy in the exact bound versions that my dad had (but were destroyed in a fire). Don't underestimate the power of a few lowly hobbits. I have every intention of reading the Hobbit to my boy after Harry Potter.

Andy said...

I can see how it may appear like a tad significantly for more youthful kids to take care of whilst they're nonetheless young.
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