Challenged Books: Harry Potter

One series pops up over and over again on banned and challenged book lists from 2000-2010: Harry Potter. Most of the challenges surround the presence of witchcraft and magic, although some have involved the more mature content in the older books. Certainly individual parents seem to have done considerable soul-searching over when their children should read the later books in the series, and may exercise their personal judgement when it comes to introducing their children to the books. These individual choices reflect thoughtful consideration about what is appropriate for a specific child, though, rather than an imposition of values on an entire school’s or library’s worth of readers. Especially in the early 2000s, the series became a lightning rod of book challenges and discussion that highlighted a growing shift in the reasons for challenging library materials.

Prior to the late 1990s, a lot of book challenges focused on sexual content, bad language, and ‘moral’ topics. Books were deemed inappropriate for children because they contained mature subjects. Many of these challenges were rooted in the Christian morality that dominates public thought in the United States, but they were not made on explicitly religious grounds. Many were also very politically conservative, which speaks to general social divides. With Harry Potter, though, came a change, with explicit challenges very much backed in Christian belief and surrounding the religious content of books.

The positive depiction of witchcraft and magic was deemed pagan by many Christian book challengers, who claimed that the books corrupted children and sent out harmful messages. This after decades of books featuring magical storylines being accepted without qualm. Harry Potter was certainly bigger than many of these, so it attracted more attention, but these challenges also came about at a time of increasing conservative evangelism in the United States, and a rise in being very outspoken about evangelism.

Religion-wise, I’ve always read Harry Potter as fairly neutral. There really isn’t very much religion in the books, and magic is not really framed as a religious or sacred act. It’s just a power that some people have and others do not, and it’s a thing that people do. Certainly moral and ethical issues come up, with divides about good and bad uses of magic, but these are not rooted in religious faith either. They’re based on how people should treat each other, how people should behave, socially. Voldemort is evil because he harms people, not because of whatever religion he does or doesn’t have. It’s a form of secular magic, in a long tradition of books in a similar vein, and apparently, this bothered many book challengers.

Challengers claimed that the books sent bad messages to children, which of course leads me to review the series again to see if I’ve missed anything. I see friends supporting each other, providing assistance and sticking with each other through hard times. I see people resisting bullying and abusive behaviours, I see people demonstrating compassion. Characters forgive each other, they lend helping hands, they clearly believe in behaving charitably and responsibly towards others. These are lessons that I feel are very much in keeping with the stated aims of Christian morality.

Of course, the books also push people to accept difference. Characters interact freely across social and class divides. People with giant blood, or werewolves, are disdained by society, but our characters accept them and make them part of their lives. For that matter, there’s a narrative of resistance to slavery and oppression, seen through Hermione’s dealings with the elves. Resistance to oppressive social structures is presented in a positive light in Harry Potter, and, again, I feel that this is in keeping with the core roots of Christian morality based on Christ Himself.

But, magic. And, of course, many of the conservatives mounting challenges to Harry Potter don’t actually have Christian morality. They subscribe to a version of Christianity that celebrates and enforces oppression. They believe that social inequality is not their problem, and that some people should be ostracised from society, should be allowed to remain in a state of oppression. They believe that difference is badness, and thus don’t want their children reading books that challenge those views. These challenges aren’t coming from a position of concern about exposing children to, say, character death. They’re about the issue book nature of Harry Potter, that the series attempts to advance a narrative of social equality wrapped up in the trappings of magic.

Challenges to the books have slowed in recent years and I think there’s going to be a steady downward trend as other books attract attention and start wooing generations of young readers. The history of opposition to Harry Potter, though, is important because it created a legacy. Successful or not, these challenges were fodder for conservative evangelists to exert greater control over the content taught and handled in schools, which had implications far beyond the walls of the library. Similar challenges are mounted to teaching certain subjects in science, and to providing children with education about sexuality and health. These challenges have very serious implications for a generation of children growing up with inadequate education as it is, compounded by the fact that their teachers are hamstrung when it comes to certain subjects.

I understand the difficulties of attempting to raise children in line with conservative evangelical values. The desire to not have other values pushed on children in school. But the insistence on pushing those values on everyone else is equally offensive. Children don’t have much of a choice when it comes to where they go to school and what they learn, and their parents may not be able to seek out alternatives if their children aren’t getting an adequate education. Schools are not religious institutions, and do not have an obligation to promote any religious doctrine or lack thereof. The rise in conservative dominance of school curricula is deeply troubling, and the warning signs were present in those Harry Potter challenges, and the way they were handled.