Alright, see the thing is; this year has been unrepresentatively dominated by kids’ books. I don’t mean actual kids’ books. (I had the pleasure of rediscovering some childhood favourites this year in my quest to provide books for the stepson. Shan’s Lucky Knife, Dr Seuss’ I Had Trouble In Getting To Solla Sollew, The Three Robbers and the marvelous and disgracefully out-of-print The Witch In The Wellington Library are all things that I have read for the first time in well over twenty years, and loved just as much as I did as a toddler.) Sadly, horribly, I mean Young Adult fiction. It’s barely my fault: a couple of YA authors whose earlier works had proved popular with the children released new books, so I got them. Then the closing down sale at Dymocks resulted in me buying many more books to lend to the children. Then just as I finished reading them (I always read books before I lend them to the students. I’ll tell you why sometime. You’ll laugh…) I came across a couple of cheapie second hand YA books, then had to read a few for school after that.
But I finally finished.
After knocking off The Sweet Far Thing I thought I was free. But, you all know the line about what happens just when you think you’re out.
I’ve been arguing with two of my Year 12s recently about the merits or otherwise of Harry Potter. (My argument has thus far been “I don’t have to read them to know they’re crap! No, you shut up!”) They have insisted that I read it before I dis it any further, and have thrust school-library copies of first two books in the series at me.
I get why people would like this: it is pure wish-fulfilment. Harry Potter himself is given no personality – unless you count being-upset-when-he’s-maltreated – so the reader can immediately empathise with him: we’ve all felt our parents/caregivers didn’t give us the respect we deserved, all wanted a way out. So, in short order, Harry finds out that he’s a wizard. Doesn’t that sound like the best escape, one that we all would have wanted when we were the same age as the protagonist? Of course, it gets better: It turns out that Harry’s parents left him a large inheritance – he’s a millionaire. Oh, and his parents were well-respected and he himself is known for playing a part in the decade-old defeat of Voldemort – he’s famous and instantly popular. Also, when he gets to magic school, it turns out he has a natural propensity for the sport that all wizards admire – now he’s a jock.
This is a book about magic, but it’s really a book for nerdy kids to read and put themselves into as the ultimate form of escapism. Think about it: for all the dragon smuggling and troll fighting, the biggest threat presented is when their magical misadventures earn Harry and his friends demerit points for their house, making them, gasp, shock, horror, UNPOPULAR!!! And the scene where Voldemort is defeated takes place off-camera after Harry passes out, but the scene where Harry’s bravery re-earns the house points, making him once more the most popular kid in school has several pages dedicated to it.
Which, I suppose, is okay. Hell, it’s certainly what makes Twilight so popular, The fact that Bella has no personality except that she is awkward and thinks no one understands her means that every fourteen year old girl in the world can imagine themselves as her.
If I had read Harry Potter when I was eleven, I would have loved it. But it is definitely a kids’ book.
To digress for a minute (but I’m going somewhere with this, I promise) – When I first read The Da Vinci Code, I genuinely couldn’t work out why it was so popular. Sure, it rollicked along nicely, but it was no better – and slightly worse – than most of the books I had read that year. It wasn’t until I heard so many people telling me what a clever and unique book it was that I figured it out: with my interest in conspiracy theories, the Grail conspiracy is something I’ve known about since I was a teenager. But most of the reading public hadn’t heard it before. Dan Brown’s genius was in taking an idea that appeared fresh to ninety percent of the reading public, then writing about it competently, therefore exposing it to a wider audience than would otherwise have seen it.
Now, where I’m going with this is that Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone is a good kids’ book. But I’ve read better. I think that all the adults who read this and excitedly squealed “Ooooohhh, adults can enjoy this too!” didn’t realise that there are actually a bunch of really entertaining kids books out there that adults could enjoy, but that they never see because they don’t go to that section of the bookshop. Anything by Cassandra Clare, Libba Bray, Scott Westerfield, Melissa Marr, Sam Enthoven, would all capture the attention of adults, as would the Young Adult work of Corey Doctorow or China Mieville. (And don’t come to me saying that Harry Potter is more “mature” than other YA books. Just from the works of the authors I’ve mentioned I can think of scenes involving self-harm, incest, murder, oral sex, thought-crime, mental abuse, environmental politics, and in the case of Sam Enthoven’s The Black Tattoo, the revelation that Earth was created by a bumbling minor demon named Godfrey, whom humanity has misinterpreted hugely. But I think I’m veering even more off-topic than I already was…)
Anyhoo, final verdict: Harry Potter is a great kids’ book. But it’s a kids’ book. So I revert to my previous position towards the apologists who bollock on about how they’re “not really kids’ books” or who have the adult covers on their bookshelves: shut the hell up.
(By way of a coda: Just as I finished the second book – perfunctory review to follow – my Year 12s presented me with the next three for some light holiday reading. I hate my life.)