I'm engaging in a reread of the Harry Potter series this summer, something I enjoy doing every few years. I read Sorcerer's Stone and Chamber of Secrets in quick succession, and was struck, as I always am on these rereads, by how really brilliant HP1 is and how exciting it would be to read these books for the first time as a child. I never had that experience--I was sixteen when the first Harry was published, seventeen before it was published in the US. And I didn't read any of them until I was nearly twenty and didn't quite realize the appeal until twenty-three. I suppose there might be an argument to be made that I came to Harry Potter at exactly the right time for me--during a summer in grad school when it was a thrill to rediscover how purely enjoyable reading can be. But I still return to that feeling that reading them at the age they were intended for would have been such a treat. Which inevitably leads me to a question: how might one share the Harry Potter books with children today?
One of the things I love about the Harry books is that they allow the children within them to grow and that the books themselves progressively "grow up" in vocabulary, style, and incident as Harry and co. get older themselves. This was almost certainly a great thrill for those children lucky enough to be the right age to start Harry when he first came out and interested and/or readerly enough to stick with him through book seven. An eight-year-old who started with Sorcerer in 1998 would have been just the same age as Harry himself when she read Deathly Hallows in 2007. How cool is that?
But this very "growing up" of the series is what I fear would make giving Harry to children today problematic. Suppose there is an eight-year-old of your acquaintance whom you think would enjoy these books. If she is a strong reader, she should be able to read HP1 on her own; if not, she should be able to enjoy it thoroughly if read aloud to her. Unless quite easily frightened, our eight-year-old (let's call her Rose) should be able to enjoy the small nastinesses, the sort-of scary monsters, and the kind-of creepy villain of Sorcerer's Stone without being upset by the book. The same is probably true of Chamber of Secrets and maybe even Prisoner of Azkaban.
But how many installments until you're afraid that the books are too old for Rose? It won't take her ten years to get to Deathly Hallows without J.K. Rowling's writing pace to slow her down, especially if she is really caught up in the story. How would you feel about little nine-year-old Rose reading about ethnic cleansing, children wiping their parents' memories to protect them, murder-by-snake, and kindly old men raising children so that they will be prepared to sacrifice themselves to save the world at seventeen? Those are only a few of the things of which my nightmares were made after I read HP7 at twenty-six. (M and I recently rewatched HP7: 1 & 2, and during the scene where Voldemort murders Charity Burbage, I muttered that any future children of ours would not be watching the movie until they were at least seventeen. That age got revised upward as the evening progressed.) I can't quite see letting Rose read Deathly Hallows before the teen years, but nor can I see telling Rose she can't read the rest of a story with which she has fallen in love. One could try to steer Rose clear of Harry altogether until she is thirteen or fourteen, but Sorcerer's Stone is just too perfect for the eight-to-eleven set not to share it at that age. And a thirteen-year-old might find the first two or three books too young for her, both in content and in style--and that might put her off the whole series. What a shame that would be. So, what to do?
I've heard the theory that one should let her children read whatever they want; that if they are old enough to comprehend a book, then they are old enough to deal with a book. Maybe. I've also read a good deal of theory about the prevalence of evil people, horrible situations, and tragedy in books written for older children and young adults--that dealing with such things in literature is an important part of children's development and their ability to deal with whatever is happening in their lives. I'll buy that. There's probably also something to be said for the notion that adults perceive horrors differently from children, that adults overestimate the effect unpleasantness in stories will have on kids. I was an avid and strong reader from a very early age and have no recollections whatever of my parents forbidding me to read any particular books; nor can I remember being really, truly disturbed by anything I read as a kid. I read a lot, I think, that was a bit beyond my comprehension and was unsettled by some of it, but struggling to find meaning in the books I didn't really understand was probably an integral part of my growing up.
All of which, I suppose, argues for letting Rose read the later Harry Potter books when she thinks she's ready for them. She'd probably read them under a blanket with a flashlight if her parents forbade them anyway. Better to be prepared, maybe, to know that your baby is going to show up at the side of your bed at three in the a.m. terrified of whatever twist her unconscious put on Dementors and Nagini and Killing Curses.
And no one can protect Rose from growing up forever. What a shame that would be.