September is all about banned books here at PEN American. We reached out to writers, editors, literary illuminati, and PEN staff to write about the banned books that matter to them most. Today’s piece comes from Deji Olukotun, PEN American’s Freedom to Write Fellow.
About a decade ago, PEN joined with the American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression to support an initiative called KidSpeak, a website designed to encourage kids to debate free expression issues and, at least initially, to debate whether J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series should be censored. The conversation had been prompted by a number of religious groups that claimed the fantasy series about young wizards promoted occultism and paganism, thereby undermining Christian values. Here is a response from Vicky, a 5th grader:
I think the Harry Potter case is just crazy. I have an idea that kids seven and under need a permission slip to see if it’s okay for seven and under to read Harry Potter books. If parents of kids eight and older complain, the principal should just talk to them and tell them that it’s just fantasy.
What stands out about Vicky’s response, and the response from the rest of the San Francisco elementary school classroom, is not just her indignation at the idea of censoring the Potter books—Vicky crafted a policy that would protect younger children. The discussion prompted Vicky to think about free expression and also to develop her own creative solutions to address the concerns of others who held views different from her own.
Whatever the literary merits of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series (critic Harold Bloom wrote that “Rowling’s mind is so governed by clichés and dead metaphors that she has no other style of writing”) it is the ability of the books to engage young audiences that will be their enduring legacy. Since the publication of The Sorcerer’s Stone in 1997, kids have discussed, dissected, and debated the books with a critical eye. Anyone who has listened to Mugglecast, a podcast for Harry Potter lovers, must acknowledge the close textual reading of every single chapter of the series, and fan fiction sites abound in an efflorescence of, albeit channeled, creativity. These books have taught children to read, to think, to write, and to criticize, all hallmarks of free expression. (Harry Potter taught me how to read Portuguese. Quidditch is called quadribol; an owl is a coruja.)