Harry Potter offers 'gateway' books for young readers
Making the Grade: Paul Tamburello
Wednesday, December 17, 2003
Yale University professor Harold Bloom thinks J.K. Rowling is a lousy writer. He got wound up on the subject when he learned that the National Book Foundation was about to award its annual "distinguished contribution" award to Stephen King.
"Stephen King is an immensely inadequate writer on a sentence-by-sentence, paragraph-by-paragraph, book-by-book basis," he huffed. "By awarding it to King, they recognize nothing but the commercial value of his books, which sell in the millions but do little more for humanity than keep the publishing world afloat." Well, give Bloom credit for not being ambivalent in his taste for literature. He's as direct as a haymaker by Rocky Marciano.
His next punch was aimed at J.K. Rowling. "If this is going to be the criterion in the future," he continued, "then perhaps the committee should give its award for distinguished contribution to Danielle Steele, and surely the Nobel Prize for Literature should go to J.K. Rowling."
Everyone is entitled to an opinion, and I remained comfortably in a neutral corner until Bloom theorized, "If Rowling was what it took to get children to pick up a book, wasn't that a good thing? It is not."
What is pushing me to risk climbing into the ring with the heavyweight Bloom was this final uppercut to Rowling. "Our society and our literature and our culture are being dumbed down...." and that Rowling, as a poor writer, is one of the causes.
In general, disagreeing with an internationally known literary critic isn't a good idea for survival in the writing community, especially if you're a lightweight jabbing at a heavyweight. But hey, I've been in the ring for years. As a veteran elementary school teacher, I've watched kids get hooked by contenders in all the divisions. And even I've been heard to weigh in on the questionable literary value of some children's "commercial" authors, R.L. Stine (Goosebumps) and Ann Martin (Babysitters Club), to name two.
Bloom contends that reading Harry Potter won't lead a reader to children's classics like the "Just So Stories" or "Alice in Wonderland."
I don't agree. Avid readers of all ages go on romps through all kinds of authors. Every year, I survey the Boston Globe's adult summer reading list. Trust me, many books touted are guilty pleasures books recommended to readers with one eye on the page and another on the waves lapping onto the beach. I'm sure many of those authors wouldn't appear on Bloom's recommended list of first-rate adult authors, and aren't logical jump off points to the likes of Philip Roth, Thomas Pynchon or Don DeLillo, Bloom's modern heroes.
What is it about Harry Potter books that Bloom may be missing? Massive hype fitting for a prize fight aside, there are redeeming features in Potter books. Harry's quests put him in the ring with classic themes: survival in a hostile environment; controlling one's destiny by using one's own resources; the struggle between good and evil. Not just kid stuff. Other Potter themes, the value of friendship, loyalty, being true to one's beliefs, are found in both classic and contemporary literature and themes that I believe would resonate with other Bloom favorites Lewis Carroll, James Thurber, Rudyard Kipling and Kenneth Grahame.
I grant that Rowling's books don't meet Bloom's standard for style, and may or may not lead children to Bloom's favorite choices, but children have other needs besides exposure to stylistic accomplishment. Children Harry Potter's age are trying to figure out their place in a moral universe, and Harry can be as good a "corner man" as a kid can find for advice between the rounds.
As a teacher, I'd rather have students spending their time reading than not reading. I can just imagine what adults thought as my friends and I devoured the formulaic stories about the Hardy Boys, comic books about Archie and Veronica and GI Joe, and ultimately MAD Magazine. That's a long way from "Just So Stories" or "Alice in Wonderland." But the fact is that reading those low-brow collections engaged my imagination, kept me reading and helped me to rise from the lightweight reader ranks.
Potter books are gateway books. I've witnessed students with very shaky reading habits and abilities struggle but sustain their attention through a Harry Potter book. Despite my efforts to direct them into more "appropriate" books for their reading level, Harry Potter is the one who helped them break into an arena of challenging books and see themselves as "readers."
Far from dumbing down literature, I think J.K. Rowling's layered story lines move the Potter books into at least the middleweight division. And I'm sure that some of my fourth-graders would say that Harry's in the ring with the big boys.
By the way, don't imagine for a New York minute that Brookline's Pierce School would have chosen a fanciful classic like Kenneth Grahame's "The Wind in the Willows" to be its grade 2-6 play this year if Harry Potter not been in the air. And don't be surprised if scores of kids end up reading that classic book before the year is over.
Now, isn't that a good thing, Mr. Bloom?
Paul Tamburello is a writer and teacher who has taught in Brookline since 1970.