Series: Harry Potty by J.K. Rowling

I’d read The Prisoner of Azkaban before, but without having it situated in the larger narrative, it just didn’t resonate. So, instead, I focused on the plot issues and dismissed the series.

I’m very glad that I decided to give it a second chance. The series does have a lot of issues, especially in the early books (it does seem that Rowling came into her own as the series progressed – or perhaps her publishers finally saw her as worth the expense and gave her a better editor), but all of that is overshadowed by the interesting worldbuilding and great characters.

One of the things I particularly enjoyed about the series is how it seems to “grow up” through the volumes. Books one and two are very innocent, focusing on the wonder of the magical world and on the friendship between Harry, Ron, and Hermione. By book three, the world starts to become more dangerous, and the reader is introduced to more complex relationships (Hermione acting rude, but it having to do with a personal issue and nothing directly relating to Harry).

By book four, puberty sets in, and the friendship starts to morph as the characters become more gendered. From there, the plots and the relationships between the characters become more complex, the baddies more scary, and the books themselves become longer.

This was masterfully done, so that a child starting to read at the appropriate age and spacing the books out can really feel like they are growing up along with the characters.

Teachable Moments

I liked that the series provides so many “teachable moments.” Topics are raised, but answers aren’t necessarily forced or spelled out, so it gives parents and children reading the series together a great opportunity to discuss the issues together. For example, Barty Crouch is so obsessed with catching baddies that he starts to become a baddie himself, which could very easily lead to a discussion on how the pursuit of justice can be taken too far.

I also enjoyed the fact that success in the series so often depends on hard work, rather than on natural talent. For a series specifically about a magical birth right, this was especially interesting. Throughout the books, Harry struggles with fame and the perception that he is naturally powerful and can accomplish anything, but the reality is that he still needs to work quite hard at learning magic, and he must accept help from others who know more than he does or are more talented in certain areas.

Hermione

Hermione is a fantastic character, and a great female role model. She’s part of Team Harry, of course, but throughout the series, we keep getting hints about a life lived entirely outside of HarryWorld. She has friendships among the other girls that Harry has no access to (and frequently has no knowledge of), her relationship with Viktor is played out off-scene, she has interests and passions that do not intersect with Harry’s, etc. She doesn’t just fawn over Harry in the way that Ron does, but rather has a private life of her own that even the reader – who has access only to Harry’s perspective – sees only in glimpses.

As a girl, she’s the perfect mix of smart, capable, nerdy, not overly concerned with her appearance, yet she is still feminine. She has friendships with girls on a “girl level” that Harry can’t understand, she has a relationship, she has crushes (but is not crushed by them), she pretties herself up when she chooses to… She has a solid identity, of which her gender is a part but that is not defined by her gender.

All in all, I found her to be one of the most well-rounded and deep characters that I’ve seen.

The Movies

Not a fan. The actors are great and very well chosen for their roles, but the press of covering too much material in too little time means that they barely have the time to read their lines before a scene change, and haven’t the opportunity to explore their characters. This made them all feel terribly rushed.

There were also artefacts of the books cropping up in weird places – for example, in The Half-Blood Prince, Dumbledore asks Harry to accompany him when destroying a horcrux (as opposed to Harry begging to go in the book), yet later, Dumbledore tells Harry that he “promised” to take him along.

I don’t automatically poo-pooh silver screen adaptations, but in a case like this – when the books are so popular and well-loved, I don’t think that it’s possible to make a good movie from them. There’s just too much pressure to remain faithful to the books, which prevents the directors and characters from having any input of their own into the work, making it little more than a pale re-enactment.

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Harry Potter #7: The Deathly Hallows by J.K. Rowling

Read: 28 March, 2012

The final book in the Harry Potter series is markedly different from the other six. Rather than return to Hogwarts for their final year, Harry, Ron, and Hermione drop out of school  to focus on finding the Horcruxes and destroying Lord Voldemort.

The book is fairly evenly divided into two parts. In the first, the friends have their mettle tested. They are given ample reason to doubt Dumbledore and find themselves without any real way forward on the path that he’s set them on. On the other hand, they find out about the Deathly Hallows, which could be used to make them stronger than Lord Voldemort.

In the second part, the battle between Dumbledore’s Army and Voldemort’s forces wages over Hogwarts.

The Deathly Hallows is the culmination of the message of love and friendship that has been so central to the series. Harry must put his faith in Dumbledore despite the evidence, and he must be willing to die for his friends just as his mother once died for him. As Dumbledore says, “If there is one thing Voldemort cannot understand, it is love” – and only this power can conquer him.

It’s a lovely, if occasionally problematic, message.

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Harry Potter #6: The Half-Blood Prince by J.K. Rowling

Read: 10 May, 2012

With Harry’s occlumency lessons with Professor Snape a resounding failure, he begins lessons with Dumbledore instead. Together, they explore memories collected by Dumbledore in an attempt to better understand Lord Voldemort.

Meanwhile, Harry has found an old textbook filled with the notes of the previous owner – known only as the Half-Blood Prince. The notes help Harry excel in his Potions class, but after the encounter with the evil book in The Chamber of Secrets, Hermione has some reservations about using such a powerful book.

There was some interesting play with morality in this volume. Not to give too much away for the three people left on earth who haven’t read the series yet, but Harry has to cause harm to someone he loves for the greater good. It’s an extremely powerful scene that marks the tone for the rest of the series.

Seriously, I was bawling.

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Harry Potter #5: The Order of the Phoenix by J.K. Rowling

Read: 3 May, 2012

The fight against Lord Voldemort is complicated when the Ministry of Magic – suspecting Dumbledore of making up Harry’s story of Voldemort’s return in an attempt to take over the Ministry for himself – gets involved. And, of course, another year means another Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher, and this one is the worst yet!

One thing that has really impressed me about the Harry Potter series is that they seem to grow with their readers. The first few books were geared towards children. Now that Harry is in his mid-teens, the plots are becoming more complex, the stakes are higher, and the issues tackled are more difficult.

In Order of the Phoenix, we finally drop the idea that the world is divided neatly into those who are good and Deatheaters. We knew who the baddies were and, whenever Harry didn’t like someone (such as Draco Malfoy), it often turned out that s/he was in some way associated with Baddy-in-Chief Voldemort. But now, we encounter the Ministry – a group that is misguided and often takes a stand on the wrong side of the issues, but isn’t ‘Capital E’ Evil.

Rowling did some very interesting things with the theme of identity in Order of the Phoenix. In addressing the issue of bullying – which has previously been covered with Harry as the victim and Draco Malfoy as the bully – she now shows us Harry’s father (with whom Harry identifies) as the bully and Professor Snape (with whom Draco is frequently paired) as the victim. Harry is therefore forced to confront, at least in hypothetical form, the idea of himself as a bully, and to take a stand against possible self.

Rowling further challenges Harry by putting him inside Voldemort’s head, making him become Voldemort, so that he must actively choose to define himself as a goody.

Because the books are from Harry’s perspective, we often see his friendships as very one-sided; Ron and Hermione exist to support him, Dumbledore exists to mentor him, Professor Snape exists to challenge him, etc. Hermione has always been something of an exception as we see hints of her friendships outside of the Harry-Ron-Hermione circle – friendships with other girls and, more recently, her relationship with Viktor. In this volume, Ron starts to find a separate self as well in his love for Quidditch. It was great to finally see him grow a little.

I love the way that Rowling captures the reality of being a teenager. Harry’s exchange with Professor Umbrage over learning practical skills versus learning just enough to pass a test could have been lifted almost word for word from my own classroom experiences. His nervousness and awkwardness as he attempts to start a relationship with Cho Chang was far more familiar than I would have liked as well.

The last thing I wanted to comment on is Rowling’s skill as an author. I complained (a lot) during the first three books about how contrived her mysteries were. The plot moves forward, seems to get stuck, and then an utterly ridiculous overheard conversation or found item allows it to move forward again. She seems to have largely grown out of this by the time she came to write Order of the Phoenix. The plot construction has now matured enough to have largely caught up with the exciting world and fascinating characters.

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Harry Potter #4: The Goblet of Fire by J.K. Rowling

Read: 17 April, 2012

After decades without one, a new Triwizard Tournament has been announced and Hogwarts is hosting. Harry is too young to compete but, much to everyone’s surprise – including his own – his name is selected as an additional champion. Harry suspects Voldemort’s influence, but he must first survive the competition’s three deadly tasks.

So far in the series, Harry&co. have been children, and their friendship has been fairly uncomplicated. Hermione was dealing with a lot of stress in The Prisoner of Azkaban, but they’ve otherwise been able to depend on each other while they face external foes. In The Goblet of Fire, however, one of the enemies they face is on the inside – puberty. Suddenly, gender becomes important, and the dynamic between Hermione and her two male friends starts to shift and require redefining. All this is further complicated when the Tournament brings with it the Yule Ball, forcing Ron and Harry to find dates.

I found The Goblet of Fire to be the most self-aware of the series so far. While Harry’s fame has been an issue throughout the series (and the reason he was placed with the Dursley family in the first place), this is the first time that it has become such a central theme. Harry – who seems to always be at the centre of everything – is contrasted with Ron, a youngest son starved for attention.

One thing I love about this series is how many “teachable moments” there are. Issues are raised and attention called to them, but solutions aren’t explicitly given. This leaves a lot of room for the reading of the series to be a family activity, with the opportunity for plenty of discussion.

The book does suffer from many of the same plotting issues that I’ve already covered, with Harry’s grown-worthy chance discoveries that just happen to move the plot forward and exactly the right time. Nevertheless, the series is strong enough in other areas to compensate for this one failing.

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Harry Potter #1: The Philosopher’s Stone by J.K. Rowling

Read: 28 March, 2012

With the exception of one course I took in University, I’ve largely been able to avoid the Harry Potter craze. I hadn’t read the books, nor seen the movies. But I figured that it was about time dip into this extremely popular series.

It was a weird experience to read this book because my culture is so saturated with it that I already felt like I knew the characters and even many of the major plot points. So even though I was experiencing the Harry Potter world first hand for the first time, I still had the odd feeling that I was revisiting it.

I enjoyed the experience much more than I did my reading of The Prisoner of Azkaban a few years ago. I think that this is partially because The Philosopher’s Stone is where Harry&co. are really introduced, whereas in Prisoner, some knowledge is assumed. So my feelings for the characters were nurtured and I could care about what was happening far more. Also, if I’m honest, I’d have to say that part of my dislike of Prisoner was due to the popularity of the series and my own place as a reader at the time. I was an English major. I read fancy books. This was pop trash – it had to be, because look at how popular it is! Must be the modern equivalent of a Penny Dreadful!

I did recognize some of my old complaints, though. While the story is set up as a mystery, it isn’t a very good one. Harry Potter is credited with uncovering clues, but really they just seem to fall into his lap (Hagrid just happened to have clipped from a newspaper and left out for Harry to find exactly the clue he needed? Really?). The way this happens sometimes borders on the ridiculous.

But Rowling’s strength is in writing her characters. There’s someone in Hogwarts for everyone to relate to. I loved the way that the children openly communicate with each other and don’t play the silly secrecy games that characters so often play to artificially increase suspense. This is also a story of friendship, and of working together as a team. In many ways, this is what breaks the Harry Potter series off from the pack of children/YA novels. Harry may be the titular character, but Ron and Hermione are just as central and are given plenty of opportunities for their own contribution and growth.

I have to admit that I really enjoyed The Philosopher’s Stone, despite its flaws. As I was reading, I actually found myself looking forward to being able to share the story with my son in a few years, and that says a lot!

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