Category Archives: Harry Potter

So I Read Harry Potter and the Cursed Child

My brief and informal goodreads review:

I wasn’t sure at first if I even wanted to read this not being a fan fiction reader, but was encouraged to do so and am glad I did. That said, this is clearly in that realm as it requires a relatively strong background in Harry Potter lore to make sense of it all. So much revisits pieces of the earlier books, amplifies themes, characters, and possibilities. I found that great fun (especially after having recently spent a pleasurable day at Orlando’s Harry Potter World).

I also am a regular theatergoer and so enjoyed reading the script and imagining the staging. I’m guessing it will eventually end up on Broadway and I will then have a chance to see it.


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J. K. Rowling’s Unfortunate Attempts at Globalization

I remember many years ago seeing a 60 Minutes interview with J. K. Rowling where she showed “Box 1” full of her notes for the Harry Potter books. Now I wonder how many boxes there are and if some of them are full of notes for the international wizarding schools that have recently been announced on the Pottermore site. (Rowling’s introduction to the schools is here.)

Being American, I’ve particularly been attending to those who are expressing dismay, disappointment, and great disturbance when it comes to the North American school, Ilvermorny and the earlier publication, “History of Magic in North America.”  N. K. Jemisin’s post “It Could’ve Been Great” is particularly insightful as she considers the issue as both a fantasy writer and a Harry Potter fan. I also recommend Paula Young Lee‘s Salon article from yesterday, “Pottermore’s Problems: Scholars and Writers Call Foul on J.K. Rowling’s North American Magic” if you need to get a quick overview of the situation.

Because of my particular interest in how Africa is represented to children in America, I’ve looked into the response to another of the schools, Uagadou, in Africa. Digging around I came across this overview of the response, Timothy Burke’s “On Uagadou, the African Wizarding School” which he wrote partly in response to this Washington Post article, “J.K. Rowling got in trouble for how she talks about Africa. Here’s why she may have been right.”  I recommend reading Burke’s post in its entirety as he does an excellent job unpacking many of the issues raised around this particular imaginary school, pointing out that:

You can tell a story that imagines fantastic African societies with their own institutions arising out of their own histories, somehow protected or counterfactually resistant to the rise of the West. But you have to do that through African histories, not with an audit of African absence and some off-the-shelf environmental determinism.

You can tell a story that imagines that imaginary wizarding schools arise only out of histories with intense territorial rivalries within long-standing state systems, but then you have to explain why there aren’t imaginary wizarding schools in the places in the world that fit that criteria rather than frantically moving the comparative goalposts around so that you are matching units like “all of Sub-Saharan Africa” against “Great Britain”. And you have to explain why the simultaneous and related forms of state-building in West Africa and Western Europe created schools in one and not the other: because Asante, Kongo, Dahomey, and Oyo are in some sense part of a state system that includes England, France and the Netherlands in the 17th and early 18th Centuries.

The response to the Japanese school, at least that in English, seems more muted (at least in terms of social media). No doubt far more was discussed in Japan (in Japanese), but I did find a couple of fans raising concerns about the name, writing in English.  Here’s one. And here’s another:

Of all the names she could have chosen, why did JK Rowling come up with “Mahoutokoro”? Are all the foreign magic schools this carelessly named?

魔法所 literally just means “MagicPlace”. It seems like a very careless move on her part. I think she should have spent some time researching Japanese etymology, or at least consulted someone who might have one or two things to say about cool-sounding Japanese school names.

The last of the four new schools is the Brazilian one Castelobruxo.  As with the Japanese school I’m limited in not knowing Portuguese in sensing the response. I did find this one here indicating that Rowling stumbled with this school as well.

All in all, I think that well-intended as she no doubt is, Rowling simply doesn’t seem to have the deep knowledge or understanding of the potential for serious offense necessary to develop worlds based on cultures different from her own, especially those that are too often seen through a white European lens such as she is providing. I do hope the critical response she has received thus far has her reconsidering all of this. Or at the very least, reworking them so they are less problematic. I agree with Lee who concludes:

Stories have the potential to create new possibilities, shaping dreams for a more balanced and harmonious future. What we’ve seen so far of the geographically-expanded Pottermore world suggests that Rowling has done the opposite: Whether consciously or not, she’s legitimized whiteness as a cultural institution and a power structure, replicating the patterns of historical colonialism by establishing wizarding schools in far-away places — North America, Brazil, Japan, somewhere in “Africa,” — as posts on the outskirts of the Empire. And so the latest stories, instead of being exciting and new, seem nostalgic for a time when the sun never set on the British Empire, even as Great Britain now threatens to break apart.




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The Illustrated Harry Potter


Recently, needing some comfort reading, I decided to revisit the Harry Potter books. I think I last did so when the final book came out, eight years ago. And I’m discovering them to be better than I remembered. That is, I had much loved the characters and plotting, but I’m finding them funnier and more solidly written than I remembered. (Someone suggested that this was because the earlier books were more tightly edited as the author wasn’t so famous then.) And so it is perfect timing for me that the first of the new illustrated versions, illustrated by Jim Kay, is out today. You can get a taste over at the guardian site.  (Have to say, that Sorting Hat is a lot more colorful than the one in my mind —perhaps overly influenced by the one in the movies?)

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Barry Cunningham, Harry Potter’s Fairy Godfather

Last fall I was at FILIJ, a fabulous children’s book festival in Mexico City, along with many luminaries including Barry Cunningham, a legendary British editor who is now perhaps best known for having discovered Harry Potter. It was lovely spending time with Barry, a delightful fellow. Attendees constantly requested photos with him, something he did with good-nature each time. Barry’s own publishing house, Chicken House, continues to produce stellar books which are available in the US through Scholastic.  Now there is are a lovely BBC video and somewhat longer podcast featuring Barry relating the publishing beginnings of that Boy Who Lived.

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How To Promote your Book While Using a Pseudonym

I just finished reading an article related to the recent revelations about the author of  The Cuckoo’s Calling, and was amused by Jody Picout’s comment:  “She wouldn’t have been able to go out and promote the book.”   But, taking a cue from Lemony Snicket and Daniel Handler, maybe she could.

Scene: the event section of a book store.  There is a happy buzz as an enthusiastic crowd of mystery readers wait  for the author, a debut writer, to arrive.  Their conversations are about the writer’s intriguing background, how much they enjoyed the book, and what might be next for him.  The book store owner comes to the front and the crowd stops their discussion to look expectantly at him.

“I am delighted you are all here tonight. I have bad news and good news.  The bad news is that Mr. Gailbraith is unable to attend tonight (groans and cries of dismay from the crowd).  The good news is his representative Ms. R. is here in his stead. “

There is stunned silence from the crowd as an attractive blonde woman makes her way to the front. “I am so sorry that Mr. Gailbraith couldn’t be here. His current work as an independent contractor in civilian security means that his safety and that of his clients could be compromised if he was seen here. However, I am very close to him and can answer any questions you might have about him.  You sir, in the first row.”

“What are Mr. Gailbraith’s favorite books?”

“Well, he likes a great variety — mysteries (of course), thrillers, classics, and even children’s books.  A book he recently read and enjoyed was  “The Vanishing Point” by Val McDermid.”

“Where does Mr. Gailbraith get his ideas?”

They pop into his head on long train journeys.”

Has he read Harry Potter?

“I believe his children have. He was overseas when the final book came out though so I don’t know if how he felt about the ending.”

The bookstore owner comes back.  “Thank you for those questions. Ms. R will now sign books on behalf of Mr. Gailbraith.  She will ONLY sign The Cuckoo’s Calling — one per person.”

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Thoughts on Newbery: Focus on the Book…

…not the creator.  Having been on one of the Newberry committees I can say with complete certainty that this is what happens.  Committee members are looking intently at the books through the lens of the official criteria. They absolutely DO NOT consider the authors, illustrators, editors, or anything else of that nature.  They are looking full-on at the work and nothing else.

However, those of us outside the committee room are aware of those creators and it can be hard to not think about the love and thought and care they put into their books when considering them in terms of awards.  But I believe it is important to understand that this cannot be considered, not just for Newbery but other awards like the National Book Award too, I would guess.

This came to mind as I read Ian Parker’s New Yorker profile of J. K. Rowling, “Mugglemarch,” some of the responses to it (say this one), and now the first reviews of The Casual Vacancy.  While it is pretty impossible for any competent reviewer (and here we could get into the whole debate about reviewing but I won’t) to consider this title without considering Rowling and Harry Potter, those on a committee that works as does the Newbery would absolutely have to do just that.


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NEH Summer Seminars and Institutes for Teachers

Betsy Bird recently posted about a fabulous NEH institute being held at her library this summer reminding me of these wonderful professional development opportunities, several of which I participated in years ago.  The first was a 6 week children’s literature seminar at Princeton University with the brilliant U.C. Knoepflmacher; it did much to change the direction of my life. A couple years later I did a folklore institute at Bank Street College (where I first met Jack Zipes) and then further on I did one more seminar on Cinderella and Beauty and the Beast at Rochester University with Russell Peck. (whose Cinderella bibliography is amazing)  All three were wonderful, intellectually stimulating, and life-changing experiences.

Among this year’s offerings is one I want to do very, very badly:  Golden Compasses as Moral Compasses: The Ethics and Aesthetics of Fairy Tales and Fantasy, a seminar at Harvard with Maria Tatar.  Here’s the overview:

What happens to children when they read and immerse themselves in other worlds? In this seminar, we will investigate how imaginative literature leads children into possible worlds, enabling them to engage in mind reading and explore counterfactuals in ways that are impossible in real life.

They are going to be looking at fairy tales, fantasy literature (Alice’s Adventures in WonderlandPeter Pan, and Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows), and literature across cultures. You can see the schedule in detail here.  It looks amazing and it is going to take all my will power not to apply (because I’m deeply into two book projects and will need every bit of the summer to write).


Filed under Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, Children's Literature, Classic, Fantasy, Harry Potter