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

Middle-Grade Favorites

Stacy over at Welcome to my Tweendom has asked:

So, I have a question that I ‘ve been wondering about for the past while.  I’ve been thinking deeply about tween reads and what makes them great.  I’ve also been thinking about the idea of tween / middle grade as a category.  My question(s) to you are as follows…What is your favourite middle grade/tween read of the past 10 years (and why).  What is your favourite middle grade/tween read of ALL time (and why)?

Since I teach 4th grade I’m smack dab in the middle of that tween/middle grade group* all the time and figured it would be easy to answer Stacy’s question.  But actually, it is hard.  First of all, no way can I do just one. Secondly, I have very particular tastes which mean my favorites are not necessarily the most popular among the intended age group (and they are mostly novels).  That said, I couldn’t resist coming up with a FEW (of many I’m having to leave out) favorite titles to help Stacy.

For her first part of her question (although I’m cheating as several of these are more than ten years old):

  • Rita Williams-Gracia’s One Crazy Summer because Delphine’s voice is spot-on and all three sisters are beautifully rendered.  The sentence-level writing is gorgeous and I love the way Williams-Garcia tells history, but doesn’t overdo it.  Yes, it is a time and place many readers are unfamiliar with, but she keeps the story of the sisters and their mother front and center.
  • Rebecca Stead’s When You Reach Me because it is captivating, original, and set within a place that is very familiar to middle-grade readers.  Trying to untangle the mystery even as Miranda tries to is right up their alley.  The writing is clear, accessible, and elegant — I think it is a book that will stand the test of time, an instant classic.
  • Kate Dicamillo’s The Tale of Despereaux because it is beautifully written, moving, funny and still works well for this age group.  I read it aloud last year for the first time in years and it was as fresh as ever.
  • Frank Cotrell Boyce’s Cosmic is a recent favorite.  I’ve read this aloud for the past four years and will probably again this year.  Kids of both genders love this book and often go read it again on their own.  The kids, their relationships with each other, the thoughtful-but-not-heavy-handed exploration of what it means to be a father, the fun aspects of preparing and experiencing space travel, and Liam’s emotional growth (moving into his physical growth) works beautifully for this age group.
  • Brian Selznick’s The Invention of Hugo Cabret and Wonderstruck.  These are both unique and absolutely riveting reads.  I’m listing both because as of this writing Wonderstruck isn’t out yet and so I have not yet seen middle grade readers engage with it. However, I have seen kids over the years read with great pleasure Hugo Cabret and had a great time reading it aloud to them last year.
  • More than ten years old is J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone which may be for the stronger readers in the age range, but nothing beats it for a fun and exciting adventure.  The books may go up in age range as the series goes on, but this first one feels solidly middle grade to me.
  • Also more than ten years old is Neil Gaiman’s Coraline; creepy indeed, but for those middle grade kids who like spooky this one is terrific.
  • Jon Sciezcka’s Science Verse or Knucklehead, can’t decide, but he’s got an instinctual feel for a particular sense of humor that works perfectly for this age group.
  • Another more-than-ten-years title is Christopher Paul Curtis’s The Watsons Go to Birmingham — 1963, still my favorite of all his books. It is moving, hysterically funny in spots, and disturbing too.

And for the second part — my all-time favorite?  There I can go with just one,  E. B. White’s Charlotte’s Web.  I’ve been teaching it since 1990 and I’m just more wowed by it every year.  As are the kids.  The writing, the themes, the characterizations, it is one of the most perfect books ever.

*I’d define it as grades 4-6 more or less.


Filed under Charlotte's Web, Children's Literature, Harry Potter, Neil Gaiman

Remembering the First Harry Potter Movie

I’m off to Africa today so will probably have to wait till I come back to see the last Harry Potter movie, but all the reminiscing has me recalling my experience with the first movie.  It came out ten years ago this coming November and, for me, will be forever linked with something that happened two months earlier downtown from my school. Here’s my letter to the New York Times about it:

Harry Potter’s Triumph

Published: November 24, 2001
To the Editor:

Re ”Harry’s Big Weekend” (editorial, Nov. 20):

No doubt the Harry Potter movie would have broken box office records even before the World Trade Center tragedy. J. K. Rowling’s books were already very special to children, which made the movie’s release an additional form of healing for our city’s children, who are still coping with the events of Sept. 11.

My fourth-grade students had a first day of school they will never forget; they have had field trips canceled and more than the usual evacuation drills; and they have had to contend with the same grief and fears that adults are coping with.

For these children, the Harry Potter movie is better than anything a trauma specialist could provide — not escapist entertainment, but the satisfaction of knowing that good can trump evil.


New York, Nov. 20, 2001

The writer is a teacher at the Dalton School.


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Harry Settling In

For whatever reason this week’s final Harry Potter movie doesn’t feel as major an ending of anything for me as the publication of the seventh book did.  That was exciting because I was eager to see how Rowling wrapped up her story. And it did feel like an exciting end of something remarkable — a global obsession with a series of books.  The movies feel different to me  — something more tied to a broader societal aspect of the Harry Potter phenomena.  Don’t get me wrong — I think it is great — I had a blast last November at Wizarding World and enjoyed my butterbeer very much.

But what pleases me most of all is something most people don’t see — the way the books are steadily read, quietly read, by kids who weren’t alive when the first one was published, who have none of the nostalgia so many have right now.  I’d always thought the books would have legs, that they weren’t a flash in the pan, that kids would continue to enjoy them as they do the Oz books and so far that has indeed been the case among my fourth grade students.  The media mix now is interesting — with many books they have often seen movie versions before reading the books, but that is just fine. They are savvy viewers and know the books will be different.

That said, I just looked back at all my excited posts when the final book was published.  I’d been playing with Comic Life at the time and did the following comic about my own history with the series.







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