Illuminating Texts

- Bessie Condos Tichauer, column editor

Harry Potter, Instant Classic

Jeffrey Canton

A slightly altered version of this piece was 
broadcast on CBC Radio on Wednesday, July 12, 2000.

On Friday, July 7th, 2000, I was one of the thousands of book buyers waiting patiently in line to get my hands on a copy of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. And when I did, shortly after midnight, I have to say that I felt let down. There was a certain amount of excitement and anticipation among those gathered at the Chapters superstore on Bloor Street in Toronto—the handful of kids in line were so pumped up that they just couldn't keep still. There was one little boy with a black cloak and pointed wizard's hat. But except for a little cheer at 12:01 when the first person in line was handed "the book", that was all there was to Potter pandemonium. Everyone in line got a copy of the book and left. News reports of the festivities at bookstores across Canada, at Woozles in Halifax, Greenwood's Books in Edmonton and Vancouver Kidsbooks made me a little bit envious. But then again it's hype and hoopla that is driving Harry Potter anyway.

And as cynical as I am about the media frenzy that is the real crux of the whole Harry Potter phenomenon, I have to admit that I'm excited by Pottermania. As Linda Spiegel, the Toronto bookseller who broke the publisher's embargo on the pre-midnight sale of Harry IV on Friday afternoon, said, "Let's get a grip on it, it's just a book." And that's what is at once so wonderful and so awful to me about Harry Potter: It's just a book—a book that has made the headlines, something almost totally unprecedented in children's literature. Just a book that has hooked thousands of kids on reading in a way that we've never seen before. Just a book that has transformed the life of author J.K. Rowling. Just a book that has seen eminent critics in the U.K. and the U.S. like Anthony Holden and Jack Zipes pilloried for daring to contest that Harry Potter is the greatest work of literature of all time—not children's literature, I'd hasten to add, literature period. Just a book that is being dubbed a modern classic, mere hours after publication.

Let's get real. Harry Potter is not a classic. It's like its eminent predecessor, L. Frank Baum's The Wizard of Oz, a runaway bestseller that has totally captured the imagination of hundreds of thousands of young readers. It's exciting to see kids so excited by a book! But it's not a classic. The Wizard of Oz was so successful when it was published at the turn of the last century that Baum made a career of pumping out sequel after sequel. But even that first book, while a great popular piece of children's writing, isn't a great work of children's literature. In fact, it's only the first book in the series that is remembered at all, and the MGM movie certainly helped that along.

We have to have a little perspective before we can define Harry Potter as a classic. "Fantasy is timeless and placeless; it lives in the eternal country of the imagination and is never outmoded by succeeding social periods and conventions," wrote Toronto's pre-eminent children's librarian Lillian H. Smith, in her classic 1953 study of children's literature, The Unreluctant Years. Harry Potter is without doubt a compellingly readable fantasy series. But that it has succeeded as it has and magically transformed the face of children's book publishing has as much to do with the huge publicity machine behind Harry Potter as author J.K. Rowling and her books. And even that doesn't make Harry a classic.

Because the bottom line here for me is that after reading the first four books in the series, I still don't really care what happens to Harry Potter. Not deeply, in a deep-down-in-my-guts kind of way. It's partly because Harry hasn't really changed—he's older, yes, but even though this is a darker book than the others, I still don't see big changes in Harry or the way he views the world. And you have to admit that Harry's world is very black and white: good on one side and evil on the other. Perhaps it's that I find Harry Potter too safe; you don't have to make any bets that he's going to make it through The Goblet of Fire because there are three more books to come in Rowling's projected seven-part series and Harry's got to be there to the end.

As a reader, I don't care about Harry Potter in the way that I care deeply about other characters in children's literature. I care passionately about what happens to Lyra Belacqua in the first two books of Philip Pullman's award-winning His Dark Materials trilogy. There are complexities in the The Golden Compass and The Subtle Knife that keep me coming back to these books again and again. They leave me asking questions that Harry Potter doesn't. I can go back to the earlier Potter books knowing that I'll probably enjoy reading them a second time but I won't get that intense shiver of excitement that I get re-reading modern classics like Madeleine L'Engle's A Wrinkle in Time, Diana Wynne Jones's Chrestomanci novels, Susan Cooper's The Dark is Rising, Joan Aiken's The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, or Ursula LeGuin's The Wizard of Earthsea. And let's not forget that there's a whole world of fantasy novels out there that are just as good if not better than Harry Potter—books like David Almond's Skellig, Ken Oppel's Silverwing and Sunwing and Sylvia Waugh's The Mennyms.

Harry Potter is a whole lot of fun but Holden and Zipes are dead-on in describing the books as unoriginal, one-dimensional, repetitive, and sexist. Nobody seems to want to hear that Harry might be anything but a flawless masterwork. But Holden and Zipes have every right to express critical opinions about Harry, especially as neither of them has suggested that children shouldn't be reading Harry Potter. Who doesn't want to see kids reading? What Holden and Zipes want to tell the adults who buy books for kids is that Harry Potter is just the surface—help your young readers to dig a little deeper and you'll find the treasure trove. As Toronto bookseller Eleanor LaFave points out to book buyers at her store, Mabel's Fables, "there is life beyond Harry Potter".

Jeffrey Canton, LG Lore column editor, is a Toronto writer and reviewer whose writing on children's books also appears in Quill and Quire, Children's Book News and Chapters On-line.

Volume 4, Issue 3, The Looking Glass, 2000

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