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Banning Harry Potter

by Elizabeth D. Shafer on Nov 13, 1999

Teenage wizard Harry Potter, the hero of a popular children’s book series, routinely outwits fantastical creatures in his quests to vanquish evil forces. But some parents think Harry is the evil being who should be subdued.  

Mimicking the paranoid Chicken Little, a fictional character who assumes the sky is falling when an acorn hits him, the anti-Potter parents are forming illogical conclusions similar to those of generations of book censors before them. These protesters demand the banning of Harry Potter books from public schools. They say the books are too scary and border on the occult. Some have even accused the books’ author, Joanne K. Rowling, of being a witch seeking converts. 

Book banning is a familiar foe of American education and peaks during cycles of political and cultural conservatism. “Censorship reflects a society’s lack of confidence in itself,” United States Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart remarked. “It is a hallmark of an authoritarian regime.”  

The Potter protesters emulate previous censors. Since colonial times, adults have regulated what children read. Early American children’s books instructed with moral examples. The literary ancestors of Harry Potter, adventure and fantasy stories, became popular after 1850. Around that time, attitudes toward children changed. Children were encouraged to indulge in imaginative play. However, concerned parents criticized books that addressed what they considered taboo subjects such as magic. 

Book-banning strategies throughout American history reflect the country’s changing culture. Like Harry Potter, Mark Twain’s novels, featuring boyish rascals, have occasionally been accused of absurd transgressions. In 1885, literary elites thought “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” was too crude for refined readers. Twenty years later, critics complained that the characters were poor role models. By the 1950s, civil rights advocates censured Twain’s characters for using racist language. 

With National Children’s Book Week just around the corner, even more attention has been drawn to the fact that this year the Harry Potter stories join earlier children’s novels that have been challenged. In the 1950s, J.D. Salinger’s “The Catcher in the Rye” inflamed censorious adults who were afraid their children might use slang to imitate the protagonist, Holden Caulfield. Censors of the 1990s are concerned about the magical spells Harry Potter casts. 

In a different decade, Harry Potter might not have suffered from such a ludicrous backlash. Censorship was mostly dormant until the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980. Book banning gained new momentum as groups and individuals publicly imposed their punitive opinions against literature, especially fantasies such as the Potter novels. Children’s books were burned, pulled from shelves and removed from required reading lists. Selected passages and illustrations were cut out or inked over. 

Recycling predecessors’ rhetoric, censors of the 1990s, many of whom came of age in the 1980s, have focused on perceived evil in children’s books. Book banners, primarily members of the Moral Majority and religious right, assume their beliefs should be embraced by all Americans. Instead of prohibiting what their children can read, these censors try to limit all children’s access to literature they deem inappropriate.  

They label targeted books dangerous because they claim the stories provide bad examples for impressionable children. Protesting parents say books like Harry otter are subversive and do not promote family values.  

Many school administrators quickly appease censors to avoid awkward publicity. They condemn the Harry Potter books as potentially threatening. Opponents argue that censorship is detrimental to students’ intellectual development. 

Like the boorish non-wizard Muggles in the Harry Potter novels, most censors lack imagination. Unable to separate reality from fantasy, they are oblivious to the books’ theme of love conquering evil. Harry’s true magic is that he is empowered by his compassion and tolerance of others.  

Potter’s antagonists misinterpret out-of-context sentences because they refuse to read the books. This undisciplined scrutiny is a typical book-banning pattern. Even ministers have preached against heroic Harry Potter’s battles with his archenemy Lord Voldemort. They say the books’ popularity is evidence of Satanic influence.  

Mark Twain enjoyed the publicity and profits he gained from censorship. He wrote his publisher that the censors “have given us a rattling tip-top puff which will go into every paper in the country.” He predicted the notoriety gained would sell at least an additional 25,000 copies. And Harry Potter’s author is surely benefiting from the censors’ misguided attempts as curious readers flock to bookstores and buy her books. 

If efforts to restrict children’s books like Harry Potter are successful, they can cause more harm than eradicating valuable literature. “You don’t have to burn books to destroy a culture,” Ray Bradbury, author of “Fahrenheit 451,” warned. “Just get people to stop reading them.”  

As long as conservatism prevails, Harry Potter may rival Huck Finn and Holden Caulfield to become one of America’s most banned boys.

Elizabeth D. Schafer is an independent historian from Auburn, Ala., and a writer for the History News Service.