Sunday, October 24, 2010

"Good" Book, "Bad" Book

What do The Lord of the Rings, Chronicles of Narnia, Harry Potter, Percy Jackson and the Olympians, and His Dark Materials have in common?

We can start with the obvious: They are all books, and, even more, they are all series of books.

But let's dig a little deeper... They are all series of books marketed for younger readers and fit into a fantasy label. Each series features elements of fantasy and, dare I say, magic. Beyond the fantastic (and magical) elements, the series are all, at a deeper level, concerned with pitting good versus evil. While there is this dichotomy, the storylines in each of the series are complex and don't always offer clear-cut distinctions between who (or what) is good and who (or what) is evil.

In my eyes, these series share so many features that if I find out readers like one of the series, I will suggest another of these series for their reading pleasure. If I can see they share so much in common, why is it that some of these series have prominent places on lists of banned books while others are touted as national treasures?

Allow me to back up a bit and tell you some of the motivation behind this post. A few weeks ago, I was visiting a Barnes & Noble, perusing the books in the children's section. I was standing in the aisle, looking at The Lightning Thief by Rick Riordan and trying to decide if I wanted to buy the book and start reading the Percy Jackson series.

A young girl was in the aisle with me and started talking to me about the book. She asked if I had read it before, and when I said, "No," she said, "You really have to read the Percy Jackson books." She went on to tell me that they were her favorite books and that she was very excited that Riordan had started a new series, one based on Egyptian gods and goddesses (the Percy Jackson series is based on Greek gods and goddesses). This girl was so excited about the books that I couldn't in good conscience not buy the book and try it out for myself.

In the course of our conversation, I asked her if she had read the Harry Potter series as well. Her face became very serious, and she said, "Oh, no. I'm not allowed to read those books. I'm Christian."

I tried not to make any faces or have any other physical reactions to her remark, but I wanted to find that girl's parents and start a serious conversation with them about books and the backlash of banning them. I also wanted to hear their justification for saying that reading Harry Potter is un-Christian while reading the Percy Jackson books (books based on the idea that the Greek polytheistic system is still alive and well and that those gods and goddesses are out sleeping with mortals to create half-breeds) is entirely acceptable. I am dumbfounded by people's ability to label one fantasy book good and another bad.

I'm not going to spend my time speculating the division people draw between "good" and "bad" books because I think it's really a waste of energy. That line is completely subjective, and I am grateful to my parents that they never drew that line for me.

Instead, I want to focus on why banning books doesn't work and what parents might want to try instead. If parents ban particular books in their households, that creates one of two situations: (1) the children will find a way to smuggle in the book(s) and read it/them anyway, thus turning reading into an act of rebellion; or (2) the children will grow up under a misconception that a book--not the reactions of the readers to the book--can inherently be bad. Any book can be used in a negative light. If you don't believe me, refresh your memory on what the Inquisition was all about and what book that movement was based on. Books are not inherently "good" or "bad"--it is how we treat them or react to them that can make all the difference.

I would urge parents to consider a different route. Instead of banning a book, how about starting a dialogue about the book and why you, as the parent, feel that your child should wait until later in life to attempt reading the book? Let's face it--banning Harry Potter today won't necessarily keep your child from reading the books in five or ten years. And then your child might have some serious questions about why those books were banned while others weren't. So instead of waiting for that conversation, I think it's better to have that conversation up front and allow kids to make their own decisions about when to read the book. That way, when they do read it, they know they can openly talk with their parents about the material of the books rather than having to hide the books under their beds and read them by flashlight at night.

I am lucky to have had parents who let me read what I wanted to read and who would openly talk with me about the books I was reading if I had questions. I grew up knowing that I could be inquisitive about books and that books were not objects to fear. It makes me sad to think of all the kids who are being told what to read and what not to read based on subjective decisions. Instead of fearing books, how about we focus on what good can come out of reading them?


brandoncurtis said...

It's too bad you never got a chance to talk to this girl about reading the His Dark Materials trilogy I would've really enjoyed the inherent hypocrisy of her being allowed to read that series.

I assume the words His Dark Materials would've scared off any knee jerk reactionary Christian types in the same way they subject Harry Potter books to...uh...witch hunts. You probably can't glean that the HDM books are about an attempt to kill God from reading the back cover, so it would seem that this girl probably could've safely read those books.

I started reading the first book before The Golden Compass hit theaters and I didn't finish it before seeing the movie. Two hours later, and with nothing intriguing about the premise remaining, I would walk out of the movie thoroughly convinced not to finish the books. It sounds awful, but movies can do that to me. Movies make me wonder how anybody can like the sixth Harry Potter book. I should probably be thinking how can somebody so thoroughly misunderstand and bastardize a book so badly, but I didn't read it so I'm left feeling a little like I hate movies and books.

This makes me wonder how many parents approve of the Narnia series because C.S. Lewis was a Christian or how they feel about a talking Lion being a Jesus type figure. Also, shouldn't this little girl's parents have gone a little crazy over the idea of multiple Gods and Goddesses in their daughter's reading?

Jessie Sams said...

I'm fairly sure the girl wouldn't have been allowed to read The Golden Compass--that one made the news for being anti-Christian and having atheistic views. Honestly, I've finished the book and don't quite get the negative hullaballoo over it.

I think we must have different taste in movies--I thought the sixth Harry Potter was the best movie yet in the series (I'm very excited about the movies for the seventh book). While I loved every Harry Potter book, I've only loved the sixth movie so far (all the other ones I like--not love).

I do wonder, though, how many people approve of the Narnia books and The Lord of the Ring books simply because the authors were Christian. I don't understand how Gandalf can be acceptable but Harry Potter isn't. How could one wizard be fine and the next one not? It just doesn't make sense to me, but I realize just how subjective these things can be.

Billy Longino said...

Also, The Lord of the Rings isn't a children's book. There are some scenes in the series that are not suitable for children, such as Mary and Pip being molested and nearly raped by orcs in The Two Towers. Not to mention the complexity to the narrative and language. While it may be possible to read the book as a child/teenager, I do not believe it is possible to actually understanding fully at a young age. Keep in mind also, that the Lord of the Rings went through some minor quibbles over its appropriateness in its day as well, but not to the extent which Harry Potter has, mainly due to the lack of fundamental Evangelical Christians touting their viewpoints loudly on television and internet daily.

In terms of Gandalf, you could argue that he is an angelic figure, and an avatar of God, and an allusion to Christ. The funny thing is, though, that so is Potter, but people do no like the allusions to Christ through the hero myth.

Post a Comment