By: Pat Peters
In the twenty years since Harry Potter first arrived on the publishing scene, J.K. Rowling’s boy wizard series has faced more than its share of attempts to see the books limited, banned or even burned.
In case you’ve been hiding under a rock or sworn off reading since 1997, Rowling’s seven-book series features Harry Potter, a boy who finds out he is a wizard at age 11 when he receives his invitation to attend Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. Harry learns that his parents were killed by Lord Voldemort, He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named, the most evil wizard in history, but that he, Harry, survived that attack with only a lightning-shaped scar (or so he believes). Throughout the series, Voldemort returns in increasingly malevolent incarnations, and Harry and friends must defeat him and save the Wizarding world as well as the Muggles (non-magic folk) from the evil that wants to enslave or obliterate them. Spoiler alert: Harry and his friends defeat Voldemort and his disciples, the Death Eaters, in the end.
Since 1999, when the first book, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, was published in the U.S., Harry has been challenged. Sorcerer’s Stone was the most frequently challenged book in the U.S. for 1999, according to ALA. The Harry Potter series, three of which were published in the U.S. in 1999, made the list of the top 100 most frequently challenged books of the decade 1990-1999 (#48), even though they were only out for part of one year of the decade! And, of course, the series topped the most frequently challenged list of 2000-2009.
In an interesting twist, the Harry Potter books changed the focus of book challenges in schools and public libraries. Prior to 1999, most challenges had to do with sex, the human body or “inappropriate” language (Dunne), with most of the books themselves falling into the realistic fiction genre. Rowling’s books shifted the censors’ attention to fantasy with challenges asserting that Harry Potter glorified magic and the occult, confusing children and leading them to attempt to emulate the spells and curses they read about. There were some concerns over the violence and the increasingly dark tone of the later books in the series. But most of the censorship attempts aimed at Harry Potter were for religious reasons.
Author Richard Abanes wrote Harry Potter, Narnia, and the Lord of the Rings: What You Need to Know About Fantasy Books and Movies to warn parents about the dangers of the Harry Potter books. (Elliott) In his book, Abanes makes a distinction between the Christian allegories of C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien and what he considers the outright witchcraft of the Rowling books. Unlike some of those opposed to Harry Potter, Abanes asserts that fantasy can be valuable but, of course, not if it espouses witchcraft.
Not all Christians wanted to get rid of Harry Potter. Aaron Mead, in his three-part article “Harry Potter: Christian Allegory or Occultist Children’s Books?,” took a different view. He wrote, following the publication of the seventh and final book, that he firmly believes the Harry Potter series to be an extended Christian allegory. Mead made the case that Rowling has created an effective, engaging series with a clearly Christian message. (Mead) However, such arguments don’t seem to carry much weight with the would-be censors.
The good news is that the backlash from intellectual freedom fighters has more than matched the censorship attempts. When the pastor of Christ Community Church in Alamogordo, New Mexico oversaw a book burning featuring the Rowling titles on December 30, 2001, the Alamogordo Public Library held over its Harry Potter display (set up in November to coincide with the release of the first HP movie), assuring the public, “particularly children ‘that Harry is alive and well at their library.’” (Ishizuka)
A 2006 challenge in the Gwinnett County (GA) Schools alleged that the Harry Potter books promote witchcraft. After the initial review panel denied the request to remove the books from the schools, the petitioner appealed to the School Board. The School Board, however, upheld the review panel’s decision to retain the books. (Roundup) The challenging parent then took her fight to the Georgia State Board of Education and to civil court. Those bodies also upheld the original decision, but this parent vowed to keep fighting.
Since publication of the final book in 2007, Rowling has continued to answer fan questions and post back stories and related information on Pottermore, the everything-Harry-Potter website. And controversy has continued, especially after Rowling announced that she always imagined Dumbledore was gay. I didn’t find any instances of books being censored following that announcement, but several outspoken critics took this pronouncement as just one more reason that the Potter books are not appropriate for children.
Regardless of the controversies, libraries continue to be the bastions of intellectual freedom, circulating copies of the books and movies and holding Harry Potter events, including parties to celebrate the release in 2016 of both Harry Potter and the Cursed Child screenplay and the movie version of Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them.
Writing in October of 1999, author Judy Blume had this to say about the Potter controversy:
I knew this was coming. The only surprise is that it took so long — as long as it took for the zealots who claim they’re protecting children from evil (and evil can be found lurking everywhere these days) to discover that children actually like these books. If children are excited about a book, it must be suspect. (Blume)
The fact is that J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series made reading cool again for all ages. The controversies surrounding the books over the past 20 years have only served to underscore the amazing popularity of these books and their impact on reading for enjoyment. The long lines at midnight release parties, the mega-publishing records broken, and the ubiquity of Harry Potter references across the country ten years after the release of the final book in the series reinforce their staying power. Whether Potter-fears or Potter-fans, there is no denying that Harry Potter is part of our reading culture. “It is the ability of the books to engage young audiences that will be their enduring legacy.” (Olukotun)
Blume, Judy. (1999, Oct 22). Is Harry Potter Evil? Judy Blume on the Web. Retrieved from http://www.judyblume.com/censorship/potter.php
Censorship Roundup. (2006, Jun). School Library Journal 52(6), 23.
Dunne, Diane Weaver. (2000, Apr 10). Look Out, Harry Potter!—Book Banning Heats Up. Education World. Retrieved from http://www.educationworld.com/a_admin/admin/admin157.shtml
Elliott, Belinda. (2007). Harry Potter: Harmless Christian Novel or Doorway to the Occult? CBN News. Retrieve from http://www1.cbn.com/onlinediscipleship/harry-potter%3A-harmless-christian-novel-or-doorway-to-the-occult%3F
Ishizuka, Kathy. (2002, Feb). Harry Potter Book Burning Draws Fire. School Library Journal 48(2), 27.
Mead, Aaron. (2010, Apr 15). Harry Potter: Controversy (Part 1). Children’s Books and Reviews. Retrieved from http://www.childrensbooksandreviews.com/harry-potter-christian-allegory-or-occultist-childrens-books-part-1/
Olukotun, Deji. (2012, Nov 7). The Banning of Harry Potter. Huff Post Blog. Retrieved from http://www.huffingtonpost.com/deji-olukotun/the-banning-of-harry-pott_b_1864502.html
Pat Peters is director of the Decatur Public Library in Decatur, Texas. In her spare time, she is an adjunct professor of Library Science for Texas Woman’s University, having taught both graduate and undergraduate Children’s Literature and Youth Programming. Pat is the 2016-17 chair of the Texas Library Association Intellectual Freedom Committee. Pat and her husband Jeff live in Denton, Texas. Pat can sometimes be found @PatriciaP628.