A parent’s perspective on reading popular books

pop-books

So, it finally happened.

After years—and years—of not bothering to read them, I caved and read… the first of the Harry Potter books. I resisted for a long time, not because I have categories like “good C.S. Lewis magic” vs “evil Harry Potter magic”, but because everyone else was reading them. And I didn’t really want to go along with the crowd.

Did I miss anything by waiting so long? Well, the book itself was fairly well written—strong pacing, and it is generally unpretentious. The plot itself was interesting, but certainly had the standard trappings of youth fiction: everything turns out all right at the end (even if there are lingering bits in the background). There are lots of places for Christians to identify and engage with in meaningful discussion, but which are also ripe for hamfisted co-opting.

So why did I finally decide to read it? For the same reason I’m reading a lot of different books right now: I have a daughter who is its target audience, and sooner or later she’s probably going to wind up wanting to read it. Therefore, if I’m going to be a responsible parent, I should see if it’s worthwhile.

Emily and I don’t take the approach of only exposing our kids to explicitly Christian books, movies, TV shows, and music. We have some things that we do avoid—for example, we don’t engage with Monster High stuff because the characters look like zombie prostitots, and we don’t watch The Princess and the Frog because of all the voodoo that figures in so prominently (which is a different category than “bippity boppity boo” magic)—but we do want our kids to be able to learn how to be discerning about popular books and media. To learn what is both valuable and worthy of being embraced, while also recognizing what is untrue and should be rejected.

With a book like the first Harry Potter, right away themes of belonging and loyalty, love over force, and the challenge of trying to live up to others’ expectations jump out as subjects worth discussing in a positive light. At the same time, vengeance is another theme worth talking about, even on a small scale (like Harry wanting to taunt his brute of a cousin after years of bullying). This first one, at the very least, is not a book that Christians should actively be boycotting (which is not saying they should actively promote it either). It’s not ungodly to the same degree as 50 Shades of Grey. (And it’s probably not fair to assume that reading one will necessarily lead to reading the other.) It’s a pleasant story, though not without its problems, and the beginning of a larger tale with some fascinating elements.

So am I saying my daughter should read it? Nope. I’m saying I’m reading it in the event she decides she wants to read it. And although there are elements I disagree with, and some that are out of step with the Christian worldview, without question. (But then again, any book or show that has a “rely on yourself” message falls into that camp.) Ultimately, what I want my kids to be able to walk away with from reading popular books—particularly if they’re good ones—is an appreciation for what we often call “common grace” (though really, there’s nothing common about grace). Christians and non-Christians alike are equally gifted in creating wonderful works of art—whether it be music, books, painting, or anything else you can think of. We are all made in the image of God, and are all creative because he is creative (even if we don’t all use our creativity to glorify him). I want my kids to grasp that, to not be creatively stifled because they fail to see what is lovely and worth appreciating in the wider world around us. But to do that, it means I’m going to have to be highly engaged with what they’re reading. And if that means caving and reading things like Harry Potter, well, I think I can take one for the team on that.

6 thoughts on “A parent’s perspective on reading popular books”

  1. It’s interesting that you find the books to have a “rely on yourself” message. As the books go on, it’s ever clearer to Harry that he *needs* others and won’t survive without them… that he has very little clue what he’s doing, and it’s only with a strong “supporting cast” (as it were) that he can hope to overcome the evil that threatens to swallow them.

    As far as the magic goes… I find Sauron and Morgoth to be much more deeply mystical and evil than Voldemort. *shrug* (Not that I dislike them… I love the Tolkein universe!)

    Anyway. As the series goes on, it becomes clear that there is magic that people are to stay away from. There is a specific set of curses that is labelled “unforgivable” because of their effects. One of the differences between the good side and the evil side is that the evil side uses the Unforgivable Curses liberally.

    Also: The books “grow up” in tone (and style) as its readers and characters “grow up.” The first two books very much read as YA novels, while the later ones read increasingly less so. One of the aspects that I appreciate about the last few books is that evil makes irrevocable changes. There are people who die, people who we’ve spent many books with, and we want them to come back magically – this is a YA series, right? – but they don’t.

    Anyway. $.02. I really like the books (if you can’t tell!); I’ve read them three times (I think), and I’ll probably read them again eventually.

    1. I’m a fan of the books too. But, Aaron, if you keep reading them be forewarned that they become increasingly lax editorially. I think she became too famous to be thoroughly edited (just look at the page counts), so from a writing perspective, I think the quality goes down considerably as they go on (even as the ideas/plots are fun). But I also agree with Matthew that they mature quickly – too quickly if you start reading at 10 and are a fast reader. It worked when they first came out because there was a year or so between book releases, but now that kids can read them quickly in succession, I think they’re too mature for that age group.

      1. Yeah, just looking at the books I can see that after number three, it’s pretty clear that Rowling stopped having real editors. There’s rarely a need for a book to be that big—especially not a YA book. I’ll definitely keep my eyes open for age-appropriateness as I go (and if Abigail even decides she wants to read them).

  2. Elizabeth Lecavalier

    I’m 24 and did not grow up reading the books (was not allowed as a kid / was not interested). Today, I work full time as a missionary to francophone campuses. Because of nature of my work, one of the things I’ve started to do was to study the campus / generation culture, particularly what books / movies resonates with them. Last year, I was having a discipleship meeting with a student and she told me she spent the week re-reading the Harry Potter series and that when she finished the final book, she sobbed because she was so moved. That made me stop and wonder: why? What makes this series particularly resonate with the people of my generation? What would move a solid Christian student (who today is in ministry herself!) so much that would lead her to cry even though she already knew how the story would end? And why did this book become such a huge hit worldwide in the first place? Was it just that flirting with occult / Magic themes was attractive or… is there (also) something deeper? Some craving / hope that could potentially be surfaced and then connected to the gospel? To top all those questions, the fact that Tim Keller actually likes the books really launches my curiosity to the roof. Thanks for the article! I’m curious to find out how you find the rest of the series from a parental perspective.

  3. I have resisted the JK Rowling books entirely for myself and my family. When the author revealed that a main character (Dumbledore) is homosexual I was thankful I listened to the word of God and stayed away from the glorification of dark things. I would have been very embarrassed to have lead my children down this path and wound up at this story line so late in the series. It seems very much like a bait and switch tactic was employed by JK Rowling and too many Christians fell hook, line and sinker into this trap. We need to be very careful and consistent with what we allow our children to think on when they are too immature to distinguish between what they themselves can entertain without risk of temptation. I disagree very much that these books are not gateway books. I had nieces and nephews who were the target reader when the JK Rowling books began and to this day (they’re now in their late 20’s) every one of them is fascinated with the occult to some extent. The occult is driven by a very seducing spirit and we should never romanticize it in young minds.

    1. Thanks Kat. I certainly understand where you’re coming from—to be clear, what I haven’t said is that my daughter is going to read it. I’m reading it in advance in case she decides she *wants* to read it so I can have a sensible discussion with her about what is good in it and what she should reject.

      Generally, though, I’d rather her read books like Little Women or The Secret Garden before pop youth fiction though. 🙂

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