My literary friends are all ablaze this weekend over Lynn Messina’s piece in the New York Times Motherlode section, in which she child-proofs the Harry Potter series to her 5-year-old son as she reads them aloud to him. My librarian friends, mostly, are seething. My parenting friends are cluck-clucking. I am doing all three. To understand her version of “pinkwashing,” as she calls it, you have to know that Messina changes words, plot lines, and character defects. Motherlode is the parenting section that offers opinions from mothers and fathers (some of them are friends of mine), but I don’t mind taking Messina to task over this awful editing and bowdlerizing of J.K. Rowling’s books.
My oldest daughter, Mallory, read the first book in the series as a 12-year-old who became an avid reader by virtue of having a mother who took her to college. While I was reading Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales for my English Literature degree, she was an emerging reader for whom I had very little patience. Since my nose was constantly in a book, she had no choice but to follow suit. While taking trips to the college library, I toted her along for the ride, and we sat in the children’s section so she could pick out books on her own and learn to read. Not realizing it, I fully admit that my frustration at constantly being stopped to help her pronounce a word was, actually, a good thing. It meant she was curious and wanted to know. Sometimes, when she could pronounce a word but didn’t understand its meaning, I would, as many parents do, explain the word to her. Other times, I simply asked that she use context clues from the sentences around it to determine the definition.
The first Harry Potter book we read came from a friend of ours who had visited England the summer before, where Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone had been a huge hit. Since we were a year late on the arrival of the book in the states, we had both of the first two books to get through. As I didn’t read the book to her (because she could read it on her own), she stayed on my heels and hurried me along. “Mom, I’m almost done and you have at least 10 more chapters. Can you hurry up, please?”
As I read with horror what Messina was doing with the book, I wondered what it was truly about. Is she concerned that her child cannot understand complexities in language and scenes? Does she really believe that refusing to say “shut up” and replacing it with “shh” is so concerning? Saying “shut up” is ruder than a bad word, and sometimes it is the most appropriate response to someone. Reading through her lofty explanations and defenses, I was struck with two simple takeaways from her piece:
1. Her child isn’t ready for Harry Potter.
2. She doesn’t know how to say no to her child.
In her abridged version of a read-aloud to her child, it’s obvious that Messina’s “pinkwashing” is more like “pinkparenting,” in that she isn’t honest with her child. Since he won’t be able to read it for the first time ever again, she is ruining the entire series for him. We tell our children not to lie, especially at 5 years old, because we want to protect them and have them tell us if they really did swallow something harmful or stick a fork into an outlet. She is childproofing childhood for her son and really showing us her extreme version of helicopter parenting, where she never lets him know the truth. The bubble she is creating outside of her son is more likely to worsen as he ages. As an educator, I have seen parents do this to their children. Do you know what it ends up doing? It makes liars out of their children. It makes them sneakier and engage in riskier behavior due to the fact that they don’t truly understand consequences in a way that telling your children the truth of a situation does.
It felt, for us as readers in my home, that the books became darker in theme and tone as they went on, and as luck would have it, Mallory was maturing at the same time. By the time the series ended with Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Mallory was 21 years old and had grown up, literally and as a reader, along with Harry. But she was ready for the ending, because she was allowed to read the beginning. She got to discuss death and friendship and the overwhelming importance of love in the face of tragedy. Among other things, Rowling’s books gave me a gift of conversation with my daughter. We spent years at midnight openings of bookstores and got to the point where I had to purchase two books each time, since neither of us wanted to let the other read it first. I’d read on the couch in the living room and Mallory read in her bedroom. I’ll never forget the book in which Dumbledore dies, because she finished before I did (which was only due to my attending graduate school and having classwork that interrupted my Potter Reading) and came upstairs clutching the book to her chest with tear-stained cheeks.
“Oh, mom,” she said, “Oh. I can’t wait until you’re done.”
At that moment, I was just getting to The Chapter. So when I finished, I walked downstairs to her bedroom, clutching my own copy of the book, and flopped on her bed and we cried and mourned together for this very real character who implanted himself into our lives. When I consider all the things I’ve actively and purposefully taught my children, grief isn’t one that comes easily. If I could thank Rowling myself, it wouldn’t simply be for writing a fantastic series that captured our attention for a decade. It would be to thank her for the vehicle by which I could use instruments to teach and allow my child to grow. Things I fear that Messina isn’t doing while she butchers a book that is clearly too old for her child.
While changing all the perceived “bad parts” of the book is a horrible form of censorship, I am more concerned about parents who lie and find themselves off the mark in reading a book but still continuing to read it in their bastardized versions. Was her son that demanding? It makes me wonder if he threw a tantrum about the book, and whether or not she was able to simply say, “You know what? Mommy was wrong about this book for you right now. I think we’ll put it on the shelf until you’re ready. What else would you like to read?”
It’s not that hard, parents. Making mistakes with our child-rearing is going to happen. Learning to apologize for it and moving on is something that comes with good parenting. Let me be plain and simple in this and speak directly to Ms. Messina so there’s no error for pinkwashing my words:
Read something else, and learn how to say no to your child.