To my great dismay, some of my children (I’ve got 4) aren’t big readers. This troubles me, but not just because I’m an English major who loves to read and wants my kids to share my hobby. I want them to read because it opens their minds and encourages empathy. And I want them to read certain books.
A new study shows that young Harry Potter readers who identify strongly with Harry took note of his defense of “mudbloods” throughout the series and were able to translate this into having a more positive view toward stigmatized groups, like immigrants, in real life. Reading Harry Potter changed their attitudes and made them more empathetic.
Voldemort’s agenda is the purifying of the wizard race. Half-bloods or “mudbloods” have muggle heritage, and he seeks to eradicate them. Comparisons between Voldemort’s regime and the Nazis are apt. Also, much of the story turns on human, er, creature rights. Hermione is the enlightened one in her championing of house elves. Ron and Harry initially poopoo her crusade but come along eventually. Harry frees Dobby in The Chamber of Secrets and it is the free, loyal, helpful Dobby who rescues Ron, Harry, Hermione, Luna Lovegood, and Ollivander the wand maker from Malfoy Manor before being killed by Belatrix LeStrange. One of the most moving moments in the whole series is when Harry digs Dobby’s grave — without magic — on the beach beside Shell Cottage. What a tragedy.
J.R.R. Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings series depicts something similar. The different inhabitants of middle earth — men, elves, dwarves, hobbits – put their prejudices aside to come together as the Fellowship of the Ring in order to fight a common enemy. There are many races and creatures in Middle Earth who don’t necessarily intermingle, but they always do better when they work together. Elves and dwarves especially benefit when they join forces and utilize each others’ strengths rather than remaining segregated in bigoted isolation. It’s a nice touch that the meek, little, unassuming hobbit is the only one who can complete the task of carrying the ring to Mordor. These stories are so important. They teach children that racism is a flawed worldview. Understanding an imaginary world leads to greater clarity in the real one.
It’s important to me that my kids are exposed to important stories because I have been so influenced by key books. Just last year I read The Round House, an amazing novel about Native Americans in North Dakota. Reading this book immersed me so much in the culture and traditions of the Ojibwe that it expanded my understanding and compassion in a way that, save for spending time on an actual reservation, only books can.
The Book Thief is another remarkable book that gave me tremendous insight into not just World War II, but also the frightened German locals — who weren’t necessarily nazis — and how simply refusing to display the Swastika was an act of civil disobedience.
Most people read To Kill a Mockingbird in high school. And they should. Scout Finch is not a real person but the insight we gain by looking through her eyes at the bigoted south is real.
And Maus, a graphic novel, turned out to be a real life-changer for me. Art Spiegelman’s illustration of his father’s experiences in concentration camps where jews are depicted as mice and nazis are cats humanized (ironically) the events of the Holocaust for me in a way that is quite terrifying and important. I am better — more compassionate, more informed, more sorry about what happened — for reading that comic book.
That’s why literature is valuable. That is how it works. You think you couldn’t care less about house elves. You might even think house elves are annoying. Then you read Harry Potter.
Photo source: Amazon