The Boy Lives: Portrait of a Reader as Young Fan


To: J.K. Rowling
From: Another Muggle Mother

Dear Ms. Rowling,

Because of you my nine-year-old daughter knows she is a muggle. (So does my son, for that matter, but that is a different discussion). To temper her perpetual disappointment at having to live in the nonmagical world, she has collected two wizarding robes, Hermione’s white oxford shirt and gray wool skirt, a Gryffindor tie, a fuzzy brown wig, and a lovely, sleek wooden wand that was purchased at some expense at a Victorian fair (true, it has turned out to have a lot of play value). These days, when she’s not in her soccer gear, she wears her Time Turner in the same way other little girls used to adorn their wrists with brightly colored rubber bands—constantly and with great pride. Her loyalty to your books is unshakeable.

By the time you read this, the final Harry Potter movie will have been released, and Ella will have seen it.  But I suspect that even though this signal event is at the center of her small life right now,  it will not signal much of anything to her. Her adoration of and desire to live in the world shows no sign of abating. Three times she has read from The Sorcerer’s Stone right through to The Deathly Hallows only to begin again immediately on The Sorcerer’s Stone. At this writing, she is nearly through The Order of the Phoenix and fully intends to continue looping infinitely through your magical world.

Don’t get me wrong: I find nothing wrong with the series. Her father and I love these books, too. What I worry about is the intensity of her devotion, the addictive nature of fandom, and the way obsession can overtake a young mind. Sometimes, I worry she should be reading other things. Sometimes, I worry her brain will get stuck in a rut. Sometimes I worry that her passion runs too hot. What is unhealthy? Where is the line between passion and addiction? This worry, generally speaking, is one of the most constant of my motherhood. Is her love for your magical world a simple, generous thing, like Hagrid’s love for Buckbeak? Or does it mask something more sinister, like Professor Quirrell’s turban?

I have been assured by parents much more experienced than I that her obsession is okay. I have been assured by literacy experts that reading and rereading—even being an ardent fan—is a very fine thing for a young reader, no matter the text. And in fact, I tell my own graduate students this very same thing: they must read and reread their most beloved books if they are to understand them fully. Many years ago, one of my graduate school advisors put it this way: “You need to be dipped, over and over again, in great literature. Like a candle.” I have quoted her many times. So I just keep telling myself, my daughter will be okay.

And I concede that your wizards and witches have given my daughter many things: a richly detailed fantasy world; a profound sense of good and evil; an expansive embrace of power and possibility; and a bevy of extraordinary female characters—both good and evil. Who can rival Hermione for brains and bravery? Or Bellatrix Lestrange for pure wickedness? Or Ginny Weasley for her extraordinary ascent from starstruck little sibling into outspoken young adult? There’s Luna Lovegood’s powerful eccentricity and Angelina Johnson’s athletic ability, and there are the grown women, too, who I wish I had in my life: the fierce and loving Mrs. Weasely; the steely wisdom and fairness of Minerva McGonagall, the defiant Tonks…there is so much here for a girl to love (which is so utterly unlike the fantasy fiction of my girlhood.)

Most important, Ella knows full well that you, J.K. Rowling, are also a girl. This was one of the most exciting revelations of second grade, and I think it cemented her loyalty.

So while many of us are lamenting the end of the era, my daughter—like many other young readers—continues to be richly immersed in it. Great books will always be new. Many parents credit you for bringing their children to books and literacy. But I think I must thank you for something else. In spite of my dark, and nagging, and yes, very muggling concerns, I do recognize something greater at work. Thank you, Ms. Rowling, for giving my daughter the difficult work of her imagination, a place where is she both author and actor of her own story. This is, really, all I ever wanted for her.



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