November 1, 1999

Don't Give Us Little Wizards, the Anti-Potter Parents Cry


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    CLARENCE, N.Y. -- Whenever Margaret Cusack opens "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone," her fifth-grade class at Ledgeview Elementary School in this Buffalo suburb breaks into cheers. As the teacher pauses at chapter's end, the students beg for more. If the bell rings, they refuse to budge.

    Except for Eric Poliner. Eric, whose parents describe themselves as born-again Christians, takes Mrs. Cusack's reaching for the book on her desk as his cue to slip from the room. He retires to the hallway or studies alone in the library until she stops reading -- 7, 10, 15 minutes, sometimes twice a day.

    "At first I felt kind of left out, but now I don't really mind," said Eric, 10, shy yet articulate. "I realized that it's for my own sake that I'm not listening. There's a lot about witchcraft and evil and spells and magic. I was taught at church that that was not good."

    As the Harry Potter books by the Scottish author J. K. Rowling continue their dominance of the top three slots on the New York Times best-seller list, the same kind of scene is playing out at a smattering of schools across the nation, with challenges to the books filed in at least eight states in the last month. Educators eager to seize the opportunity to develop a love for literature among their students are tangling with a few parent protesters who want to yank the books from libraries, or at least stop them from being read in classrooms.

    From South Carolina to California, school-district committees are reviewing the three books in the Harry Potter series, promising parents like the Poliners a public forum for their complaints, though no one who is tracking the issue knows of any place that has banned the books.

    Dan Heupel for The New York Times
    "At first I felt kind of left out," says Eric Poliner, who leaves his fifth-grade class when his teacher, Margaret Cusack, reads a Harry Potter book. Eric's mother, Carol, right, opposes the book's themes.

    It is confounding to many educators that after a decade of despair over a generation lost to video games and television, the very books that have lured huge numbers of elementary and middle-school children to the printed page are themselves being denounced as dangerous.

    "The kids are talking about this, there are actual conversations going on about the books," marveled Alan Farstrup, executive director of the International Reading Association. "Children compete to see who can get the next one the quickest. I just hope it spreads to other kinds of reading materials."

    Though no well-known group or individual has publicly criticized the books, Focus on the Family, a conservative Christian organization in Colorado, says it has received 160 phone calls and e-mail messages on the matter, and some evangelical ministers have begun to preach against Harry Potter. There are whispers about the books being the work of the Devil, their remarkable popularity -- five million hardcover and two million paperback books sold in the United States so far -- evidence of satanic strength. In their formal complaints asking school districts to remove the materials, parents argue that since witchcraft is a religion, books about it do not belong in public schools, and they say that Harry's flirtations with death and disaster are troubling story lines in light of recent school shootings.

    "Books nowadays are trying to make kids grow up fast," said Elizabeth Mounce, a mother of two from Columbia, S.C., whose speech against Harry Potter at a state school board meeting earlier this month vaulted her to national attention, her name landing in 49 newspaper articles. "They're trying to disguise things as fun and easy that are really evil," she said.

    Parents in Minnesota, Michigan, Missouri, North Carolina and Georgia have also complained about the books.

    Judith F. Krug, director of the American Library Association's office for intellectual freedom, does not deny that the chronicles of Harry's years at the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry are all about the battle between good and evil. But she points out that at least so far, good triumphs, and responds to the critique with a question: "What book did you read? Or did you read it at all?"

    These arguments among adults have distracted attention, somewhat, from more curious educational quandaries: Just what is it about Harry Potter that makes boys who hate to read drop their Nintendo and open a book? How can parents and teachers capitalize on the craze and keep children reading? What differentiates these books from all the other adventure stories still sitting on library shelves?

    Listen to the children of well-to-do Clarence, population 20,000, where faded American flags hang from telephone poles on Main Street, and new construction mixes with homes from the town's founding in 1808.

    "When you read it, the rest of your world, like reality, just goes blank," said Brian Heigel, 10, who is in Eric's class. "Sometimes you can actually picture yourself with these characters, like transferring worlds. When you're all frustrated one day and you just want to rest, you could just pull out Harry Potter and just read more and more. It's kind of like being in kind of a dream."

    Alyssa Mayer, 12, has a stack of unopened books on her desk from the summer reading list, but she has finished "Sorcerer's Stone" as well as "Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets" and "Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban."

    "It's sort of like we're reading about ourselves," Alyssa explained. "They like to do stuff like we like to do. They like to get in trouble. They like to play games, checkers. It's just like us."

    Megan Campanelle, 11, adds: "You always have a picture in your head of what's going to happen next. And then it changes."

    In round-table discussions with 18 students in grades five through eight, Harry Potter fans said they adored the detailed descriptions of characters' clothing and facial expressions, and laughed at the made-up names that pervade the pages. They stay up past their bedtimes, devouring Harry's 300-page adventures in a day, because the chapters bleed into each other with cliffhangers, then read favorite parts over and over again, moving beyond the plot to the larger themes of love, loyalty and loneliness.

    Hogwarts, with staircases that lead to different destinations on Fridays, and hall portraits that chat with passers-by, does not seem real, but the relationships formed there do.

    "I think he'd be a good friend because he cares about other people," Bailey Pollack, 12, a seventh grader at Clarence Middle School, said of Harry. "He's funny, he has sympathy, he shows his emotions."

    Mike Roth, who is in eighth grade, relishes the beginning of the second book, when Harry uses what he has learned at wizard school to get back at his Muggle, or nonwizard, cousin, Dudley, for a decade of torture. "My brother is really mean to me," Mike said. "I'd like to scare him like that and beat him down."

    Several students said they admired Harry's courage and determination, whether in fighting off bullies at Hogwarts or trying to snatch the Sorcerer's stone before the hated Professor Snape got it.

    Samantha Inacker, an 11-year-old sixth grader, said Harry had persuaded her to practice more on the trumpet in hopes of a better chair in the band. "If he thinks he can do something," Samantha said, "he will actually try and do it and not say it's impossible."

    Parents and educators say the series strikes something deep inside children that cannot be quantified or explained, resonating like the finest fairy tales in a way that can only be attributed to the magic of literature. Everything the children interviewed praise about Potter is true of other books: vivid descriptions, lots of adventure, protagonists they can identify with. But this feels somehow different, as if it were written by Harry himself, not some out-of-touch adult.

    "He acts the way we do," said Caitlin George, 10, who has read "Sorcerer's Stone" three times. "It's not like I'm some old English kid and I've got to stay clean while I go crackling through the mud, hunting for a tiger."

    Dana Taylor, a 13-year-old eighth grader who is on her second time through the first book, said the Harry Potter craze was akin to "having an imaginary friend." Others compared it to Star Wars or Pokémon, a full-fledged fad rather than just fodder for a book report, and said they were spending time reading that they used to pass playing computer games.

    "It's really fun reading books that take you into a different world," Megan said. "Video games really don't. It's just like, 'Oh, I won again.' "

    The students interviewed emphatically oppose the coming commercialization, saying they want neither Harry Potter action figures nor a Hogwarts television show. As for the forthcoming "Sorcerer's Stone" movie, they sound like adult-literature-lovers bemoaning the inevitable changes when a favorite book is splayed on the silver screen.

    "In the book, you create it, really, how you want to see it," Dana explained. "In a movie, they do the pictures."

    Invoking the forbidden name of the series' evil witch, Ryan Horvath, 11, shrugged, saying, "You just can't battle Voldemort every Friday at 2 o'clock."

    Students at both schools, Clarence Middle School and Ledgeview, are aware of the debate about the books across the country, and they are struggling to understand it.

    "It's just a book," said Caitlin, noting that her own Roman Catholic church linked witchcraft to Devil worship. "How can that harm you?"

    Last year, Ledgeview had a different religious debate, when the lighted "peace tree" out front struck a Jewish parent as a bit too close to a celebration of Christmas for the public schools. Eric Poliner and his parents were among those who stood up for the tree. Andrea Rosenkranz, whose mother had opposed the tree, is one of the few students to question Eric about his problem with Potter.

    Eric, who has spent most of the read-aloud time researching medieval castles, said he, too, had learned a lot from Harry Potter -- not the book, but his mother's crusade against it.

    Carol Poliner has spent about 80 hours on the project, scouring the Internet for information about witchcraft, speaking for the first time at a school board meeting and organizing parents at her church to protest the books in their schools.

    "If they're doing something in school that offends you or something," Eric said, "you can do something about it."

    Mrs. Cusack and the Ledgeview principal, Nancy Littenberg, said they respected the Poliners' right to pull Eric out of class but refused to let one parent prevent, in the teacher's words, "Johnny and Bobby and Susie from hearing it."

    Mrs. Littenberg is on the committee that will be reviewing the book to decide whether it is appropriate for school libraries and classroom read-alouds, with a decision expected in November.

    But today, Mrs. Cusack finished Page 275 of the 309-page novel, and the children are clamoring for her to continue.

    Copyright 1999 The New York Times Company