Saturday, November 04, 2006

A Harry Potter witch hunt

Opinion

A Harry Potter witch hunt

Mom who hasn't even read the books says they teach witchcraft

KAY MCSPADDEN
Special to the Observer

The suburbs of Atlanta are at the center of a witch hunt. Literally.

Laura Mallory, a former evangelical Christian missionary and mother of four, has been trying since September 2005 to have the Harry Potter books by author J.K. Rowling removed from all of the Gwinnett County public school libraries. Initially she argued that the books were inappropriate because of "evil themes, witchcraft, demonic activity, murder, evil blood sacrifice, spells, and teaching children all of this," but she later added that they promote witchcraft, Wicca, and the occult.

Mallory's challenge was addressed by the media review committee at J.C. Magill Elementary, where three of Mallory's children are enrolled. The committee recommended that the books remain in the libraries, and the district administration concurred.

In April Mallory appealed to the district school board, which held a public hearing in May. The school board sided with the school media review committee and voted unanimously in favor of keeping the books.

Now Mallory has taken her challenge to the state Board of Education. They met in October and will issue a judgment in December.

In some ways this is a rather predictable book challenge.

Like many book complainants, Mallory objects that the contents of the books are offensive to her religious beliefs. She claims the books have an anti-Christian bias.

Also like many complainants, she admits she hasn't read the books.

"They're really very long and I have four kids," Mallory told the Gwinnett Daily Post. "I think it would be hypocritical of me to read all of the books, honestly. I don't agree with what's in them."

And also like many of the people who challenge books, Mallory ignores the role of parents in guiding their children's choices -- unless, of course, she is the parent making those choices for everyone's children.

The outcry against Mallory's challenge has been predictable as well. Supporters of the Harry Potter series have countered that the books do not promote witchcraft but are fantasy stories about gifted children who discover their own remarkable abilities and go to a special school in order to learn to use them. The books are intense morality tales where good triumphs over evil, where friendship and loyalty are celebrated, where Harry learns from his missteps.

Potter fans also point out that although Mallory charges that the books try to indoctrinate children into the religion of Wicca, the only religious reference is to Christianity, when Hogwarts adjourns each December for the Christmas holidays. Nor do the books teach occult practices, as Mallory claims. The magic taught at Hogwarts is a clever counterpart to real life activities -- learning to make the tip of a wand light up to use as a flashlight, for example, or learning the proper way to fly a broom. The only teacher who presumes to teach what might be called occult practices is Sybill Trelawney, the incompetent fortune teller who is roundly mocked by both her students and her colleagues.

As predictable as the challenge has been, it has also been surprising to me. Why are books this universally read and loved also so widely feared and reviled? Despite their lack of sexual content or offensive language -- two of the most common reasons for book challenges -- the Harry Potter books are listed as the American Library Association's most-challenged books of the 21st century. What's going on?

Laura Mallory told one interviewer that "the books expose and introduce occult practices to young readers, opening a door to their minds and hearts to this kind of stuff, the casting of spells. The occult is dangerous to our children, and we need to get it out of our schools in all its forms."

For Mallory and other people like her who have a pre-Enlightenment view of the world as a place where magic is real and supernatural powers can be accessed through spells, the books might seem frightening. These are the same people who send chain letters and e-mails which promise great rewards to those who say a prayer and forward the mail to others -- and which sometimes threaten harm if the chain is broken.

They are the people who read cosmic significance into coincidence, who believe without question the cautionary tales they hear, who reject reason and science as ungodly and substitute religion with superstition.

Ironically, they say that they worry that children cannot tell the difference between fact and fiction, but their own anxiety about the books suggests that they are the ones who are having difficulty. It's too bad that their confusion means the rest of us have to endure yet another senseless witch hunt.

Kay

McSpadden


Observer columnist Kay McSpadden is a high school English teacher in York, S.C. Write her c/o The Observer, P.O. Box 30308, Charlotte, NC 28230-0308 or by e-mail at kmcspadden@comporium.net.

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