BABY’S FIRST CHAPTER BOOK

My love of Harry Potter goes way back; I am an OG fan.  I read the books as they came out (the first book was released the fall of my freshman year of high school), saw the movies in the theater as they came out (the first movie was released the fall of my freshman year of college), and I don’t think I will ever forget taking my copy of Book Seven out of its FedEx box, climbing onto the couch in our Pearland house, and reading the entire thing in one sitting, exactly one day shy of one year since my father had died.

 

Needless to say, it feels significant to be reading the books with Shiv.  I worked so hard not to project any expectation onto Shiv, not wanting to pressure or push, knowing that it could very well turn out that my kid just wouldn’t be “into” Harry Potter the way I was—so when Shiv asked, one month ago, if we could start reading the books together, it was all I could do to keep my shit together.  We promptly began reading Book One aloud, one chapter a night (sometimes two, when Shiv managed to wheedle me into continuing), and we are six chapters away from finishing Book Two.  After finishing Book One, we got Vietnamese take-out and watched the movie at Auntie Coco’s house; we plan to do the same for each ensuing film.

 

Everyone who knows me knows that I care about ritual; it works for me.  Ritual keeps me grounded, helps pull me out of my head and back into the world.  Religious ritual, specifically, reminds me of the bigger picture, of the seasonality of life and the cyclical nature of the universe.  For everything there is a season.  Impermanence is inevitable.  Remember that you are dust, and that to dust you shall return.

 

Like most sacred texts, the Harry Potter books have nuggets of wisdom placed right alongside deeply problematic tropes and tendencies (female competence propping up male mediocrity, rampant fat-phobic language, a notable lack of non-white characters with anything more than bit parts).  But to treat the reading of these chapters every night as a ritual creates the opportunity to discuss the deeply real and difficult themes the series tackles: theodicy, abuse of power, dehumanization of the other, and how to respond to evil, among others.

 

A few weeks ago, at our yoga studio, a grandmother mentioned that she was reading Harry Potter with her grandson, who is a full two years older than Shiv, and expressed her doubts about its appropriateness.  “Yeah,” remarked the parent of another child, “that series gets dark really fast.”

 

I wanted to, but refrained from saying, “You know, the world gets dark really fast, too.”  This is a frustration that I have with a lot of the parenting that takes place inside of privilege; sometimes it seems as if the less danger children are actually in, the more protective their parents seem to be.  Jill and I have known from the start that we will not be able to shelter Shiv from the truth of a society that stacks the deck unfairly based on all kinds of things, including skin color.  Which is why Shiv has known about racism and slavery and segregation since age 3; we have consciously chosen not to anesthetize the world, tempting as it may be.  Sure, it feels shitty to admit to your kid that the world is unfair and full of as many terrible things as it is beautiful ones; but that’s the truth as I see it, and to prepare Shiv otherwise, would be to prepare Shiv for a world that doesn’t actually exist.

 

As an English teacher, I believe that books can push us to think about the kind of people we want to be, to hone in on what we believe and whether or not our actions line up with those beliefs.  Which is why my family will continue our little Harry Potter ritual, giving my British accent a work-out, marching into chapters that will inevitably trigger tears and tough questions, watching films that do, indeed, grow dark and scary, and doing our best as a family to call evil by its name and to choose how we will respond when we see it.

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