Maybe I stuck my head in the sand, but the hype over Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix rose, culminated, and (I think) faded. It's now two days since the release of this much awaited book, and the news stories about the bespectacled crowds have slowed. Harry Potter fans have settled down to read, review, celebrate and mourn.
But what hasn't been going away is the backlash to the Harry Potter hype. The CBC has run no less than three parody sketches making fun of the series merchandise wing, and a few commentators have complained about children (and adults) herding towards the bookshelves like sheep.
I swear, if I hear one more gripe about the series, I'm going to break my self-imposed embargo against the book (waiting for the reaction to die down so I can buy and read the book quietly), march into a Chapters, pick up a copy and slam down my money, just to cheese these self-appointed guardians of public taste off. You would think if these people were as tired of hearing about Harry Potter as they claim to be, his name wouldn't cross their lips!
And the commentaries show that the commentators haven't read the latest novel. They still depict Harry as an innocent (and wet) young thing. Objective reviews of the new book suggest that, while J.K. Rowling could still use a thorough editor, she's mixing up her formula. Harry Potter at 15 is a very different person from Harry Potter at 11. The books have taken on a much darker and more adolescent feel, Harry is angrier than ever, and the wizardry world is tipping over into war.
This review in the Globe and Mail puts it well:
Nothing is simple anymore, not even Harry's relationships with the people he is closest to, and that's where Rowling really extends this series past the genre of children's stories.
There is all kinds of emotional interplay here, with seemingly everyone dealing with fear, confusion, frustration, regret.
And Harry has to rethink his views of some people, after seeing they may not be the complete jerks or heroes he thought them to be. (Not everyone, though. Malfoy? Still an evil little sod.)
In other words, Harry Potter is now a full-fledged teenager. The moral certainties that he held at 11 no longer apply. The world has become much more complex... and adult.
I've not seen a series of children's books age their characters so diligently, especially over the boundary ages of 14 through to 17. There are some lines that many don't cross when writing certain types of books; 14 year old heros appeal to much younger audiences than 17 year old heroes, and books with 17 year old heroes tend to deal with issues that may be unsuitable for 10 year old readers.
The only other writer that I've seen travel across the 14-18 territory is Tamora Pierce, whose book, Squire of the Protector of the Small sequence takes the main character, Kel, through these key four years of her life. And in Tamora's case, only Kel's body really changes. She gets better at what she does, and there is a small (very small) sexual awakening; she doesn't go through the "I'm a crazy teenager" period, as Harry is doing.
Harry and the other characters in the Order of the Phoenix are undergoing some character development, and that sets J.K. Rowling above many of the hack writers that major marketing hype seems reserved for. That demands some of my respect. That and the fact that the books are getting kids to read doorstops.
Recently, I rediscovered the books of Edith Nesbit (1858-1924). Penguin reissued these classics and they're prominently displayed in the children's section of our bookstore, alongside the Harry Potter material. I remember my mother reading Five Children and It and The Phoenix and the Carpet to me decades ago, and reading them again was a rush. Edith Nesbit, a Fabian socialist who discovered children's literature late in life, has crafted wildly imaginative tales, where motherly narrative advise is counterpointed with precocious childish activity, and magic is magical, and yet wholly at home in the Edwardian nursery.
The Five Children and It tells the story of Cyril, Robert, Anthea and Jane, put in the care of their servants in a country house while their parents are away on urgent business. Left to play by themselves in a quarry, they dig into the sand and discover a Psammead, a sand fairy, who has the power to grant one wish a day. The children are, of course, delighted... until they learn the hard way that old saying, "be careful what you wish for..."
The Phoenix and the Carpet follows Cyril, Robert, Anthea and Jane back to London, where they live in an apartment with their parents, and are again bored silly. This time, however, they are lucky enough to discover a phoenix egg, which hatches, and a magic carpet, that can take them anywhere they wish to go.
Cyril, Robert, Anthea and Jane are not stupid. They try very hard to tailor their wishes so that they don't end up coming with unintended consequences but, as you can guess, this is impossible. Fortunately, the children's resourcefulness and sheer luck prevents permanent damage from ensuing.
Ms. Nesbit voice gets into her writing, lending the narrative considerable verve and wit, plus a sense that, while she might not approve of some of the children's activities, she has to suppress such impulses herself. Witness how, in the first chapter of The Phoenix and the Carpet, she admonishes Robert for stealing a piece of chalk (unless it's a broken piece of chalk, and there are other pieces of chalk in the room) but makes no judgements when she provides the perfect illustration of the dangers inherent in mixing bored children and fire. Then again, if she did, she might have to explain how Anthea knew to find the paraffin she used to pour over the Guy Fawkes firecrackers she and her siblings were "testing" (in the nursery. She'd have to explain how the parents could be stupid enough to leave the closet containing kerosene, paraffin, heaps of oily rags and matches, unlocked.
Edith, and her adult characters, are not so far off being children themselves.
Five Children and It feels like one of Ms. Nesbit's first books (actually, it's her third), because there is a sense of tentative first steps developing into a delighted torrent as Ms. Nesbit ups and ups the ante. The Phoenix, which appears in the second book, is a delightful character, smart, funny and completely full of himself. The best chapter is when he discovers that a fire-insurance agency is using his image on their logo, and he assumes that their building is a temple, and the insurance agents his high priests. The fun that ensues when he decides to give them a lordly visit has to be read to be believed.
"And," it (the Phoenix) went on, "you must not think me wanting in appreciation of your very hearty and cordial reception when I ask that an ode may be recited or a choric song sun. It is what I have always been accustomed to.
The four children, dumb witnesses of this wonderful scene, glanced a little nervously across the foam of white faces above the sea of black coats. It seemed to them that the Phoenix was really asking a little too much.
Absently the manager began to sing, and one by one the rest joined--
"O Golden Phoenix, fairest bird,
The whole great world has often heard
Of all the splended things we do,
Great Phoenix, just to honour you.'
"That's better," said the bird. And every one sang--
"Class one, for private dwelling-house,
For household goods and shops allows;
Provided these are built of brick
Or stone, and tiled and slated thick.
Ms. Nesbit's books also feel like the prototypes of children's literature to come. I hear echos of her works in C.S. Lewis' Narnia series, and of all the stories wherein children encounter fantastic things that their parents refuse to believe are anything more than imagination, E. Nesbit was among the first. She even plays with this clich+ at the expense of poor, benighted insurance clerks.
Anybody wishing to take a bit of a break from Harry Potter are strongly encouraged to try out Edith Nesbit's Five Children and It and The Phoenix and the Carpet. Both books would set you back considerably less than J.K. Rowling's latest tome.
- This is a good summary of the Harry Potter hype in the lead-up to release.
- This Slate review compares J.K. Rowling and Edith Nesbit
- A biography of Edith Nesbit at this website.