Britta Gustafson: Do we need a little more magic? Always.
Childhood lives in our memories as thousands of blurry little moments, a mosaic that helps to make up the portrait of who we are to become. Lots of firsts, failures, successes, embarrassments and achievements, and if we are lucky, we come out on the adult end a vignette without too much irreparable damage.
The soundtracks, backdrops and settings, and the characters — both real and fictional — who dwell in our thoughts have all played their roles in shaping us. And perhaps we tend to gravitate toward aspects of entertainment when we need them most. The songs that got us through high school, the heartaches and breakups, those tracks that motivated and soothed. The movies that influenced our career paths, our travel choices and helped us come of age. The books into which we sank, living parallel lives alongside the characters on their pages. These enduring characters can provide constant companions through changing times.
Growing up, I viewed my world first through the lenses of Peter Pan, Laura Ingalls Wilder, Bilbo Baggins, Nancy Drew and Alice, and later through Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy Pevensie. The last to assist the shift in my world from childhood to adolescence were Holden Caulfield, Peekay and finally Ralph, Jack, Simon and Piggy, and on that last island, I think the innocence of my childhood still remains.
Fiction can be escapism at its best. But escape into a good book at the right time, and the two worlds sometimes enmesh.
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J.K. Rowling’s world of Harry Potter came to life just a little too late for me to take notice as a young reader, though I devoured the first book in one sitting after my curiosity piqued when the movies proved this series to be a cultural phenomenon. Still something told me to hold off and resist the temptation to read on and I intentionally avoided the movies as they came out.
As I had somehow foreshadowed, I came to love the Harry Potter stories through fresh eyes reading them aloud each night, snuggled in with my own kids, at a time in life when I really needed reminding of how resilience can grow out of overcoming adversity.
But what truly wrapped us up in the series wasn’t just that my kids were growing alongside Harry, Ron and Hermione. We paused, sometimes for over a year, to mature to a level capable of processing the way in which the series and its thematic ethics get longer, darker and more complicated. And it wasn’t only how they related headmaster Dumbeldore and his patient, quirky wisdom to their own grandfather, or Professor McGonagall to their grandmother, or that my daughter found in Hermione a like-minded learning enthusiast, or my son relating to Harry’s believable character with all of his vulnerable weaknesses and lovable strengths. These characters reassured them that there were kids out there who had different backgrounds, unconventional family units, and with all the din of the adult world reaching a political crescendo of chaos these past four years (which is not lost on little ears), we could relate it to what these kids stood to lose and what they were trying to protect.
Because the Potter books are filled with beautiful notions like banishing fear with laughter, or being able to defeat something that’s determined to snuff out your happiness with a joyful thought, they make the evils of the world manageable atop a solid foundation of the kind of magic that is very much rooted in the real world. The kind found in the friendships and families of our own making, celebrating the values of community, friendship and love.
In his book “Harry Potter and the Millennials,” author Anthony Gierzynski surveyed more than 1,100 college students. His data supports the notion that Potter fans are more tolerant, less authoritarian and less likely to support deadly force than non-fans. Using control groups, he proves that the series had an independent effect on its audience. And if there is truth to that, then the books are truly magical.
When you layer your real world with meaningful fiction, sometimes the escapism gives you permission to believe that there is more to this and that you are more than this. It certainly assists the child in us all to believe we are special and that we can choose to believe sometimes that’s all we need.
Wrapping up the reading of the final book this weekend is for more than the end of the series for us. It symbolizes the end of an era of early childhood.
And though we can bask in the wonder that has added another dimension to the portraits of who we are becoming and acknowledge that Harry Potter has been an influential character in the framing of our worldviews, I do fear that a little disappointment may still lie ahead when my kids do not receive their invitations to attend Hogwarts this spring. I will of course reassure them for the time being that the American wizarding education system is slightly different.
“Of course it is happening inside your head, Harry, but why on earth should that mean that it is not real?” — Albus Dumbledore.
Let’s exchange a piece of my mind for a little peace of mind; after all, if we always agree what will we talk about? Britta Gustafson appreciates an open mind; share yours and email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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