Ideas | Maria Devlin McNair

How children’s literature became everybody’s literature

How children’s literature became everybody’s literature
adobe/globe staff

On Feb. 14, a gunman killed 17 students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla. Trying to make sense of what had happened, the survivors turned to Harry Potter.

“Harry Potter”, a series of seven novels by British author J.K. Rowling, tells the story of a young boy who learns that he is a wizard and, with the help of his friends and teachers, defeats the Dark Lord Voldemort, who is seeking to take over the wizarding world. The Parkland generation grew up with Harry, and the books’ stories and characters provide a lens through which to view their own story. Time correspondent Charlotte Atler pointed out that the Harry Potter series “has almost become their playbook.” Members of the #NeverAgain movement, founded by Parkland students to advocate for gun control, likened Governor Rick Scott and the National Rifle Association to Voldemort and his Death-Eaters; the protestors see themselves as Dumbledore’s Army, the student group that rises up to oppose them. Emma Gonzalez, a co-founder of the #NeverAgain movement, finds inspiration in Potter characters Ginny Weasley and Luna Lovegood.

On March 24, as students from Parkland and allies around the world rallied in support of an event that organizers called the March for Our Lives, signs referencing Harry Potter were everywhere. “We grew up on Harry Potter,” one sign declared. “Of course we’re fighting back.”


The massive global turnout for the March for Our Lives proves that there’s political power to this student-led movement and to the books that helped inspire it. But does it prove that children, and children’s literature, are capable of grappling with adult concerns? Some skeptics simply see Harry Potter as the explanation for “why young people are often so childish in their politics.”

But perhaps there’s more to the Potter books than the term “children’s literature” lets on — indeed, so much so that the category no longer applies.

This is the argument scholar Christina Phillips-Mattson makes in her recent book “Children’s Literature Grows Up: Harry Potter and the Children’s Literature Revolution.” “Rowling is abolishing the divide that’s long existed between literature for children and literature for adults,” Phillips-Mattson says in an interview. “She’s incorporating previous defining characteristics of children’s fantasy literature with fairy tales and mythologies and legends and histories … But with her technical skills she gives us the realism and verisimilitude that attempt to portray all the varieties of human experience, which has become the adult novel’s defining feature.”

The innovative works by Rowling and other contemporary authors, such as Philip Pullman, Neil Gaiman, Catherynne Valente, Suzanne Collins, Tomi Adeyemi, not only combine the features of adult and children’s literature — they also unite adult and children readers. According to a recent study, 55 percent of all readers of young adult fiction are adults.

Not everyone approves of this phenomenon, however. “Can more than 35 million book buyers, and their offspring, be wrong? Yes, they have been, and will continue to be so for as long as they persevere with Potter,” the literary scholar Harold Bloom harrumphed in The Wall Street Journal in 2000. “Adults should feel embarrassed about reading literature written for children,” Ruth Graham declared in Slate in 2014.


Yet if the characters in a children’s novel are as complex, the symbolism as sophisticated, and the themes as profound as those in serious fiction, what makes it unsuitable for adults? What if the distinction between children’s literature and adult literature is artificial to begin with?

* * *

The Harry Potter series is the most popular book series in history, selling more than 500 million copies worldwide in 80 languages, and drawing readers off all ages. Within the publishing industry, though, the success of the series served to reinforce the distinction between adult and children’s literature.

In 2000, The New York Times announced that it would begin printing a separate best-seller list for children’s books. The catalyst for this decision was “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone,” published in the United States in September 1998. By June 2000, the series had been on the bestseller list for 79 straight weeks. Publishers started to complain that these and other children’s books kept “deserving adult books off the lists.” And so the new list was created, and Harry Potter went from being called simply “fiction” to being called “children’s fiction.”

But the effort to steer adults away from children’s books, and vice versa, dates back much further.


In the 19th century, many adults were enthusiastic readers of children’s books. Even when novels weren’t written specifically for young readers, authors often aimed to make their books appropriate and enjoyable for the entire family. Novelist Henry James saw this as a problem. In an 1899 essay “The Future of the Novel,” he expressed concern that the novel’s potential as an art form was too constrained and “too many sources of interest [were] neglected” when authors wrote for both mature and immature readers.

The solution he proposed was not to discuss adult subjects more freely with children, but to create a separate literature for adults only. Writers like Virginia Woolf, D.H. Lawrence, and James Joyce took up the call for a new, more sophisticated kind of novel and paved the way for increasingly experimental adult literature. At the same time, Phillips-Mattson argues, much of children’s literature after World War I became less inventive, its messages less challenging, and its protagonists more childish.

James’s essay was a turning point in literary history. It helped make widespread the idea that adults and children ought to have separate literatures; that adults shouldn’t read children’s books; and that children needed simpler books because they couldn’t appreciate complex works of art.

Today’s authors, however, are showing us why we should reject these ideas. “We’re living in a new golden age of children’s literature,” Phillips-Mattson says. The first Golden Age of children’s literature, in the late 19th and early 20th century, witnessed the creation of works like “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland,” “The Railway Children,” “The Secret Garden,” and “Peter Pan.” These books became classics thanks to the complexity and inventiveness of their worlds and the maturity of their characters. Similarly, authors today offer works of fiction that draw on the traditional settings, plots, and archetypes of children’s literature but offer a depth of character and a moral profundity that ask readers to grapple with the most serious concerns: evil, suffering, and loss.

On receiving the Carnegie Medal for “The Golden Compass” in 1996, Philip Pullman said, “There are some themes, some subjects, too large for adult fiction; they can only be dealt with adequately in a children’s book.”

One of the central subjects in the Potter series is death. J.K. Rowling explained in an interview with Oprah Winfrey how deeply her books were influenced by the loss of her mother: “If she hadn’t died, I don’t think it is too strong to say there wouldn’t be Harry Potter. The books are what they are because she died. . . At least half of Harry’s journey is to deal with death, what it does to the living, what it means to die, what survives death.” Many readers today find that they can best approach these most difficult subjects through children’s books.

This, at least, is what Vanessa Zoltan and Casper ter Kuile have found through their podcast Harry Potter and the Sacred Text. Students at Harvard Divinity School, they apply traditional religious methods of exegesis to the Harry Potter series, uncovering new levels of moral and spiritual significance. Their tagline is, “Reading fiction doesn’t help us escape the world, it helps us live in it” — and they soon realized just how many people find that “Harry Potter” helps them live. (Full disclosure: I am a producer of the podcast Ministry of Ideas, which uses recording space provided by Harvard Divinity School.)

Hundreds of people turn out for Zoltan and ter Kuile’s tours; tens of thousands tune in for their podcast. This tremendous following shows that Harry Potter offers more than enjoyment or escapism. It helps readers to reflect more deeply on their own lives and on the values by which they wish to live. “It’s been amazing to hear from our listeners about how they already engaged with Harry Potter,” ter Kuile says. “One of the reasons we kind of dared to do [the podcast] was that people were already saying, you know, my mother died from cancer, and through those last few months I just kept rereading the Harry Potter books. . . people were already turning to these texts in a way that seemed to be doing much more than entertainment in their lives.”

The text doesn’t only console; it inspires. Ter Kuile explains that they conclude their readings by asking, “What’s the text inviting us to do?” Many readers have found an invitation in Harry Potter and accepted it. The Harry Potter Alliance is an activist group that channels members’ passion for the series into a passion for real-world causes of the kind the books’ characters might support. In the Women’s March on Washington and other protest marches, activists brandished countless signs with quotes from “Harry Potter.”

WASHINGTON, DC - MARCH 24: Students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, including Emma Gonzalez (C), stand together on stage with other young victims of gun violence at the conclusion of the March for Our Lives rally on March 24, 2018 in Washington, DC.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
Students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School have drawn inspiration from the Harry Potter books.

* * *

One of the most prominent protest movements of the 21st century, Black Lives Matter, inspired Tomi Adeyemi’s debut novel “Children of Blood and Bone.” Released in 2018, this young adult novel takes place in the mythical land of Orïsha, a setting built from West African mythology, where status is based on color and plot episodes mirror incidents of police brutality in America. The novel uses the power of fantasy and speculative fiction to cast light on real-world racism and oppression. In an interview, Adeyemi said, “Fantasy is such a wonderful lens because every obstacle in the book is tied to an obstacle that black people are facing as recent as today or as recent as 30 years ago. . . This book is not just a fantasy.”

In the days after the Parkland shooting, a viral tweet by Denizcan James read, “You know, when I said I wanted the real world to be more like Harry Potter I just meant the teleportation and the magic stuff not the entire plot of book 5 where the government refuses to do anything about a deadly threat so the teenagers have to rise up and fight back.” Harry Potter presents an increasingly difficult, complex, and morally ambiguous world, where those whom we believed to be allies — including government officials — end up abetting the villains.

Children’s literature is often criticized as simplistic or reductive, portraying an unrealistic polarization between good and evil. MG Prezioso, a researcher of early childhood education and literacy at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, argues that we need such portrayals of good and evil in our lives if we’re to maintain our own sense of direction. The moral clarity of children’s literature can provide a compass for readers trying to navigate an unclear world.

“There’s something appealing about seeing the world not only as it is but how it could be or should be,” she affirms. “When you read those kinds of books. . . it’s inevitably inspiring because you see what can be. You are given this vision and trying to figure out different ways to make that vision a reality.”

In the film version of “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix,” Harry passes on Dumbledore’s words of wisdom to his friends: “Even though we’ve got a fight ahead of us, we’ve got one thing Voldemort doesn’t have: something worth fighting for.” If anyone is to persevere in trying to change the world, that is what they need: a goal, a vision of what is good. Rowling’s vision of goodness is clear from Book 1, when Harry bashfully tells the brainy Hermione that he’s not as great a wizard as she is: “‘Me!’ said Hermione. ‘Books! And cleverness! There are more important things — friendship and bravery.’” The Parkland students were inspired by the memory of their friends: “We’re gonna make it better, because that’s what they would have wanted,” one student said. They were also driven by concern for generations to come. Another student said, “We’re not only fighting for ourselves, but we’re fighting for the future kids, we’re fighting for them, we’re fighting for their kids. It’s not just us.”

Along with a goal, activists need hope — the belief that their efforts can succeed. This, too, students have found in books. Anna Crean, a Parkland student, said, “We’ve grown up with teenagers in dystopian eras that have fixed everything and become the heroes. . . Then they put us into a dystopian era in real life and they don’t expect us to do anything? We can make a difference because that’s what books and movies have told us since we were little.” A teacher tweeted, “What, you thought it was fiction? It was preparation.”

Maybe we shouldn’t be discouraging adults from reading so-called “children’s” literature. These books ask us to reflect on our values, to have courage for our friends, to fight for what matters, to choose, as Dumbledore says, between “what is right and what is easy.” And perhaps that is something for which we can never be prepared enough.

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Maria Devlin McNair, a St. Louis-based writer and recent Harvard PhD, is a producer of the podcast Ministry of Ideas, available on iTunes, Google Play, and