Earlier this year, my six-year-old daughter finally read Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. And she loved it, which wasn’t a huge surprise. Her mom and I are big fans of the series ourselves and there’s a reason why so many millions and millions of readers have embraced J.K. Rowling‘s most famous creation. Despite what some lit snobs will tell you, they’re excellent books.
So, to get this out of the way, if you’re building a home library for your kid, go get all seven Harry Potter books. They’re easy to find – heck, the law of averages suggests that you probably already own them. If you personally don’t love the Potter series, there’s a very decent chance your child will, so it’s kind of a no-brainer purchase. (And, even if you’re not up for buying them yourself, there’s a 99.5% chance that every library in a thousand mile radius of your house will have multiple copies of all seven books.)
As such, this isn’t going to be my normal “OHMYGOD, have you heard of this book? You HAVE to read it” review. It is safe to assume that you’ve heard of the Harry Potter books and much, much better writers than I have sung their praises before, so there’s not much point in me adding in my two cents six years after Deathly Hallows was published.
But, as a parent who knew as soon as he found out that he was having a kid that he wanted that kid to one day read the Harry Potter books, I’d like to talk about the three parts of Sorcerer’s Stone, the first chapter in the series, that I was legitimately nervous for my daughter to read.
I was anxious for several reasons. For starters, my daughter had been dancing around the Harry Potter series for almost a year. The books were solidly on her radar before, but she was afraid that they were “scary“, so she didn’t want to read them and I wasn’t going to push the matter. I was fine with waiting until she felt she was ready. However, her attitude towards Harry Potter started to change during her first grade year, largely because so many of her classmates had read and loved the series. My kid suddenly wanted to buy Harry Potter Legos and would come home every week, telling me she’d learned new spoilers about what happened in the books (some were right, others were totally, hilariously wrong).
Finally, one day, my daughter came home from school carrying a copy of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone that she’d checked out from the school library. “I think I want to read this,” she told us. After we reminded her that we OWNED all seven books and she didn’t actually need to take them out from the library – kids are gloriously weird sometimes – my wife tenuously started reading her Sorcerer’s Stone at bedtime, with me nervously asking, every night, how it was going.
I’d already had the experience of trying to read my kid a book beloved by her parents only to have it blow up in our faces – i.e. my abortive attempt to introduce her to The Phantom Tollbooth – so the LAST thing I wanted to do was find out too late that we’d forced Harry Potter onto her too soon, tragically coloring her opinion of the series for the rest of her life. Also, I was nervous because my daughter is a very introspective, thoughtful kid and I was afraid that she might be really, really sensitive to some of the darker moments in the book.
If you’re a parent who’s concerned about reading Harry Potter to your child – just in an effort to compare notes – here are the three elements of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone that I was really afraid would land wrong with my daughter:
1. The Death of Harry’s Parents
This was probably my biggest concern. The book opens with the revelation that Harry’s parents have been murdered and the memory of those deaths linger over the rest of the novel, particularly in the Mirror of Erised scenes. I was legitimately concerned that reading about Harry’s parents would cause my kid to climb into our bed at night, terrified that someone might “Avada Kedavra” us in our sleep.
However, it turns out… it didn’t even phase her. Apparently, dead parents are so ordinary, expected, and de rigueur in children’s literature that my daughter barely paid much notice to the fates of poor Lily and James Potter. Kids are separated from their parents so often in stories for children, ranging from Snow White to James and the Giant Peach, that, for my daughter, at least, the opening of Sorcerer’s Stone seemed perfectly normal. And, while I understand narratively why it’s a good idea to have kids out having adventures on their own, I was a little unnerved at how desensitized my child has become to the death of fictional parents. Maybe that’s just one of the downsides of having a well-read kid.
2. The Dursleys
Harry’s adoptive family, The Dursleys, are written as complete buffoons, but, I’ll admit, I was nervous that my daughter would find their cruelty terrifying. They force Harry to LIVE IN A CUPBOARD BENEATH THE STAIRS. (That’s some Wes Craven-level stuff right there.) They don’t feed him enough. They’ve been psychologically abusing him for years. I was honestly worried that my kid was going to weep tears of pity for Harry’s tragic treatment at the hands of the worst family on Privet Drive.
But that didn’t happen. And she wasn’t desensitized to their cruelty in the way that she was about the dead parents. Instead, my daughter flat-out HATED the Dursleys. HATED THEM. She despised them in the most hilariously, over-the-top way possible. She would rant and rage about how they treated Harry. She wasn’t traumatized by it, rather, she wanted to “Avada Kedavra” them herself. She fully embraced them as ridiculous pantomime villains and she LOVED hating them so very, very much. I mean, she hated Snape and Voldemort, but the Dursleys really made her blood boil, which was extremely fun to watch from the sidelines.
3. The Reveal of the “Big Bad”
My daughter is a big monster fan – she actually started a monster club at her school – but, every now and again, something hits her the wrong way. For example, she adores vampires, but a benign creature called The Knocker from The Spiderwick Chronicles gave her nightmares for a week, so it’s hard to predict what my daughter will find either captivating or terrifying. This unpredictability made me nervous, because there are a lot of creatures scattered throughout Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone and some are legitimately kind of creepy.
But, to her credit, my daughter loved them all. The ghosts, the troll with the wand up his nose, the three-headed dog, the dragon, the centaur, the dead unicorn… they delighted her. And, fortunately, the book’s creepiest creation – the deformed remains of Voldemort speaking out of the back of poor Professor Quirrell’s head – intrigued her entirely. For weeks, she talked to me about Voldemort and, even when describing how he turned to dust in Harry’s hands, the word she used most often to describe it was “cool.”
Again, much like with the dead parent issue, children’s literature is FILLED with kids having to fight unspeakable creatures to the death. Granted, I firmly believe that it’s my duty as a parent to accept responsibility as the content gatekeeper for my kid – it’s my job to control the levels of violence and horror that she’s confronted with, particularly at this age – but I also have to accept that my daughter might be able to deal with more fear and antagonism than I give her credit for. And it’s not because she’s a dead-eyed, desensitized “modern kid.” It’s because she loves STORIES and she reads lots of stories and, since the age of Gilgamesh, storytellers have used CONFLICT to build their tales and that conflict often comes from monsters, death, and things that go bump in the night. So, if my daughter doesn’t bat an eye when an evil wizard horrifically appears out of nowhere, it probably not because she’s some kind of over-stimulated thrill junkie. It’s probably because, thanks to a life-long love of reading, she just knows how stories work now.
So, my daughter is a Harry Potter fan now, which, I’ll admit, I love. I was so pleasantly surprised at how she tackled what, in my mind, were the three most problematic aspects of the book.
Oddly enough, however, after she read Sorcerer’s Stone and declared it one of her “favorite books EVER,” when we offered to read her Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, she refused. She said “I’m good” and asked to take a break from the series.
After a few weeks of casual questioning, we finally got her to admit that she was nervous to read Chamber of Secrets because her friends told her that it had giant spiders in it – spiders, apparently, being a much scarier monster than a dual-headed demon teacher. After I assured her that the main spider was a “friend of Hagrid’s” and that we’d stop reading whenever she wanted, she happily declared “Now I want to read it!” And so we read Chamber of Secrets and, again, she loved it.
We’re now in a holding pattern with the Potter series as my wife and I debate whether Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban is too “adult” (i.e. scary and thematically dark) to read to our six-year-old. (Our current opinion is “Yes, it is.”) Do I think there are six-year-olds who can read Prisoner of Azkaban with no problems? Totally. Our hesitation is based on our knowledge of our kid and how her little mind works, which exactly where every parental reading decision should come from. It should ALWAYS be a case-by-case kind of thing. If every parent is a gatekeeper, every kid is their very own distinct, one-of-a-kind gate.
At the very least, I’m pleased that my daughter was able to come to the Harry Potter series on her own terms. They’re fantastic books, undeniably worth reading, and I hope my little breakdown of my own weirdly personal parental anxieties about reading it to my kid will help other parents identify their own feelings about the Harry Potter books and get them thinking about how they feel their kids will respond to the material within.
Hogwarts is an amazing place for kids to visit, but, even if every single other child your kid knows has already read the books and seen all the movies, ultimately, it’s a parent’s job to decide when it’s the right time to let their kids crack open a copy of Sorcerer’s Stone and leave the Muggle world behind.