Young Adult Fantasy: Promoting Witchcraft And Magic Or Just Good Fun?
By: R.J. Nimmo
Emily, the 10-year-old daughter of my friend, Sadie, was watching the pomp and pageantry of the new Pope waving to the masses from his balcony in Vatican City.
She commented gleefully: "And did you know that the Pope likes Harry Potter too, Mum?"
My initial response to this was that, in her excitement, Emily had become confused; blurring the line between the fairytale spectacle of this most regal of Catholic ceremonies and the sort of spectacle you find in kids books, from the gothic grandeur of Phillip Pullman's His Dark Materials to the dimensions of Hogwarts Academy, would be easy to do.
I waded in, and, with the best intentions, started to explain the difference between the sanctity of the teachings of the Church and the implications of witchcraft as practised in any number of sword-and-sorcery retreads on the shelves of children's book stores.
However, her mother swiftly stepped in to stop me. "No, no. I don't think Emily means the Pope actually reads Harry Potter himself at bedtime, do you Emily?" she clarified.
"No, Mum. I mean he says they are okay for us kids to read…in moderation."
In moderation? It was a mature sentiment for a young person to express. I wondered what she meant by it? (Clearly, there had been a conversation going on in Sadie's household without my knowledge.)
Sadie glared at me and drew me aside. "It is something they are doing in school — an historical perspective on witchcraft and wizardry," she explained. "And I want to encourage her." Apparently, Emily's teacher had dug out a Vatican report describing the Harry Potter stories as clearly delineating between "good and evil" and therefore acceptable reading for kids. Sadie maintains, "If nothing else, the broader message is worth children exploring."
At first, I wasn't so sure. Was the Church green-lighting the wholesale practice of witchcraft now? And what would that mean for children's literature and the messages they were receiving through young adult books and stories?
I did some digging on the internet. Sure enough, this Vatican document exists and is part of an investigation requested by bishops into New Age mysticism in June, 2003. The Church, it seemed, okayed bits of it — like yoga and relaxing music — while along the way concluding that stories showing the difference between good and evil could be constructed around themes of sorcery and witchcraft (though expressly forbidden in the Bible in Deuteronomy) without any apparent theological conflict.
On the surface, it seems a controversial line to take. (It is certainly contradiction enough to have any parent searching for a good story for their kids tearing their hair out!) If the Church seems happy enough to capitulate in the face of the most commercially successful children's book of all time then how do we as parents and educators draw the line between books our children might enjoy, read and learn from and those that might impart values that may demean or corrupt?
Sadie seemed unruffled by the furore. "The Church is merely adopting a modern attitude in tune with a changing world; a good thing, surely?" she queried. "After all, I don't want Emily growing up in a world where immovable, draconian values are imposed on her; she has to learn them for herself, and fantasy is a good way to explore them."
So what of the evangelical Christian groups that condemn series like Harry Potter for "glamorizing" witchcraft?
Sadie shrugged. "It seems excessive. Read the report for yourself; it actually takes the wider view that even on the presiding board of Vatican advisors not one person could say they had not grown up with stories about…'fairies, magic, and angels in imaginary worlds'."
That comment highlighted an important issue too often overlooked in choosing books for children; stories are simply stories. They are just not meant to be theological tomes or theses on moral righteousness.
And I should know. As Sadie pointed out: "You write from the perspective of an author of young adult fantasy; you understand the lure and power of a good yarn. Children's books are primarily about entertaining; we would get a lot further with imparting values to kids if we drop the moral posturing when choosing books for them."
Of course, Sadie was right. My unique perspective on the modern YA fantasy phenomenon (my books use actual myths and legends as their source material) reveals one crucial fact: "fantasy"; magic, myths and legends are as old as human civilisation itself; perhaps older. When retold, such tales do what fantasy stories have always done: provide a framework for the teaching of right from wrong, and the instilling in children of Christian values. The fact that a lot of kid's books and stories today are not considered "Christian" reading is merely evidence of a cultural shift; it does not preclude them as being Christian in outlook.
My advice? The ever-popular genre elements in children's literature; goblins, djinns and wizards are not fundamentally what good fantasy is about. Trust that the author has subtly infused deeper meanings and profound lessons; in a good book or story, rest assured, these values are there. It merely requires an enjoyment of books and a love of reading to excavate deeper, below the genre conventions to discover them and to learn from them.
After all, isn't that what a good book is all about?
Young adult and children's entertainment expert, R.J. Nimmo is the author of The Ancient Egyptian Ennead, the latest young adult fantasy novel to be published in the 6-book Mustard Twins series. He has been featured in national and daily newspapers articles, discussing the influences of popular entertainment on children and young adults. He is currently living in London, England. Visit him at http://www.coolkidzread.com/.