Children's & Middle Grade · Fantasy

Banned Books Week: Harry Potter and the Handwritten Warnings

Doesn’t that sound like a Harry Potter title? 😉 Bear with me through the Harry Potter remembrances, I do have a point.

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Over the weekend, while Banned Books Week was getting under way, I saw various blog posts listing popular and well-respected books that have been challenged. Harry Potter is usually on the list, and there have been SO many comments saying “Harry Potter? Really? Why?” and things of that nature.

If you missed the Harry Potter controversy, I envy you. (Not only) in Alabama, it was a huge deal. Parents had meetings. There were ban attempts. People wrote and read books about whether or not it was demonic or would entice children into witchcraft. (Thankfully they seem to have fallen off the radar — I can’t find the one I remember most or I would link it.) It was common to broach the subject in a deeply apologetic tone: “I don’t know how you feel about Harry Potter, so I can put the books away while our kids have their playdate…” Many kids I knew weren’t allowed to read it.

As a newly-minted teenager, thirteen or fourteen, I wasn’t sure if I was allowed to read it and I didn’t want to ask, but I volunteered at my local library for a few hours a week. One of my jobs was to rewind VHS tapes(!) and I could read a book while doing so. With much trepidation (and much anticipation) for the horrors I was about to expose myself to, I picked up Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. It was so common (even a small town library knew how to supply a demand!) that there was guaranteed to be a copy there, so I would read it while rewinding and then put it back to pick up again the next time.

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone coverI quite enjoyed it. It was clever and funny and engrossing, and basically a lot like the stuff I already read! Books like Wizard’s Hall by Jane Yolen, or The Book of Three by Lloyd Alexander, or So You Want to Be a Wizard by Diane Duane. (I recommend all of those with flailing and gibbering and tears of joy, by the way.) At some point I felt comfortable bringing them home — turned out we were totally allowed to read them, my whole family started reading them, and we’re all still fans.

The furor has died down, but the concept of books about wizards and witches was and is dicey, not only for HP. Enter the phenomenon of apologetic notes pasted into books.

I saw them in Harry Potter books — little pieces of paper glued or taped into the front covers, explaining what the plot of the book was, what kind of magic was being done, and why it was okay for kids to read, should their parents allow it. I’m not sure where these notes come from. I have an ex-library copy of Greenwitch by Susan Cooper with a handwritten note from the donor taped in: “This book is part of a fantasy series similar to C.S. Lewis’ “Chronicles of Narnia.” The witch in this book represents evil – much like the witch in The Lion, The Witch, & The Wardrobe. Evil is defeated in this book. If you have a problem with this, please return the book. -Mr. Washburn.” I’m not sure if he means the library should return the book or the patron!

Sometimes there’s no handy attribution, there’s just a book about a witch with a handwritten note taped in it to defend it. (And before you ask, yes, I’ve seen these in Narnia books!) The copy of And Tango Makes Three that I checked out for yesterday’s post had a typed paper glued on the first page with an excerpt from a review explaining that they were real penguins, etc., that probably came from the lending library itself.

So, my question for you is, what do you think about this? Do you see these notes in your area? Are they overly diffident toward people who’ve clearly pre-judged the book, or are they a good way of addressing concerns? What do you think about the Harry Potter phenomenon and how people reacted to the simple presence of witches and wizards?

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23 thoughts on “Banned Books Week: Harry Potter and the Handwritten Warnings

  1. GREAT post! Wow! I have not seen the little notes. I love your story of how you came to Harry Potter. I was looking at the top banned books list and looks like these books started going off the top 10 in 2004… in 2002 and 2003 they were #1 on the banned book list.

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    1. Thanks! 🙂 Hm… makes me wonder what happened in 2004, if there was just some other book getting more attention or what. I know it’s kind of a non-issue now, although I do now have college-age friends who want to read them now because they weren’t allowed to read them as kids.

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  2. I’ve not seen these notes, but I do remember my much younger self being embarrassed for bringing a Harry Potter book to read while we waited for Fourth of July fireworks at the city park, because we ran into one of our church’s pastors. When I finished, I didn’t understand what all the fuss was about and decided the people who didn’t like it hadn’t read it. I haven’t worried about what people think of my reading choices since.

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    1. I used to have a pastor who always quizzed me on the book in my hand on the way out of church. I expect he didn’t have anything else to make conversation with me about, but yeah, awkward… I’d call not worrying about what people think a positive outcome of reading HP, though! 🙂

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  3. Even though I grew up in a small (and very southern) town and checked out books regularly, I never saw one of these notes, so I wonder if they’re something that started in the late 80s, since I’m a little older than you.

    As for what I think about the HP flap specifically, I remember laughing at the witchcraft stuff at the time. I might have taken it seriously if I were younger or if I’d never seen it before, but I’d been seeing things subjected to that sort of controversy since the early 80s at that point. I remember being told D&D made people suicidal and all manner of other silliness.

    My thought at the time was that Harry Potter must be a fun series, because it’s always the fun stuff that gets treated this way. I’ve only ever read one Harry Potter book. I was grown by the time it came out, and it isn’t the sort of YA book that grabs me. I probably read it because of the witchcraft stuff, though.

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    1. Interesting… And yeah, I vaguely recall someone telling me D&D games were actually demon summonings. I didn’t believe it at the time, either. 🙂 Could’ve been a mention in a sermon, actually. I forgot to mention that whole sermons were preached against Harry Potter… And again, even at 13 or 14, I knew perfectly well that telling people not to do something was a surefire way to get them to do it!

      I like your thought that it’s always the fun stuff. Harry Potter is very similar to those other books I mentioned, but it has a special something that made it catch on. There wasn’t such an uproar over those other books, because they were never that popular.

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  4. Reblogged this on Eclectic Alli and commented:
    Wow.. I’ve never seen one of these “here is what this book is actually about” sheets taped into a book! Interesting reflection… and as always, it’s interesting to learn the way that things can differ so greatly from region to region.

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  5. I’ve never seen these personally, but I have heard of things like it before. I’ve always found controversy over books to be a bit silly. I mean I understand it in theory, but if you don’t want your kids reading something…then don’t let them read it. Don’t try to force that decision on others as well. And if there IS controversy over a book and your kid wants to read it, then read it yourself first! And then maybe even let your kid read it anyways so you can discuss it with them! And I say this as a fairly conservative Christian woman. Teaching our kids to blindly follow what we tell them to do/not do won’t end well for anyone.

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  6. As for the notes, the public libraries in my city didn’t have anything like that. But sometimes the little library in one of the small towns nearby would.

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  7. I remember that Harry Potter controversy. It was absolutely ridiculous. I’d always remind people that the core of the books was about love — that’s what protected Harry from Voldemort in the first place! — and triumph over evil. Those who called it bad was basically saying that love is bad and triumphing over evil is bad. When phrased that way, it shut people up really quick.

    I didn’t really start reading Harry Potter until college (when the series was at its half way point release date wise), and by then, the controversy had lost most of its fervor.

    I also read those other books you mentioned. “So you want to be a Wizard” and so forth. Great books! I also adored all the books by Tamora Pierce, especially her Circle of Magic quartet and its sequels. Crown Duel by Sherwood Smith was probably my most favorite of all the fantasy themed books I read as a kid. I also loved the Star Wars Galaxy of Fear and Young Jedi Knights series.

    I read copious amounts of books. I know that a couple that I read my evangelical friend wasn’t allowed to read, and we had some interesting discussions about it. She just couldn’t believe me when I told her that the accusations against the books didn’t make sense as that’s not what the books were about. She’d respond with, “then why would they lie?” I’d always say that “Adults do that sometimes because they don’t like admitting they were wrong.” I had a couple of detailed journal entries about those conversations. (That bucket of old journals in my closet is a treasure trove of amusing/interesting/awful anecdotes.)

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    1. I really feel most of the complaints come from people who haven’t read the books being challenged. Of course, that raises the question — what if a book actually IS condoning whatever it is? My answer is of course what I said about Tango… bring it out in the open and let’s debate. The debate is pretty easy when the complainers are dead wrong, though. 😉

      Glad somebody else remembers those books! I think Diane Duane’s books were my Harry Potter, but since they weren’t such a phenomenon, it comes out a bit differently… It might be even more threatening though, because who doesn’t recite the Wizard’s Oath when they read So You Want to be a Wizard? Just imagine if it had actually been a Wiccan prayer or something. 😉

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      1. True true. And of course, once brought out in the open, their arguments tend to fall apart. For honestly, it doesn’t matter what arguments they try to make, there is no reason in the universe as to why banning a book is ever necessary.

        Diane Duane’s books were awesome! And haha, yeah, if those people mad about Harry Potter had seen the Wizard’s Oath, I’m sure some people would have turned it into some sort of demon spawned thing in their minds. But those books kinda flew under the radar for some reason. And yes, I totally said it out loud when I read that book. Didn’t really make me a wizard, but that’s what imagination is for, right?

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  8. I could understand why a library would include those sorts of notes, although they will do little to deter those who are determined to avoid it or won’t allow their kids to touch it. I can’t say I’ve ever noticed notes like that though.

    The Harry Potter controversy was just another overblown controversy related to a popular work of fiction. The same thing happened to Dungeons and Dragons, comics (for a while they banned vampires, any form of drug use and even made it illegal to depict smoking in comics) and I’m sure it will happen again with something. There are still huge controversies over violent video games, even though the overall violent crime rate has been dropping since Doom released in 1993. I’m not saying that Doom is why violent crime has dropped, but it does make the whole thing sound silly.

    As a kid, I mostly read Star Wars books, science fiction, goosebumps and books resembling “My teacher fried my brains.” I was a kid before Harry Potter released, and while I enjoyed them, the only Narnia books I read were for school. Yes, they had several Narnia books in my school’s curriculum, and this wasn’t a christian school.

    These days, I just buy the books I intend to read.

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    1. Hobby I wish I’d thought to plan a post about the Comics Code Authority… Maybe I’ll have time.

      That is interesting you were assigned Narnia. I think it’s still on some reading lists, but not widely assigned in curricula. I was in a Christian homeschool group so I expect I read lots of things that were nonstandard. 🙂

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  9. Interesting! I’ve never come across notes like that. Then again, I grew up in Washington state (the western half) where people tend to be a little more liberal. Not always, and not everywhere, but the books banned around here probably differ a little from those banned in, say, the South.

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