What I Learned from Reading Harry Potter with My Daughter

Last night, I sat down for my regular reading time with my daughter. We’ve finished the first two Harry Potter books together, and recently started the third. She’s an avid reader, but she’s young yet. My husband and I decided we were only comfortable with her reading the first three books until she’s older. We don’t think she’s ready for those scarier scenes in books four through seven.

I looked at the chapter we were set to read from The Prisoner of Azkaban — The Dementor — and I thought, This should be interesting.

You may have heard of the controversial article published in the Wall Street Journal this past weekend and the ensuing outrage in the children’s literature community. (If you haven’t, here’s the original article; and here, here and here are responses from some of today’s top YA authors.)

A friend of mine sent me a link to the original article which then led to us having a discussion over whether or not books should have a rating system much like movies or video games. I’m still contemplating that one.

Even as I read through the WSJ article and asked myself the tough questions (Are young adult novels too dark? Are they skewing teens’ view of the world? Are they enticing them toward dangerous and/or licentious attitudes and behaviors? What are my responsibilities as a writer of YA fiction?), I received an email from a well-meaning friend, expressing her concerns over my letting my children read the Harry Potter books.

Long story short, the email put me in a funk. Was I harming my children, allowing them to read these books? Was my exuberance for the books causing me to rush my kids into subjects they aren’t ready for?

The whole mess exhausted me.

With all of these question in mind, I started reading chapter three to my daughter. She lay quietly with her head on her pillow, arms folded across her stomach and eyes seeing the pictures the chapter created in her mind.

I read of Ron, Hermione and Harry boarding the Hogwarts Express and seating themselves in the compartment with the sleeping Professor Lupine. It’s been years since I’ve read the book and I’m excited to see some of my favorite characters again. Then the dementor shows up, and I watched my daughter out of the corner of my eye. Her eyes went wide. She looked at me and put her hands over her ears.

“Stop reading, mom!”

“Too much?” I said, closing the book.

She nodded.

“It’s okay.” I hugged her until she calmed down.

“I don’t want to read any more of that book,” she said. “Not yet.”

Ah. There it was. We found the line. We backed away from the line. One day she’ll step across that line, but not yet. She’s not ready. And she knows it.

We put Harry down and read the first chapter of the first book in the Horse Diaries series. I told her to read as much as she needed before going to sleep.

And then I told her how proud I was of her. For recognizing what made her uncomfortable and for speaking up about it. For saying no and for stepping back from that edge.

I’m sure I’m making a bazillion mistakes as a mother. And I certainly don’t have all the answers. But I’m confidant I’m making at least one good choice: reading books with my kids and talking about them. This is something I hope to continue doing as they get older. My hope is that together we’ll find those lines, those edges. That together we’ll decide when to back away and when to cross.

Some may think I’m being idealistic. That my kids are young and I don’t know the realities of mothering teenagers yet. Okay, fine. True. But I’d rather start sharing the discovery of stories with my kids now and navigate those bigger topics together than leave them to find the paths on their own. If that means reading Harry Potter: great. If that means putting down Harry Potter altogether because it’s just too much: fine. Every book we read together is a chance to explore and discuss. To learn something new about ourselves. To understand how to navigate the world and the future.