My friend Brandon knows me very well. This past Sunday, he posted a New York Times editorial to my Facebook wall. It was entitled “Child-Proofing Harry Potter” and was written by Lynn Messina, a mom and novelist.
The title raised red flags for me immediately. Then I read the editorial itself and found that not only were the red flags completely justified, they were accompanied by some sirens and flashing red lights as well.
See, Messina has a habit of “pinkwashing” the books she allows her five-year-old son Emmett to consume—“pinkwashing” is apparently coined from the title of the book Pinkalicious, in which the pink protagonist is forced to eat “gross” green vegetables to cure her of her pinkness. Messina decided that since Emmett was already a fan of green vegetables, it would be better to pour on some more positive reinforcement and replace any negative word that described the vegetables or the experience of eating them with a positive one.
Perhaps you’re having the same thought as I did, which was something like, “But Emmett already likes vegetables. Why would a single picture book change his mind about something he already enjoys?”
I still haven’t found an answer, but I found plenty more questions as I read on.
When Emmett got curious about Harry Potter, she and her husband decided to read him Sorcerer’s Stone, even though they had not planned to start him on the series until he was seven.
Messina immediately runs into a problem. She decides, for the sake of protecting Emmett, to censor a fact presented in the very first chapter of the book. Instead of attempting to kill Harry, Voldemort only attempts to hurt him. With that, Messina admits that she has completely rewritten the central plot point of the series. (I cannot help but find it surprising that she feels attempted murder is beyond, but that depictions of Harry’s child abuse are acceptable.)
As she reads on, she edits in a moral lesson for Emmett and has McGonagall assign Harry a disciplinary essay about rule-breaking when he flies his broomstick after Madam Hooch told him not to. I doubt Messina pointed out that Harry did so in order to defend Neville from Draco’s bullying. (That’s not to say that Harry’s rule-breaking is always so noble, but in this situation it is.)
She finishes reading Sorcerer’s Stone to Emmett, but refuses to start on Chamber of Secrets. Messina decides that Emmett is not yet ready to grow up with Harry and that she’s not ready to show Emmett anything outside of the shimmering pink bubble she has woven around them.
I was lucky enough—yes, lucky enough—to be raised in a home chock-full of over-sharing and TMI. We did not have “child-proofing”. This obviously had its drawbacks, but as a result, my siblings and I are informed, independent, and accepting of hard truths.
I also worked as a nanny for a family with two intelligent boys, ages six and eight (now seven and nine), who were both reading Harry Potter while I worked with them. Their parents were also wary of the dark or scary moments in the material, and occasionally they would take the books away if one of the kids exhibited a bad reaction to a certain scene. However, they were very willing to let their kids find that out for themselves, and to discuss any aspect of the story with them.
Messina has already begun depriving Emmett of an essential stage of development: she refuses to allow Emmett to see depictions of injustice or disobedience in fiction, where he can process them at a distance. Not only that, but she has chosen to edit her lessons into the stories, effectively neutering the power that the stories possess.
Most alarmingly, Messina admits that she loathes the idea of Emmett reading the Potter series for himself because she won’t be able to Bowdlerize it. She is actually afraid of her son processing information that she has not filtered for him.
Naturally, the world of parenting is a subjective one, but if I could advise parents who are nervous about the darkness that literature can reveal, I would suggest that they allow their children to read as many books as they want. Encourage reading, and encourage reading beyond age-level, if your kids have the skills. Age-appropriateness is up to the parents, but I read classics that involve death, darkness and war such as Little Women, Alice in Wonderland, and—yes—Harry Potter, since I was about Emmett’s age.
Once the kids have read the book (or a certain scary/unpleasant chapter), parents can explain their concerns after the fact and offer their children the chance to see two (or more) sides of an argument, rather than exposing them only to the one the parents deem acceptable. Kids want to know why they should do or believe a thing, not simply that they should. Let the story stand on its own, then introduce your perspective. Don’t warp the narrative—or censor it entirely—to serve your own purpose. (Messina should understand this, considering she writes children’s books herself.)
In the last lines of her editorial, Messina justifies her actions, writing, “My job as his parent isn’t to shield him indefinitely from the near-universal dislike of brussels sprouts; it’s to raise a son who’ll emerge from his hero quest triumphant.”
I honestly have no idea what she means by this, considering the fact that Harry only becomes a hero after he has been exposed to the dark side of the world. Or perhaps she has rewritten that aspect of Harry’s story, too?
And, hey, I say this as a person who loves brussels sprouts.