“Child-Proofing Harry Potter”: A Rebuttal

“Child-Proofing Harry Potter”: A Rebuttal

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.



This opinion is Alyssa Jennette’s. Email her at alyssadevlin9@gmail.com or find her on Twitter and yell at her if you disagree. Photo sourced from this blog.


  1. I couldn’t even finish reading that woman’s essay, too infuriating.

  2. I just kept thinking, “Wow, I’m really glad this woman is not my mother.”

    As an author herself, she does her profession a disservice.

  3. this stupid woman doesn’t deserve to raise children

  4. the only thing i dont understand is the age of her son.I started reading harry potter when i was seven and when i look back on it,i didnt undersetand alot of the plot. before 7 years old doesnt seem like a reasonable age to let your child read an upper level book like that

  5. What, even I feel that 7 is still too young to really grasp the concepts presented in SS and the later books. I dunno, perhaps I am spoiled because I read the first three when I was 13, and when each subsequent book was released I was no more that a few years apart from Harry’s age (gof, I was 14, OotP I was 18, HBP 20, and DH 23) so in away I grew up with Harry, and the things that Harry was going through spoke to me on a different level. I have cousins who are 12 years old now and they’ve read all 7, but they don’t really grasp certain emotional concepts because they have yet to go through those things themselves. The subtle beauty of HP is that Rowling wrote the books in away so that you would grow emotionally and along with Harry. You can see it in how she structured the books in terms of wording and level of detail. When you’re 11 you’re at the cusp of puberty you’re starting a new chapter of your life, really starting to be introduced into a whole new world, when your 12-13 you are still learning and any responsibility you are given is still guided, 14-15 you begin to question the world around you; you wonder if you can make a difference, you’re frustrated that you’re still not legal to actually be respected and taken seriously the elders, 16-17 you are given more and more agency, you understand the world around your, you have less and less guides, but you still have more growing to do before being fully released into the world. Personally, I’ve made the decision to give each book to my kids on the birthdays that correspond with the books. Kids today are lucky they don’t have to wait years between the books, but I loved waiting, and I want my kids to experience that as well and to grow up with Harry .

    • .
      Dear Saevam, I really like your perspective and think you expressed it beautifully. I loved the books, too, but, being much older, find the points you raise very interesting. Just one suggestion, please don’t trust spellcheck so much as it has no grammatical reference. Most notably, you altogether overlooked the use of “away” (far) rather than “a way” as you intended… not that we all haven’t been there! Good luck getting your kids to wait! I hope they have the same great pleasure you had, and you will get to love the series again!

  6. The first book of the Harry Potter series came out when I was 7. All my mom wanted to do before I read it was preview it by reading it herself first. It took her all of a day to finish it, after which she promptly handed it to me and said “Enjoy!”.
    My whole family (Parents, myself, and my 3 younger siblings) have loved the series and I find myself being horrified at the thought of anyone having it censored for them… Honestly I’ve read the books many times since the first one came out and not only did I catch things I hadn’t noticed before, but I was reminded each time how much I love the story. I’ve even gotten my boyfriend turned into an avid fan now, who had maybe seen parts of a couple of the movies before he met me. XD

    I agree with Caleb – I am so glad my mother let me read the books. And that she encourages reading in general.

  7. Poor Emmett! I really feel sorry for that kid with a mother like that.

    I started reading HP to my six (now seven) year old last summer. My plan was to read the first three, but wait a little on the fourth because I honestly didn’t know how he’d handle the return of Voldemort and the death of Cedric. One day when I wasn’t around, he took the Goblet of Fire DVD and watched the whole thing. He thought the graveyard scene was great. He admitted he was scared, but he really focused on how brave Harry was in returning Cedric’s body to his parents. I know he can handle it, and we’re about 1/3 of the way through Goblet of Fire now.

    If you don’t think your kid is ready for some of the heavy themes in HP, don’t start him on it yet. But for crying out loud, don’t white-wash it.

  8. Anyone who watched FRIENDS remember how Phoebe was upset to learn her mom had sheltered her from the ending of most movies? She was shocked and this boy will be too when he finds out his mom has been lying to him. Not to mention, his mom has set him up to sound like someone with zero capacity for reading comprehension in front of his friends and teachers.

  9. So glad to have read this. Cross one author OFF my grandchild’s reading list! In no way will I support even indirectly this level of censorship and violation of artistic integrity. Her choices should have been to let him read it or not. God help us all if she ever gets into any political position of authority or influence.

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