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Can a kid learn more about real life from books than "Dawson's Creek"?

By Margaret Wappler

DECEMBER 13, 1999:  Between the ages of 9 and 13, I must've read Judy Blume's "Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret," about twenty times, and this is honestly no exaggeration. I admit to being attracted to the book at first only because my name was in the title, but upon reading it, I discovered it was quite radical compared to the other books that lined my shelf. Blume confronted head-on all the mysteries of being a teen, no matter how sacred or taboo. You name the rite of passage—menstruation, masturbation, kissing a sweaty-lipped boy—it's there, in all its awkward glory.

Although its been a good fifteen years since it was published, another of Blume's books, "Blubber," about an overweight girl teased at school, is listed as one of most challenged books of 1999. The list is generated annually by the Office for Intellectual Freedom (OIF), a censorship watchdog of the American Library Association. Blume, unsurprisingly, also makes their list of the most challenged authors in America today.

If some parents in South Carolina get their way, the J.K. Rowling series centering around Harry Potter, a young wizard-in-training, may appear on next year's OIF list. The Harry Potter books, three total, have gotten downright cozy on the New York Times Bestseller List, and have created quite a ruckus with some parents. One even quoted the book as having "a serious tone of death, hate, lack of respect and sheer evil." Quite far from being the devil's work, "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone" is nothing but an inspired and jaunty page-turner. Book one in the three-book series (Rowling is at work on number four) starts the day after Voldemort, a wizard gone bad, has killed Harry Potter's parents. The big gossip amongst the wizards is that although Voldemort killed two of the community's best, he couldn't kill their infant son, Harry. This failure managed to break his evil powers, and Voldemort has disappeared, suspected as possibly dead, or at least seriously wounded.

Harry lives out his first ten years with his "Muggle"—the name for those norms that don't have magical powers—aunt, uncle and cousin, who actively attempt to make Harry's life miserable. Unbeknownst of his illustrious wizard history, Harry sleeps in a cupboard under the stairs filled with spiders and dust. His world is turned upside-down when he receives a visit from Hagrid, a giant who is Groundskeeper at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. Hagrid, who speaks in a thick brogue, tells Harry simply, "Yer a wizard." And off Harry goes to Hogwarts, to learn Quidditch, a wizard game with a resemblance to soccer (but played on flying broomsticks), and to enroll in courses like Defense against the Dark Arts, Transfiguration and History of Magic.

One of the more interesting motifs in "Harry Potter" is Harry's own transformation from weirdo kid who lives under the stairs to wizard-world celebrity. Harry's name is known all around Hogwarts, by teachers and students alike, as being the boy who survived Voldemort, and is instantly given respect and admiration from nearly all. Is this not a misfit's dream? This theme of transformation from outsider to the ultimate insider—celebrityhood—has been dabbled in before, but with Harry Potter it is particularly timely and provocative for a few reasons. In The New York Times Magazine, Henry Jenkins, director of the comparative media studies program at M.I.T., recently said: "Recently I was in a gay bookstore in Detroit and found a huge display of "Harry Potter" books... It would not be difficult for a gay teen to read this book as an allegory for the experience of homophobia at school... ["Harry Potter"] is essentially the story of a closeted individual, in this case a wizard with magical powers, living with relatives who don't understand him and who are horrified by his special abilities. So I think Harry Potter provides a figure for thinking about nerdiness, about gayness, and a reminder that intellect can be a source of power."

At first, when I read this quote, I thought "gayness"? The whole idea of this being an allegory for a gay person triumphing over homophobia hadn't even occurred to me, but what had occurred to me was the idea of nerdiness being subverted in this new magical world to symbolize power, strength, even notions of masculinity. And in that sense, suddenly gayness and its own dynamics fit quite nicely into the picture.

The students of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry are separated into four different sub-schools by the Sorting Hat, a singing pointy cap that calls out the name of the appropriate school after being worn by the student. When Harry tries it on, the hat says in a small voice in his ear, "Difficult. Very difficult. Plenty of courage, I see. Not a bad mind either. There's talent, oh my goodness, yes—and a nice thirst to prove yourself, now that's interesting..." Eventually, the hat picks Harry for Gryffindor, the house for the brave and daring. Harry's magic, when in the Muggle world, is the very thing that gets him into trouble. Not so at Hogwarts. This very same brand of magic turns out to reward Harry, as in one scene where Harry gets caught flying around on his broomstick without supervision. Instead of punishment, the Headmistress immediately brings him to the attention of the Gryffindor Quidditch team captain, and he is selected to be a "seeker" on the team, a rare honor for a first year student. Harry, a whiz on his broom, turns out to be a natural "athlete." Despite Harry's special powers, he's pretty normal after all. Brave, daring, athletic, your average boy. And Rowling is smart to fulfill that need of her character. If he had been a wizard boy only into chess and Dungeons and Dragons, then this tale would've have limited appeal. A little normalcy goes a long way for someone like Harry, a lesson homosexuals and the ostracized know all too well.

If Harry Potter is the wizard next door, Ramona Quimby is the girl down the block. After a fifteen-year hiatus, Beverly Cleary has come back with another Ramona Quimby book, "Ramona's World." Danny, or "Yard Ape," one of Ramona's classmates, writes in his class autobiography that he is "a kid and proud of it." Beverly Cleary is obviously proud of her characters for the same reason, treating their perspective with an earnest understanding for all struggles big and small, and a sense of ageless democracy.

The indelible Ramona first debuted in 1955, and the character and her surroundings have been preserved by Cleary with direct clarity, though some elements of the book maybe should've been dusted off to keep up with the changing times. "Ramona's World" is, shockingly, much like the Ramona books I read as a child, with only a few winks from Cleary that she's aware it's not a Wonderbread world anymore, if it ever was. However, Cleary is obviously not interested in what's current, but rather what is timeless about childhood. Kids will always wrestle with spelling. They will always have crushes, and trade lunches, and play dress-up. "I don't think children and schools for the most part have changed that much," Cleary states in an interview with Publisher's Weekly. "I think we need to remember that there are children with loving parents in schools in neighborhoods that go along in a civilized way and that, while there are problems, they're not always dramatic and dangerous."

Although it's refreshing and well overdue to hear children being decriminalized, and not portrayed as video game-obsessed mini-killers, there are other elements of our times that should've strained through Ramona's sunny world. This is especially necessary if Cleary wants to keep her raison d'etre, as the documentarian of the everyday life of a child, alive and pulsing with immediacy. For instance, it seems an oversight in the realistic world Cleary has created to keep Ramona's mother as a housewife, especially when you consider Mr. Quimby isn't exactly raking in the cash working as a grocery store manager. In this time of double-income or bust, the Quimby household situation is increasingly hard to come by, and I imagine that some young readers will have a hard time relating to the stay-at-home mom.

As delightful as Harry and Ramona both are, neither provides as good reading company as the characters that populate the arresting "Walk Two Moons," winner of the 1995 Newberry Medal, a prestigious award in children's literature. Like the Harry Potter books, Sharon Creech's Book has easy appeal to adults, thanks to its complex and metaphor-rich storytelling. This book is something like an archeological dig; each layer yields something more sacred about the characters than the last, and it's no surprise the book should be so giving. The voice and tone inhabiting these pages compels and never falters as we weave together two tales.

Thirteen-year-old Sal, on a cross-country trip with her grandparents, tells them the story of her good friend Phoebe, her disappearing mother and the "lunatic" who lurked about Phoebe's house. In talking about Phoebe, Sal uncovers her own desire to be reunited with her missing mother, and to be living back in Kentucky again, to rush in and "see my mother and my father sitting at the table peeling apples."

While side-stepping any expository snooze (death to a children's book), Creech has managed to tuck in some lengthy passages that not only inform but also entertain. Credit the extemporaneous vibe of her language. Creech has fun with words, in a childlike and experimental manner, dotting the dialogue of her characters with pithy colloquialisms. Sal's Gram says, "Being a mother is like trying to hold a wolf by the ears. If you have three of four—or more—chickabiddies, you're dancing on a hot griddle all the time." Chapters are named "Ill-ah-no-way" (the way our state's name is pronounced in Sal's hometown) and "A Snake Has a Snack." The book is hinged on these qualities, because Creech lays out some bumpy pavement: miscarriage, adultery, death and sex, in no particular order. And no kid in their right mind would read along with this bum-trip if it wasn't for all of Creech's verbal spunk. The story is well-stocked with a clear, poignant hope and humorous asides, and those gulps of fresh air also help kids run through the gamut of such heavy material.

Most importantly, Creech's eloquence allows her to sneak in some valuable lessons that are never delivered with the heavy moralistic thunk heard in many other children's tales. She soft-steps, like in this passage: "When my mother had been there, I was like a mirror. If she was happy, I was happy... For the first few days after she left... I would find myself looking around for her, to see what I might want to feel. One day, about two weeks after she had left, I was standing against the fence watching a newborn calf wobble on its thin legs. It tripped and wobbled and swung its big head in my direction and gave me a sweet, loving look. 'Oh!' I thought. 'I am happy at this moment in time.' I was surprised that I knew this all by myself, without my mother there. And that night in bed, I did not cry."

Thankfully Creech has a light touch, because the last thing kids need these days is more heavy-handedness.

"Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone"
J.K. Rowling (Arthur A. Levine Books) $17.95

"Ramona's World"
Beverly Cleary (Morrow Junior) $15

"Walk Two Moons"
Sharon Creech (Harpercollins Juvenile) $16

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