Harry Potter is a boy… And a wizard… He lives in a magical castle surrounded by an enchanted forest populated with supernatural beings. Harry Potter grow’s up in the books. Just as another boy once did. Tom Brown, the protagonist of Thomas Hughes, Tom Brown’s School Days. In fact the two books share many similarities especially as a central theme of each is the development of young students into proper citizens of a structured and ordered world. And of course both are considered children’s books. But wait! That genre is also the comfortable home of Beatrix Potter’s Benjamin Bunny and Miss. Tiggy Winkle, Uncle Remus’ Retold African tales of Brer Rabbit, Brer Fox and Brer Terrapin as well as James Janeway’s A token for children, Dr. Seuss’ And to think that I saw it on Mulberry Street, R.L. Stines Goosebumps series, treasure Island, and the mysteries of the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew. Wizards, talking hedgehogs, mythical rabbits, childhood deathbed scenes, pirates, ghosts, Thing one and Thing two, teen detectives… the list could go on and whats more confusing some items on the list would appeal to a five-year old, while being utterly ignored by a teenager and scoffed at by adults, even when that same adult just might enjoy a tale about a boy wizard more than they would wish to admit. And further the authors or each of these books wrote for very different reasons and with very different audiences in mind. Not that any of that mattered, Once created the stories took on a life of their own and were claimed by anyone who saw fit to do so. If all of these works rightly belong to children’s literature then the obvious question is to what actual age does the genre belong. And here is where it all falls apart.
The problem lies not with the age of the child, or the target age of the book but with the definition of childhood itself. It is correct that a 9 year old does not go through the same emotional, intellectual or physical states as a “youth” of a higher or lower age but that is true of a 20 something versus a 40 something. Adulthood is a fixed state that once reached only changes by a matter of degrees but childhood is something altogether different. It is a liminal period of constant change and progression interrupted by occasional regression and pushed forward through accelerated leaps. A child’s emotions are subject to the same growth spurts as their physical body yet this is rarely examined in detail when talking about suitable literature.
Everyone agrees that a 5-year-old is a child, but what about a 10-year-old or 12-year-old? Opinions have always varied on that or a boy of 14 or 16 or 18. Further complicating things is the tendency of adults today to cling to childhood in ways that never existed before. Can we safely claim a man who is 30 is a child or is he only childish and for that matter is there all that much of a difference? The obverse is also true; Alice in Wonderland is by all counts a work of children’s literature. It was written with a child in mind and published for children yet more adults read, and have always read it than children. So in terms of audience Alice in Wonderland must be considered an adult book. Of course, children have always appropriated reading material they find pleasurable, John Bunyan’s Pilgrims Progress and Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island being two of the most well known examples. Today no one, child or adult reads Pilgrim’s Progress while as a general rule only children read Treasure Island and then usually as part of a school assignment. Harry Potter is this type of book, one that targeted a specific group yet whose real popularity allowed it to shift around into new and surprising places.
When we look at Harry Potter we should ask a few questions, first whom the intended audience was and second how successfully was the book written in regards to its appeal to that audience and third if it appeals to both children and adults can it rightly be said to belong to either or to both camps?
We know Harry Potter was written specifically for children (or young adults) but that within two books they had crossed over and were nearly as popular amongst adults but if you look closely you will notice something very telling. The adults who became the most ardent admirers of the Harry Potter series belonged to a group whose reading material had always been fantasy, or to put it another way to adults whose reading habits revolved around the fantastical, the magical and the imaginative or as C.S. Lewis might have phrases this as the child within. He famously said…
“a children’s story which is enjoyed only by children is a bad children’s story”
Adults, or to be precise adults who are of a particular mind easily embrace Harry Potter for the same reason they embraced Alice, or Charlotte’s Web, or Where the Wild Things Are, because they want to read something more than facts and figures. They want to read something that is transcendental, illuminating and that speaks to the youthful sense of imagination which all adults possess just as children wish to read similar material albeit for very different reasons. It is the difference between the child who learns to remember and the adult who remembers what was learned.
When we view Harry Potter under these criteria it becomes clear the series was a process of evolution, in part by the design of J.K. Rowling and in part by the fluid nature of story that spans years and of course the changing desires of the reading audience but although adults embraced the books it was that part of the adult which remained in contact with an inner child that really took possession so with that in mind the Harry Potter series is in fact part of the generally accepted genre of children’s literature, a genre connecting seemingly disparate themes under a single over reaching canopy; imagination, simple philosophy, unambiguous good and evil, and perhaps most important of all the one aspect of children’s literature that is little hinted at. Children’s literature most differs from literature for adults in that it fundamentally about transformation and progression. While adult books certainly touch on these subjects to varying degrees they must by virtue of their audience be filled with nuance, with detail, with scene building and with all the concerns which occupy an adult mind, which must deal with transformation in a fixed world (the highly complicated genre of Magical Realism not withstanding). Children’s Literature does not have to comply with such rules because there is nothing fixed, what rules that do exist do so only to represent an obstacle to be overcome while in adult literature rules exist to impose order even when the protagonist attempts to overcome them. The point as far as literature for adults is concerned is the necessity of the rules in an orderly universe.
Scholars and pedagogues have attempted for centuries, since Jean Jacques Rousseau’s Emile and to some extent even earlier, and under various guises such as the appropriate age for certain fairy tales to codify the exact borders of childhood and each has met with the same difficulties. How does one define childhood? The answer eludes us still.