Review written by Clark Valentine.
(This review focuses on Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s / Philosopher’s Stone, and Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. This review is full of spoilers, but I can’t imagine that’s super relevant to most people at this point.)
You almost certainly know the story. 11 year old Harry Potter is living with his awful aunt, uncle, and cousin, all of whom treat him in a way that would have made Cinderella content with her lot, when he discovers that he is, in fact, really quite special—he’s a wizard, and he’s whisked off to a boarding school where he encounters a delightful world of magic, mystery, and whimsy.
He also learns that when he was a baby, he was the sole survivor of a mass murderer’s rampage across England, a fiend who used magic to kill and terrorize and destroy anyone or anything who stood in his path and left him an orphan, and who has vowed to take his revenge someday AHAHAHAHAHA *inhale* HAHAHAHAHA cough ahem Sorry, where was I?
It’s a take on the classic pre-teen fantasy of “You’re not my real family I’m probably really someone important and powerful and won’t you be sorry when you find out what I’m really destined for!” that most kids go through at one time or another. Well, kids and teens. And young adults. And schlubby middle aged guys. This stops someday, right?
In any case, J. K. Rowling has created a really fun little universe here. The first two books, Harry Potter & the Sorcerer’s Stone (Philosopher’s Stone if you have the UK and possibly other nations’ printings), and Harry Potter & the Chamber of Secrets, are fun stories clearly aimed at tweens & young teens.
After reading the later books (which get dark and quite grown-up), it’s easy to forget just how goofy the first two are. You suspect at first that Dumbledore is every bit the doddering old fool his name suggests. The school song has all the gravitas of a Saturday morning cartoon title sequence. The rules of Quidditch make no darn sense at all. But that’s OK. It works.
Many of us first read these books maybe a dozen years ago, and many of our kids are getting to the age where they can start reading them (if they haven’t already). So let’s look at some of the bits that we might want to be prepared to discuss with our kids as we hand them over.
SPOILER ALERT: Things you might want to know before suggesting this to your kid
The books are unapologetically British. (I’m writing from an American perspective here, so please bear with me, folks from Not The United States.) They take place in Britain, the characters are residents of Britain and Ireland. They use British English, which Anglophile readers probably won’t even notice and everyone else will pick up through context. Some British cultural touchstones, like boarding schools, house rivalries, school songs, and such are prominent.
Obviously, the existence of magic and the supernatural is a strong element of Rowling’s setting. Mythical and magical creatures abound. Friendly and not-so-friendly ghosts roam the halls. Kids and adults perform magic spells. If magic, spellcasting, fortune telling, mind control magic, and such are problematic for you, you’re really going to want to avoid these books. A lot.
Secrecy and Class
The “Wizarding World” exists and occurs right under the noses of the Muggles, us ordinary mundane boring ol’ nonmagical folk. The lengths they go to to maintain this secrecy are kind of…creepy, if you really think about them. Things like involuntary memory modification and refusal to intervene when magic could save lives are defended as obvious and harmless necessities to keep the wizarding world secret.
And maybe that’s fine, for the purposes of telling a charming story of whimsy and magical adventure. You can ignore the implications if you wish. But it says something about class, doesn’t it? Muggles are clearly a second class sort of people in this world, and that’s never really addressed. Don’t be terribly surprised if your child raises an eyebrow.
Among wizarding families, class is also important. Some families are wealthy, others poor. It’s clear that some people, including classmates of Harry’s, place a great deal of importance on this. Making friends with the “right sort of people” is important; Harry bravely and publicly defines that differently than the class loudmouth he meets early. That’s a good example to follow, worthy of calling out to kids.
Finally, in the wizarding world, men are known as wizards, and women are known as witches, and the world is portrayed as pretty heteronormative. I know that avoiding gender labels and heteronormativity and binary gender assumptions is important to some folks, so fair warning.
Dobby the House Elf is introduced in The Chamber of Secrets. House Elves are owned by wealthy wizarding families and many also involuntarily work at Hogwarts. I find it a bit disturbing that it’s implied that the elves are content in their enslavement; while yes, whimsical magical world (see my spooky magical hand waving?), it’s not hard to draw a parallel with some ugly real world attitudes—there are real people who think chattel slavery in the Americas just wasn’t as bad as all that, really, people were largely content, what’s all the fuss? This slavery is another aspect of the wizarding world that isn’t examined all that deeply in the first two novels (although it gets some attention in later books), and it probably deserves a discussion with your child as they read.
Sex & Romance
A young girl clearly has a crush on Harry. It’s kind of adorable.
Adults have drinks at dinner and at a tavern. The kids don’t indulge in alcohol (although it’s not clear whether butterbeer, which appears in a later book, is alcoholic, and the kids drink this.)
Body shape is fair game for criticism; this is one of my major problems with Rowling’s text. Harry’s uncle Vernon and cousin Dudley are obese, and they’re regularly called “piggy” and ridiculed in the narrative for this. Harry’s aunt Petunia is very thin, which is also called out as a negative, but I found the fat shaming really tiresome. This is definitely worth a talk with young readers.
Violence & Abuse
Harry bears a scar from Voldemort’s magical assault against him when he was a baby. The scar is sometimes a source of searing pain.
The Dursleys, Harry’s adoptive family, are terrible people. Harry is criminally neglected and abused for years. They lie to him about his true nature and the fate of his parents. It’s horrifying. And he’s forced to return to this awful situation after each school year ends. If your young reader is especially empathetic, expect some serious indignation and outrage on Harry’s behalf.
Bullying is pretty common at Hogwarts. The different Houses that make up the school are locked in intense rivalries with one another, and even within the same House the dynamics aren’t always sunshine and unicorns. In particular, a trio of students and even one of the teachers seem to have it in for Harry; this can lead to some discussions with young readers of bullying and how to handle it.
One of the ghost characters discusses in detail how he was almost beheaded. The “almost” part of that is important, and lends a bit of grisly explicitness that some kids might find a little creepy.
Harry and his friends find themselves in adventure-tinged life-threatening situations all the dang time. Seriously, I have no idea how this school stays open, given the sheer number of ways students could die horrible deaths just by ending up in the wrong hallway or stumbling into the wrong part of the grounds. It’s amazing anyone lives to graduate. It’s like a poster child for charter school oversight neglect turned up to eleven.
Specifically, Harry’s good friend Ron sacrifices himself in a very literal way in a chess match played for keeps (he comes out fine, but that’s not clear at the time). Ron’s sister Ginny is threatened with death while defenseless. Harry has to confront Voldemort at the end of each book; the confrontation in The Sorcerer’s Stone costs one of the Hogwarts teachers his life—dying at Harry’s hands, deliberately so. I was taken aback (seriously—pearls were clutched); Harry more or less kills the guy. He knows what he’s doing, it’s not an accident. Tonally, it’s a huge escalation, paralleled when Harry slays a basilisk with a sword in The Chamber of Secrets. Kids might want to talk about that.
Death and Loss
Harry is an orphan, his parents murdered by a dark wizard when he was a baby. This happens offscreen, but as you can imagine it’s kind of a big deal to Harry. It’s central to who he is and his destiny in the story.
A teacher does not survive Harry’s confrontation with Voldemort in The Sorcerer’s Stone. The teacher was a horrible, treacherous villain, but you don’t know that until right at the end. Spoiler alert.
The Sorcerer’s Stone itself was being used by a pair of wizards to extend their lives. They voluntarily give this up, and when Harry questions how they could volunteer to die, Dumbledore (now portrayed as the wise and knowledgeable mentor, as opposed to early in The Sorcerer’s Stone) explains that death is just another stage of life, one that all must enter sooner or later. This is full of foreshadowing and destruction of innocence and other literary devices, but it’s also been a source of raised eyebrows from some parents. I don’t judge, but now you know.
Religion is a non-factor in Rowling’s world. Prayer and worship appear to be irrelevant. An afterlife is hinted at (and ghosts as the spirits of people who have died are an objective reality), but no God or gods are named. Hogwarts has no chapel or religious services, at least nothing that’s ever mentioned.
Rudeness and Swearing
There’s some mild (in the US) British “bloody” and maybe a “damn” once or twice. There’s some elementary school crassness, discussion of “bogeys” and such. If you have a kid in elementary school, I guarantee it’s nothing they haven’t heard before. Well, except for maybe “bloody.” If your kid has heard “bloody” in their elementary school, they go to a really cool elementary school.
Some weird messages about family come out of these books. Harry’s relationship with his parents is complex, in spite of him not really remembering them. The love his mother showed for him is both vital and powerful; it’s the reason that he lived when Voldemort tried to kill him. Call me sentimental, but love manifesting so powerfully is a story element I’m perfectly content with my children being exposed to.
In contrast, that Harry needs to stay with his abusive, neglectful aunt and uncle in spite of their horrifying treatment of him, is more problematic. If someone related to you is awful to you, nobody will do anything about it and you just have to put up with it? That’s not a great message to send to kids.
The Sorcerer’s Stone and The Chamber of Secrets are pretty good kids’ novels. They’re a good length for 9-ish years old (or precocious 7-8 year olds). Older kids (and even adults) will enjoy them as well, especially if they’ve been exposed to some other British entertainment (Dr. Who, etc.)—they’ll love feeling “in” on the vocabulary and Briticisms, and knowing that the later books in the series have more meat on their bones can carry them through. The potential for voice acting makes these books great read aloud material for the younger set.
It’s well worth remembering that the books were originally released in such a way that the original readers could grow with them, so as the books get more serious, the reader was growing up to handle it. It’s not the sort of series that you want to start reading aloud to your 7 year old and expect to burn right through to the end; not many young kids are really ready for the darkness of the last books. Plan accordingly.
Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by J. K. Rowling
Published in 1997 by Scholastic
First in a series
Read family hardback copy
Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets by J. K. Rowling
Published in 1999 by Scholastic
Second in a series
Read family hardback copy