I I I I I I I  

To Be Bookish

We're Harry Potter crazy at our house.  The older kids regularly watch the first three movies and are getting excited about The Goblet of Fire.  When Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince came out last month, we bought three copies -- one for every reader in our household -- so that no one would have to wait to discover what trials and tribulations Harry would face this time.  Drew is already grumbling about having to wait two years or more to read the last book, and Adam and I are nearly as bad.  Franny hasn't read the books yet (although she's been wearing a Harry Potter temporary tattoo for days, lest anyone doubt her commitment to Rowling's magical world), but I'm going to start reading the first one to her before bed as soon as we finish The Hobbit.

It isn't hard to see why Harry Potter appeals to children.  He's a mistreated orphan who discovers that he's actually a much beloved hero with special talents and gifts.  The boring and mean- spirited people who raised him are found to be wrong about just about everything (isn't this every child's secret fantasy?).  Not only is there a whole community of people just like Harry, but he's particularly good at the sorts of things this community values; he's an accomplished wizard with the rare ability to speak to snakes and he also has an innate talent for the most popular wizarding sport, Quidditch.  In the wizarding world, Harry is well known for surviving an attack by an evil wizard when he was a baby, and he's deeply involved in the plot to defeat the bad guy again.  He may only be sixteen (as of the most recent book), but he's privy to adult secrets and plans.  He's widely admired and loved: he has many friends who share his interests, and a large and loving surrogate family, the Weaseleys.

Harry is just the most recent in a long line of orphan, misfit, and outcast protagonists in children's books. When I was a kid, these were my favorite heroes and heroines, the ones who didn't fit in, who were different, and who often turned out to have some hidden talent or secret gift.  Like Jo in Little Women, I was an odd, bookish kid who was happier reading or scribbling down my stories than going to parties.  Like Will in The Dark is Rising, I had a loving family, but I felt like a cuckoo, as if I was the one thing who was not like the others.  Like Meg in A Wrinkle in Time, I had a hard time making friends with other kids my age, who would rather hang out at the roller skating rink than the library.  I recognized something about myself in these storybook changelings -- a certain disconnection from the mundane world and an appreciation for the world of words and imagination, qualities that Harry Potter also shares.  I adore the Harry Potter books as an adult, but as a child I would have loved them even more, because they epitomize my childhood fantasy of finding a place where I fit in.

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As I got older, my social skills improved, and I had more opportunities to meet kids like me.  I discovered that there were other people who shared my obsessive love of books and reading, other people who always had a book with them and who couldn't walk by a bookshelf without tilting their heads to read the spines of the books.  When I met Adam during my freshman year of college, I instantly recognized a kindred spirit.  We spent days lying around his dorm room reading, and stayed up into the wee hours of the night talking about books.  We pressed our favorites on each other, in a kind of intellectual strip tease.  Each book was a silent declaration, "This is what I like, this is what I'm like, this is where my mental furniture comes from."

Jo March became a writer and started a school for boys, Harry Potter found the wizarding world, and I married a man who loved to read and had a houseful of bookish children.  Someone's reading at our house almost around the clock, since I'm a morning person and wake up at 5:00 a.m. to read and write, while Adam stays up until all hours of the night to catch up on his reading.  Drew reads from the time he rolls out of the bed in the morning (if we forbid him a book at breakfast, he resorts to reading the cereal box), and Fran and Alec look at books and ask to be read to all day, even though they're not readers themselves yet.  Whenever it's time to go somewhere, the same refrain echoes throughout the house, "Just let me get to a stopping point!" and we all know better than to interrupt someone who's reading the last chapter of a book.  Each child gets a private story time before bed, and even so, my nightly rounds include turning off all the bedside lamps and gathering up the books that are scattered across each child's bed, laid flat or clutched with one finger marking the spot where exhaustion conquered the reading bug.

Of course, as my children grow up they're sure to develop interests that won't coincide so neatly with mine.  Neither Adam nor I have any interests in sports, but Franny's already a star soccer player, much to our bemusement, and I'm sure these sorts of differences will only be amplified with time.  I don't want my children to be little clones of me.  I delight in their autonomy, but there's something wonderful and magical about our shared love of words that transcends any other differences.  Umberto Eco said it best, in The Name of the Rose, "We live for books, a sweet mission in this world dominated by disorder and decay."
About the Author:  
Melissa Lipscomb
lives in Austin with her children Drew, Franny, Alec and husband Adam. Some days she feels like she's figuring out, and others she's just waiting for the other shoe to drop. Visit her blog.



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