Thoughts on Banning Books

I’ve tweeted a fair amount this week about Banned Book Week. Every year it bothers me. What are people thinking? I was naïve about the practice of banning books until my daughter’s school (which she didn’t attend for very long) banned the Harry Potter series. I didn’t know much about Harry Potter at the time, but decided I had better read the book to see why the parents and the school were in such a panic.

At the time, it wasn’t the act of banning the book that I found so shocking, but rather the multitude of reasons parents and administrators wanted the book banned. I sat there speechless as Biblical quotes about devil worshipping were slung across the room. Don’t let me mislead you, however, into thinking this was simply a religious objection. Concerns about living in a fantasy world, practicing magic to defeat evil was unrealistic, Harry and his pals are rule breakers, they don’t listen to the adults, teachers are portrayed as strange and/or unsympathetic or too sympathetic, Hagrid is a bad influence, what happens is too unrealistic, and the list went on and on and on. I was left then to quote a colleague, “Are you joking me?”

I would not presume to tell parents they must allow their child to read a certain book – that is no better than banning; but I would ask these same parents to make sure they are accurately informed about the content of a book and converse with their child appropriately. By all means make your own choices for your children, but please do not prevent books from getting into the hands of other children – it simply is not your right.

For some kids, a book may be their only companion. The story may be their story, and a character may help give them insight into to the world. Books with difficult topics could lead to great conversations about beliefs, morals, and all of the gray area we navigate every single day.

My hope is that there won’t be a need to celebrate Banned Book Week going forward, and books will no longer be banned for their themes, content, characters, or situations. The needs and wants of the few cannot be forced upon the many. But unless those of us who are shocked by book banning do more than sit in shock, unless we all say “NO,” books will continue to be banned.

I say “NO.”

Anne Converse Willkomm
Director, Graduate Publishing Programs
Rosemont College

Reflections from the Harry Potter Panel Discussion

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From left to right: Elizabeth Mosier, Heather Hebert, Anne Converse Willkomm, Anne Layman Horn, Amy Skelding

“Why Was Harry Potter so Successful?” 

Muggles, wizards, and a few other creatures spent a recent Saturday afternoon at Rosemont to hear a panel of Harry Potter, dare I say, scholars…okay, I can at least refer to them as – enthusiasts, talk about the $27 billion+ series. Elizabeth Mosier, who teaches writing for young adults at Bryn Mawr College and is the author of The Playgroup and My Life as a Girl (YA novel) said, “Above all, J.K. Rowling wrote a good story.” Amy Skelding, who attended the first Harry Potter Conference in England, also a YA writer, and a well-read YA reader, agreed and added, “It’s also a ‘well-told’ story.” She went on to stress the importance of this idea when she stated, “Twilight, for example is a good story, I mean who doesn’t want to know more about a vampire who falls in love with a human, but unlike Harry Potter, it is not a well-told story.”

Anne Layman Horn, who teaches children’s and YA literature at Temple University and is a YA “Chick Lit” writer talked about the characters. “We connect with Harry.” She added that we connect with many of the characters and noted, “This is one of the first books in which people often identify with the ancillary characters.” She said Professor Lupin is one of her favorite characters.

When asked to state the reason for the success of this series, Heather Hebert, the manager of Children’s Book World – one of the last independent bookstores on the Main Line – said, “Scholastic.” She added, “Since Scholastic is solely a children’s publisher, I think they had the foresight to really see the potential for this series.” She went on to tell the audience about the day her mother, Hannah Schwartz, the owner of the bookstore, handed her the photocopied manuscript and said, “You have to read this.”

Roman Colombo, a 2010 graduate from the Rosemont MFA program, asked how Rowling compared to Tolkien. Amy Skelding and Anne Layman Horn both addressed this agreeing that Rowling can absolutely be compared to Tolkien in terms of her world building. “Rowling took great care to create a believable world.” Horn added, “Kids loved getting caught up in the world.” Kids and adults have, and continue, to painstakingly examine every nook and cranny of Diagon Alley, the Gryffindor Common Room, the Forbidden Forest, Hagrid’s hut, and every other place Harry, Hermione, and Ron haunt.

Finally, Elizabeth Mosier raised a great point – Harry Potter created a sense of community. She said young and old read Harry Potter and then talked about it, debated it, worried about characters, etc. Skelding added that while her mother was in the hospital, three generations read the series, discussed characters, grieved the death of characters, including Hedwig, and compared thoughts about plot points.

The discussion ensued for more than 90 minutes. We donned our wands, hats, Gryffindor scarves, and I even wore a cloak. While some of us are still waiting to receive our Hogwarts letters, we all smile at the thought of the new generations of children and adults who will pick up Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone and learn about the boy who lived in a cupboard under the stairs. There is a part of each of us who wishes we could, once again, read the book for the first time.

Anne Converse Willkomm, MFA

Director

Note: Some of the quotes are paraphrased.

Scholastic Unveils New Cover for Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone

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So why does a publisher decide to change the cover designs like Scholastic has done with the Harry Potter covers designed by Mary GrandPré?

The answer is simple – to sell more books.

That being said, the new cover designed by award wining and New York Times best-selling author, Kazu Kibuishi, in my opinion, is really quite good. His work actually resembles that of GrandPré as if he studied under her. Kibuishi said, “The Harry Potter covers by Mary GrandPré are so fantastic and iconic…When I was asked to submit samples, I initially hesitated because I didn’t want to see them reinterpreted! However, I felt that if I were to handle the project, I could bring something to it that many other designers and illustrators probably couldn’t, and that was that I was also a writer of my own series of middle grade fiction. As an author myself, I tried to answer the question, ‘If I were the author of the books – and they were like my own children – how would I want them to be seen years from now?’ When illustrating the covers, I tried to think of classic perennial paperback editions of famous novels and how those illustrations tend to feel. In a way, the project became a tribute to both Harry Potter and the literary classics.”

While I like the new design, I have to be honest and tell you that I’ve heard mixed reviews. Some have said they prefer the original covers – the why change what was working thought; others love the new design and feel that it breathes new life into the series – exactly what Scholastic is banking on.

So I leave it up to you – will a new cover mean you have to buy a whole new set of Harry Potter books?

Note: We are hosting a panel discussion on Saturday to explore the reasons behind the success of the Harry Potter Series. I’ll follow-up and let you know what attendees think of the new cover.

Anne Converse Willkomm, MFA

Director