Albus Dumbledore is a Censor

In honor of Banned Books Week 2011, a reflection on censorship and Harry Potter:

For more than a decade, discussions of children’s literature, libraries and censorship inevitably mention Harry Potter.  However, those discussions rarely—if ever—feature an analysis of the library and incidents of censorship within the series itself.  J.K. Rowling offers much to consider on both counts:

Madam Irma Pince, the librarian at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry where Harry Potter receives six years of magical education, is described as a “thin, irritable woman who look[s] like an underfed vulture” (CS 163).  Forever “suspicious” of the students (CS 164), she “has been known to add unusual jinxes to the books in her care” (QA).  J.K. Rowling characterizes (and even names) Madam Pince with the stereotype of an old maid librarian whom the students think is “barking mad” (HBP 307).  A guardian of “her” books (QA), Madam Pince is often “breathing down [students’] necks” (SS 198).  She “brandish[es] a featherduster” at Harry during his very first visit to the library and demands, “What are you looking for, boy?” (SS 198).  Years later Madam Pince bewitches Harry’s own school books to whack him repeatedly over the head when she discovers Harry eating chocolate in the library (OP 655).  Though Harry and his friends frequent the library during their school years, they never ask Madam Pince for her help in their research.  Rather, they avoid her and discover information on their own.  They approach her on only one occasion, when they need her to retrieve a book from the Restricted Section.  Thus, as a character, the information professional is superfluous to the Harry Potter story, and Madam Pince ultimately reinforces the negative stereotype of a librarian.

The Hogwarts library, however, is essential to the plot of the entire Harry Potter series.  On two occasions (SS & GF), Harry uses his invisibility cloak to sneak into the library after hours to do research, and Harry’s best friend Hermione Granger spends more time in the library than any other main character.  Hermione, the best student in Harry’s class, utilizes the library not only for schoolwork, but also to research issues of personal interest and to help Harry as he confronts various challenges.  Indeed when Harry and Hermione, along with Ron Weasley, prepare for their most dangerous challenge in the final book, Ron jokes that the three will be “hunting down Voldemort in a mobile library” (DH 95).  By continually referring to the library (or books retrieved from the library) as a source of key information, Rowling highlights the significant contribution of a library to one’s formal and informal education.

The most referenced and quoted incident of censorship in the Harry Potter series occurs when Ministry of Magic representative turned Hogwarts professor Dolores Umbridge instates “Educational Decree Number Twenty-seven,” banning an alternative magazine called The Quibbler which features a controversial interview with one Mr. Harry Potter.  As Hermione points out, “if [Umbridge] could have done one thing to make absolutely certain that every single person in [the] school will read [Harry’s]  interview, it was banning it!” (OP 582).  Rowling reveals the ineffectiveness of censors and the shrewdness with with young people circumvent them.

Another, less noticeable incident of censorship serves as a significant plot point in the series:  Rowling reveals that Tom Riddle, who becomes the dark wizard Voldemort, learned a great deal of dark magic from books in the Hogwarts library.  In the case of Horcruxes, which involve murder, “Voldemort g[ets] all the instruction he need[s] from [a library book]” (DH 102).  Hogwarts Headmaster Albus Dumbledore removes all of the Horcrux books from the library, but not until well after Tom Riddle has attained access to them.  Here, Rowling illuminates an ethical dilemma for librarians in regard to equal access to information:  when he is underage, Tom Riddle uses information he found in the school library to commit crimes against other people; Dumbledore makes the choice to censor that information by removing it from the library collection, yet Harry and his friends have no hope of defeating their foe without access to that same information.

Considering the psychology of the censor, Dumbledore’s decision merits deliberation:  Dumbledore consistently demonstrates wisdom and is widely believed to be a talented educator and leader, yet he freely admits to weaknesses, to the capacity for grave errors in judgment.  Certainly Dumbledore has his critics.  Does this example make a case for some censorship being acceptable?  Moreover, the Hogwarts library contains the aforementioned Restricted Section (which is where the material in question was shelved in the first place):  is this, in effect, a form of censorship that is acceptable? 

Key:

SS=Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone

CS=Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets

GF=Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire

OP=Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix

HBP=Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

DH=Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

QA=Quidditch Through the Ages

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Filed under Library and Information Science, Reflections, YA Literature

A Cricket in Times Square

Written by George Selden.  Illustrated by Garth Williams.

Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1960.  132 pages.  Tr. $17.00.  ISBN 10:  0-374-31650-3/ISBN 13:  978-0-374-31650-1.

While tending his family’s newspaper stand in the Times Square subway station, a young boy named Mario hears an unusual sound—the chirping of a cricket!  Mario rescues the cricket from a dirty corner of the station, elated to have a pet at last.  The cricket quickly becomes a fixture at the newspaper stand, though Mario and his parents disagree over whether it is lucky or not.  Meanwhile, the cricket—whose name is Chester—befriends Tucker Mouse and Harry Cat, who also live in the station.  As Chester adapts to his new life, far from his country home, his talent for music is revealed and suddenly throngs of people are marveling at the rarity of a cricket in Times Square.

Enhanced with drawings by Garth Williams, this charming story will leave a lasting impression on readers of all ages.  A perfect read-aloud for younger children eager for more complex stories and a good selection for confident readers ready for chapter books.

Other Information:

Other in-print formats available for this title:

  • Selden, G.  (2008). The cricket in Times Square [unabridged CD].  New York: Macmillan Audio.

Awards won by this item

Author biographies

Illustrator biography

Subjects/themes that could be used in programming

  • New York
  • Subway
  • Friendship
  • Home

Series Information:  The original story spawned sequels and a prequel featuring Chester Cricket and his friends:  Tucker’s Countryside, Chester Cricket’s New Home, Chester Cricket’s Pigeon Ride, The Old Meadow, and Harry Kitten and Tucker Mouse.

Programming Ideas and/or lesson plans

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Filed under Chapter Books, Middle Grade Books

Are You Ready to Play Outside?

Written and Illustrated by Mo Willems.

Hyperion Press, 2008.  64 pages.  Tr.  $8.99.  ISBN 978-1-4231-1347-8.

Mo Willems’ beloved Piggie and Gerald are back and eager to play outside.  Except that it is raining.  Disappointed, Piggie frets about what to do.  When Gerald timidly suggests a way that they can still have fun, the day is saved, proving “elephants make the best friends!”

This Elephant and Piggie Book is perfect for beginning readers who are building confidence in their new skills.  The pair is delightfully expressive in the tradition of emergent reader texts from Dr. Seuss and P.D. Eastman.

Other Information:

Awards won by this item

Author/Illustrator website

Author/Illustrator biography and interviews

Subjects/themes that could be used in programming

  • Friendship
  • Rainy day
  • Emergent reader titles

Series Information

Programming Ideas and/or lesson plans

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Filed under Picture Books, Reading Aloud

Ten Years Later

When I was a kid, one of my ambitions was to become famous and have my birthday declared a national holiday.  Not so much in the vein of Washington or Lincoln, but perhaps in the way that Theodore Geisel’s birthday is celebrated as Read Across America Day.  So on that Tuesday morning ten years ago, in the midst of my dismay, I thought, “This is not what I meant at all.”

Where were you?

My older relatives tell stories about where they were and what they were doing when they heard the news of President Kennedy’s assassination or Martin Luther King, Jr’s.  For a brief period of time the only vaguely similar experience I had was the news of Princess Diana’s fatal accident.  I didn’t know what it felt like to live with such an indelible before and after.

My roommate Velika woke me up that morning after having taken a phone call from my husband (then my boyfriend of two years).  He was on campus for his weekly ROTC muster and called to tell us to turn on the news.  Velika and I were are not morning people.  After she relayed the (wildly understated) message that a plane crashed in New York, we both went back to bed.  It was probably at least two hours more before we were functional enough to begin to take in the scope of the tragedy.

The night before, I had been in a multicultural literature class and the professor had emphasized the importance of viewing the world from varied perspectives, especially those that clash with our own.  “There are only so many stories,” she insisted, “but infinite points of view.”  In our first post 9/11 class meeting, she simply stated, “The world has changed.”

Where are you now?

My husband and I have been married for eight years, parents for six.  We lived on the east coast for four years.  I was a teacher for three.   Yet that journey seems more like a big circle than a straight road that stretches out behind me.  Maybe I feel this way because my house is 7 miles due east of the apartment I was living in ten years ago.  For all the experiences I’ve had in the past ten years, how much have I changed?

I just finished reading an NPR article discussing American life in the aftermath of 9/11.  The article raises the same questions—has the world changed?  Has American life changed?

Freelance journalist Alex Chadwick feels, “since Sept. 11, Americans are ‘more angry, more sorrowful, as though we’ve gotten about 20 years older — or even more — in a decade, but without any of the wisdom or grace that comes to some with age.’”

In many ways, I feel that I’m much the person as I was back then, for better or for worse.  And it seems the same may be said of our nation.  Older?  Definitely.  Wiser?  To be determined.

Where do we go from here?

9/11 is at once distant and personal for me.  My mom and her family are New Yorkers, but no one connected to us was directly affected by the tragedy.  In San Diego, CA, I was about as far away from Ground Zero as I could have been while still within the continental US.  Yet it is always with me.

Today is my 32nd birthday.  I feel neither old nor young.  Ten years from now I think I will have figured out what I want to be when I grow up and achieved a few more of my life goals.

Today, the thought of the people who died ten years ago still brings the sting of tears to my eyes.  Ten years from now I hope it still does.  As much as I may wonder at the unaltered aspects of American life, I would never deny the irrevocable way in which so many American lives were shattered by 9/11.

Today is Patriot Day.  Ten years from now I hope I finally understand what that means.  Or, at least, what being a patriot means to me.  Because for the past ten years, I haven’t felt particularly patriotic when I’ve tired of the solemnity of the memorials overshadowing one of the few days of the year that I really want to celebrate.  In fact, I haven’t felt particularly patriotic for much at all of the past ten years because I was one of those people who, in 2001, agreed with Arundhati Roy’s controversial post-9/11 essays “The Algebra of Infinite Justice” and “War is Peace” in which she harshly criticized my country and its government.

Still, every year the wish I make when I blow out my candles isn’t for me, but for our world.  You know I can’t tell you exactly what my wish is…but if you had a birthday wish today, what would it be?

 

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Filed under Reflections

Reading in the Dark

The region-wide blackout last night brought back so many childhood memories!  I was one of those kids who complied easily at bedtime because I always had my pink Ever-Ready flashlight stashed under my pillow.   

So I didn’t let the power outage interfere with my daughter’s storytime and it was actually so fun that I think we’ll have do this again every once in a while!

I have to admit, I’ve never read by candlelight.  A few years ago my mom gave me these clever, rechargeable tealights that are constantly repositioned around my house.  I just love them.  They give off a flickery, orange glow that’s quite similar to real fire—a nice alternative when you want to go all Smokey the Bear /Don’t Play with Matches on your kid.  (Of course my daughter has seen me dangle satin ribbons in candle flames when I’m crafting, so I’m probably confusing her with my mixed messages).

The tealights do not offer good reading light, but Halloween is coming and they create a perfectly creepy effect, don’t you think?

And I do have a booklight which my husband gave me in hopes I’d use it instead of my bedside lamp when I’m reading at night.  But I don’t really like it.

Now, does reading in dim light really hurt your eyes? According to this article, not necessarily, though eye strain–as most avid readers already know–is hardly desirable.

Wherever and whenever you’re reading, be kind to your eyes!


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Filed under Family, Reading Activities

Joseph Had a Little Overcoat

Written and Illustrated by Simms Taback.

Viking Juvenile, 1999.  32 pages.  Tr. $16.99.  ISBN 978-0-670-87855-0.

Using the die cut technique he popularized in his book There Was an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly, Simms Taback presents another award winning story, this one about a Jewish farmer named Joseph whose resourcefulness allows him to continually remake his overcoat into something new.  Taback’s inspiration for the story comes from a Yiddish folksong which is included at the end of the book.  Young readers will enjoy the predictable pattern of the text, and older readers will find numerous interesting bits of Jewish culture sprinkled throughout the richly textured illustrations.  A joyful story with a moral readers of all cultures can take to heart.

Cited in Essentials of Children’s Literature 6th Edition pages 94, 97, 113, 224, 311 and the 2000 Caldecott Medal winner:

Other Information:

Other in-print formats available for this title:

  • Gagne, P.R. & Reilly, M. (Producers) & Ivanick, D. (Director).  (2001).  Joseph had a

little overcoat .  Norwalk, CT:  Weston Woods.

Awards won by this item

Author/Illustrator website

Author/Illustrator biographies

Subjects/themes that could be used in programming

  • Jewish culture
  • Reusing Resources
  • Folk songs

Programming Ideas and/or lesson plans

Additional Resources

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Filed under Picture Books

The Man Who Walked Between the Towers

Written and Illustrated by Mordicai Gerstein

Roaring Book Press, 2003.  40 pages.  Tr. $17.95.  ISBN 978-0-7613-1791-3.

Philippe Petit is a street performer who loves to entertain crowds with his juggling tricks and his unicycle.  His favorite trick is walking on a tightrope high above the ground.  Once, in his hometown of Paris, France, Philippe walked (and even danced!) on a wire between the steeples of Notre Dame Cathedral.  Now living in New York, Philippe spots twin towers, each 1,340 feet tall.  And he has an idea…

Mordicai Gerstein recounts the remarkable story of Philippe Petit who, on August 7, 1974, walked on a wire strung between the towers of the World Trade Center in New York City.  Gerstein’s ink and oil illustrations capture Petit’s charisma and daring, as well as the astonishing height of the towers.  The post-9/11 perspective of this story preserves the memory of Petit’s amazing feat and the magnificence of the World Trade Center.  This book may serve as an introduction to 9/11 history for children born after 2001.

Other Information:

Other in-print formats available for this title:

  • Gerstein, M.  The man who walked between the towers [compact disc]. (2005).  Pine Plains, NY:  Live Oak Media.
  • Sporn, M. (Director). (2005). The man who walked between the towers [DVD]. Norwalk, CT:  Weston Woods Studios, Incorporated.

Awards won by this item

Author/Illustrator website

Author/Illustrator biographies

Subjects/themes that could be used in programming

  • Tight rope walker
  • Street Performer
  • 9/11

Programming Ideas and/or lesson plans

Additional Resources

Gallery of Mordicai Gerstein’s art:  http://www.rmichelson.com/Artist_Pages/Gerstein/Mordicai_Gerstein_Gallery.html

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Filed under Picture Books