Sometimes you just have to write…

D is for derivative (literature, not financial instruments!)

Yesterday I asked my graduating students for suggestions as to what books I should or should not assign to next year’s group. In the course of the discussion one of them brought up Harry Potter.

Now, this is an International Baccalaureate (IB) school, and this is an English first language class, at higher level — IB courses are offered at either standard or higher level. A higher level course is considered the equivalent of an AP course in the US or an A-level in the UK, just to give you an idea of what sort of class we’re talking about here. We read works like William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, Shakespeare’s Othello and Sylvia Plath’s poetry. A high level of analysis is expected. So a children’s book, no matter how well written it is, is entirely inappropriate.

Of course, it’s hard to define the difference between quality literature and other “ordinary” literature. My definition would be different from most other English teachers’, I suspect, and anyway the IB issues prescribed literature lists, so, for practical purposes, I’m mostly bound to someone else’s choices. The only exception is the one book “chosen freely,” which has to be “of literary quality and of an appropriate challenge and complexity,”[1]. I can also assign additional books of my own choosing, but they can’t be used for the formal IB assessments. This year, for the “chosen freely” option, I selected The Book Thief, by Markus Zusak. For my last group, it was Yann Martel’s Life of Pi.

Anyway, the student’s mention of Harry Potter reminded me of a project I did when I studied for my “eerste graads,” a Dutch teaching credential that allows me to teach in the last two years of secondary education. I designed a unit for English teachers about Harry Potter. It wasn’t about Rowling’s books themselves, though. It had a reading comprehension emphasis and was all built around non-fiction texts about the Harry Potter phenomenon. So it used texts like book reviews, news articles, and so on.

To write the teacher’s background section, I looked into the books themselves, and discovered something that, because I had been too busy enjoying them, I’d never noticed before: the Harry Potter books are incredibly derivative! Rowlings borrowed massively from a long list of existing archetypal characters and themes, or perhaps I should say narrative clichés:

  1. The orphan: This archetype involves an orphan being brought up by evil guardians, e.g. Cinderella or Roald Dahl’s Matilda.
  2. The special child: This one is often linked to the orphan theme and involves a child with some special talent that makes his destiny inevitable, à la Bilbo Baggins in Tolkien’s The Hobbit or Charlie in Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.
  3. School days: This is a typically British narrative theme in which the story takes place in a boarding school, as in Tom Brown’s School Days, by Thomas Hughes.
  4. Rule-breaking innocence: This is a plot device in which the special and/or orphaned main character breaks rules, but it’s okay because of his specialness and his basic goodness. Astrid Lindgren’s Pippi Longstocking is an example of this one.
  5. Good v evil: This is the obvious motif of literature going all the way back to the Bible.

Now I’m not saying the Harry Potter books are bad just because they’ve reused these common devices! I loved every book, and was sad when each was over. My family and I kept track of official release dates and preordered, so we could start reading from day 1. This required some considerable negotiation between my daughter, my husband and me as to who would get to read each new book first. I’ve never pre-ordered anything else before or since.

Nevertheless, dear student, the Harry Potter books, despite their excellence, will not be on next year’s assigned book list!

I’d love to hear suggestions about what I should include. I’m particularly bereft of ideas for off-the-list books that would support a unit on language and mass communication, so let me know if you have any recommendations!


[1] International Baccalaureate. “Language A: language and literature guide, first examination 2013.” Page 17.


3 comments on “D is for derivative (literature, not financial instruments!)

  1. Roy A. Ackerman, PhD, EA@Cerebrations.biz
    April 4, 2013

    So, this is always an issue. Would someone have considered Charles Dickens (who was paid by the word) as quality literature back then? (I wish it weren’t now- since I find him too wordy- not surprisingly.) Or, James Barrie and Peter Pan (which has been the subject of many an analysis of child-rearing- I know, I used it…)

  2. Sarah Keerie
    April 4, 2013

    Hi, coming via UBC! I thought this quite apt, I’m currently doing a Level 3 OU course on 20th C. Lit (texts and debates) and signed up to do childrens lit. in September. A pile of books came today (not all of them!). Pic on my blog, I am looking forward to getting some ‘lighter’ reading in – currently doing Waiting for Godot! – esellek.wordpress.com

  3. rachela
    April 4, 2013

    There’s certainly a place for children’s lit, including whole college courses about it, but the problem would be defining what’s “important” children’s lit. I would certainly argue that Harry Potter is “important,” but, because it’s so derivative, it’s main importance is just in its incredible popularity which in turn popularized reading again. And then, of course, there’s always the angle of how different children’s books reflect the society at the time in which they were written (which would make your example of Peter Pan and also Harry Potter interesting in those terms).

    And then, on the other hand, sometimes a story is just a story…

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This entry was posted on April 4, 2013 by in Being a Teacher and tagged , , , , .
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