Sometimes you just have to write…
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,”. 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:
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!
 International Baccalaureate. “Language A: language and literature guide, first examination 2013.” Page 17.