First, that all stories are political. Every story – even a joke you tell to friend, or a family story around the dinner table – has a world view. Second, if you look beneath the surface, you’ll that see children’s stories can carry some strong messages – about gender, about Others, about the world, about our cultures. For instance, “The Lion King” depicts a happy oligarchy – lions give orders, giraffes bow to them, and hyenas are outcasts. “How to Train Your Dragon” presents a participatory democracy. The best idea wins.
My third take-away for my students is, Wake up! Stop being passive consumers of these narratives. You must begin to own these stories, break them down and see what makes them tick. It will lead to a life of critical thinking, which is beyond value.
These are interesting times for Kid Lit. On the one hand, the digital world has brough us an explosion of creativity. Over the past decade, there has also been an opening of up of gender roles, and portrayals of the family unit. Works like Nnedi Okorafor’s “Binti” are ushering in a new generation of epic fantasies which do not feature white men.
On the other hand, you have a regression to really conservative values in the wave of superhero narratives. And recent surveys show that the world of Kid Lit is still very racially imbalanced.
Children’s Literature tends to fulfill one of three functions: explaining the family; explaining the world; and explaining how to grow up. Of the three, coming-of-age is currently dominant. We see elements of it everywhere, especially with the gluts of dystopian y.a. and superhero narratives – all of which are essentially adolescent, coming-of-age identity tales.
After Josh was born, we moved on to “Peter Pan,” which is delightfully dark and death-obsessed, with complex psychological concerns. Peter cannot form lasting memories because then he might learn from them, and thus, like the rest of us, grow-up. At several points he forgets he has killed someone.
Anna Kozak points out that Mowgli is open and forthright about his superiority over the animals of the jungle, in the British fashion of imperialism. Tarzan is in the American tradition of empire – he is actually superior, but he pretends he is not. Americans do not like the imperial identity.
Yes. All the heroes and their families are middle- or lower-class. Draco Malfoy and family, the Minister of Magic, Tom Riddle – all the villains are aristocrats, and speak with accents. Remus Lupin might be the exception.
As to magic being earned or inherited, clearly the answer is both. Harry was born with it, while Hermoine practices diligently and gets better throughout the series. A similar dual-road-to-magic structure exists in Tolkein and in The Once and Future King.
Few literary properties hit all the markers of the coming-of-age story the way Harry Potter does. It is fertile ground for reader theories and literary criticism.