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Is It Time to Retire ‘Harry Potter’-Themed Classrooms and Libraries?

by Staff

Growing up, Kelsey Bogan was a huge Harry Potter fan. She attended midnight release parties for the books and even had a wand. When she became a high school librarian in 2016, she decorated her school library with mementos from the wizarding world.

Yet once Bogan saw author J.K. Rowling’s public comments about transgender people, she no longer felt comfortable promoting the series at school, even though the books are still available for students to check out.

“The blinders were taken off,” she said. “There’s no more joy for me in the franchise.”

Bogan, who works outside of Philadelphia, is among a small but growing group of educators who are calling for their peers to cease Hogwarts-inspired decorations. The popular classroom theme has become a microcosm of a broader debate about how—and whether—to separate a beloved text from a controversial author.

In May, for instance, the Seattle Museum of Pop Culture announced that it had removed any mention or image of Rowling from its Harry Potter artifacts, citing the author’s “hateful and divisive views.” And the release of a new Harry Potter video game prompted much online controversy and debate earlier this year.

Many teachers remain fans of the seven-book series, which debuted in 1997, and say that the books still capture the imagination and interest of students today. Educators note that many of the most prominent themes in the series—friendship, forgiveness, tolerance, and the power of love—align with the values they want to impart on their students.

But the enduring popularity of the Harry Potter series has clashed against a disavowal of what some fans see as anti-trans and exclusionary comments from its author. Rowling, who has denied that she holds anti-trans views, has written and tweeted extensively in recent years about her concerns about trans activism, youth transition, and the presence of trans women in women-only spaces, such as restrooms. Those comments have been extensively debated by opinion writers, media sites, and in the Harry Potter fan community.

These sentiments concern some educators, who worry that promoting Harry Potter now could indicate a tacit support of Rowling’s views. Already, they say, the rise in public rhetoric and legislation targeting transgender people has had a negative effect on LGBTQ+ students.

“There’s a chance that not every educator knows the comments she’s made. There’s a chance that not every child knows the comments she’s made,” said Jen Vincent, a middle school teacher in Bannockburn, Ill., and the chair of the National Council of Teachers of English’s Build Your Stack committee. “But for me, if one of my students knows, then I think that’s enough of a reason to not endorse her. That one student matters.”

And centering the series via classroom decorations or the curriculum becomes a “teacher endorsement,” Vincent said. (She added that she doesn’t think it’s necessary to remove the books from the classroom altogether.)

The books still resonate with young people

Teachers who have decorated their classrooms with broomsticks, owls, and wands or who have sorted their students into Hogwarts-inspired Houses have said that creating a little magic during the school day is inspiring, welcoming, and fun. Students today—many of whom have grown up reading the books and watching the movies—still enjoy the theme, the teachers say.

Asher Chelder, a 20-year-old college student who volunteers as the Facebook manager for MuggleNet, an unofficial Harry Potter fan site, fell in love with the series during the pandemic, when he was learning remotely and struggling with his mental health. He became “absolutely obsessed,” he said.

Harry Potter has been “the space I escape to when I’m having a bad day,” he said. “It’s always helped ground me. … Everybody enjoys a bit of magic in their lives.”

But Chelder, who is transgender, has a “very complicated relationship” with the series, feeling that “the author is a not-kind person who would not like me.” Many LGBTQ+ fans struggle with that underlying tension, he said.

Still, Chelder said the series still resonates among young people. And anything that gets children reading is a good thing, he said. (The total series runs thousands of pages.)

“Kids don’t know anything that’s going on with the author, nor do they care—they aren’t on Twitter,” Chelder said. “If a Harry Potter-themed classroom is going to get your kids engaged and learning, then that’s what you should do.”

Chelder said he thinks teachers who do transform their classrooms into the wizarding world should balance that with visual indications of support for LGBTQ+ people, such as rainbows. But ultimately, he said, the thought of learning in a Harry Potter-themed classroom makes him feel happy.

“The fandom itself does not reflect at all what the author says she believes,” he said. “I think it’s always been a safe space for people.”

There’s little diversity within the books

The series has come under criticism before. Early on, some Christian parents objected to the book, saying that it promoted witchcraft. More recently, criticism has focused on what some see as harmful stereotyping and an overall lack of diversity.
There are few characters of color in the books, and the main characters are depicted in the original book illustrations and in the movie series as white. In 2007, Rowling revealed in an interview that Hogwarts’ beloved schoolmaster Dumbledore is gay, but there is no explicit LGBTQ+ representation in the series.

“As a Black child, I never really saw myself in the books,” said Chanea Bond, a high school English teacher in Texas who grew up as a big Potter fan.

“Having some distance from that, I definitely see this book wasn’t written about me. I forged my way in because it felt like a book about outsiders, but when you think about it,” the wizarding world is actually largely homogenous, she added.

It is a critique not unique to Harry Potter: Other beloved children’s book series, from Anne of Green Gables to the Chronicles of Narnia, have been similarly scrutinized.

In general, children’s books overwhelmingly feature white characters, research shows. Educators and scholars have long said it’s important for children to be able to see themselves in stories, and for the books in classrooms to reflect a variety of perspectives.

That’s another reason why some educators warn against building a classroom theme around a single story rather than the more general themes of magic, fantasy, and growing up—staples of the wider universe of children’s literature.

“There’s not just one set of magical people,” said Christine Lively, an elementary school librarian in Fairfax County, Va. “There are so many stories of magic and children and coming of age, picking just a specific one as a theme would be unnecessary.”

Said Bogan, the high school librarian in Pennsylvania: “Why are we missing the opportunity to promote new stories, new voices, new perspectives? I think it’s a bit of a lost opportunity.”

There are many modern young adult fantasy books that center diverse characters and perspectives, Bond said, recommending Akwaeke Emezi’s Pet and Bitter; Tracy Deonn’s Legendborn and Bloodmarked; Wendy Xu and Suzanne Walker’s Mooncakes; and Aiden Thomas’ Cemetery Boys.

Rick Riordan, the author of the popular Percy Jackson & the Olympians fantasy series, has committed to publishing four books a year from middle grade authors from underrepresented cultures and backgrounds. The books draw from the mythology and folklore of the authors’ own heritage.

Vincent, the Illinois teacher, said she understands teachers’ attachment to and nostalgia for Harry Potter. But she thinks there are other, more inclusive books to center in 2023—ones that don’t carry any extra-textual baggage.

“I think for me at least, making the choice to share something that is going to empower kids is the best choice you can make,” she said. “Things change, and things happen, and people say things they’ve never said before publicly, and you always have to be aware of that. We have to be conscious and aware and adjusting as we go.”

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