L. Frank Baum’s The Wizard of Oz, commemorated in this issue by Michael Patrick Hearn, has more in common with J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series than just a population of assorted fantastic beings. Other assorted beings, no more fantastical than you or I, have worked hard to keep both Harry and Dorothy out of the hands of children: Harry, for fear that he might seduce them into paganism; Dorothy, because not only does she make attractive the virtues of witches et al. but also because she has been accused of bad writing and series-itis.
With his adventures so far clocking in at four volumes and 1819 pages, Harry also shows unmistakable signs of series-itis. But arriving onto the scene at a later date than did Baum’s heroine, he finds a children’s literature establishment less inclined to pronounce him ill; in fact, he is the picture of health. Dorothy, too, has shown remarkable signs of recovery. It’s hard to say who owes whom.
What’s changed is the diagnosis. Both Dorothy and Harry arrived to instant popular acclaim, but while she had to wait many decades for the imprimatur of librarians, he showed up to starred reviews, library parties, and ALA commendation. On the one hand, Harry’s success could be seen as evidence of a welcome unbuttoning of critical standards that were too tight to begin with. It could also be argued that he shows us that children have better taste than we’ve given them credit for. Harry has called into question any number of myths that govern our ideas of what children “like” — for starters, that they like short books.
On the other hand (c’mon, this is The Horn Book. You knew this shoe was about to drop), the meshing of critical and popular enthusiasm for Harry Potter calls into question the relevance of aesthetic criteria at all. Perhaps we are so desperately happy to see children reading enthusiastically that questions of series-itis or bad writing are both impolitic (for literacy usually trumps literature, particularly at election times) and impolite (for in these anxiously egalitarian days it is rude to make judgments about another’s choice of reading).
We could simply declare victory by pronouncing Harry Potter an occasion of happy circumstance where public taste and critical opinion concur, but there are still questions that won’t — shouldn’t — go away, and Harry Potter is the least of it. If “the children like it” becomes the sit-stay command of children’s literature criticism, then we don’t need critics. And, lest you think I am arguing simply out of self-preservation, I would point out that it means we don’t need grownups, either.
From the January/February 2001 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.