All Aboard

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I was talking to an acquaintance who’s pursuing a graduate degree in social work and she mentioned a study she’d read about childhood memories. She said they found that the family activities children remember most are either a one-time event, like a family vacation, or things that happened outdoors.

The other day I was thinking about particularly memorable books I’ve read and I realized that with certain books, I can remember exactly where I was when I read them. I tried to pinpoint why I can’t remember where I was when I read one of my favorite books, Peace Like a River, but I remember with great detail the car I was riding in when I read The Secret Life of Bees (I know it was a popular book, but I didn’t really love it).

I realized that my memories fit exactly with that study – all the books I can remember where I was physically when I read them I read either on a trip or outdoors. I read These is My Words poolside, The Scholar of Moab in the back yard, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time on a bus to Chicago, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close in an airport, Never Let Me Go on a car trip to Yellowstone, and My Name is Asher Lev–not outside, exactly, but on the couch in a very sunny family room when I had to stay home from 8th grade with bronchitis.

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I can’t be sure yet, but I suspect that when I look back on this summer, many of my memories will include Harry Potter. Before June, I had never read any of the Harry Potter books (and I still haven’t seen the movies). I was just never interested. When they first came out, my kids were too young to get into them. Then they became popular, which somehow was a turnoff for me. My boys read them and we own most of them, but I never felt the urge.

But this summer, I read them all – by the pool, in the woods, at the park – I never left the house without one. And now I have joined the rest of the world. I’m “in the know” now. Every time someone refers to muggles or dementors or Delores Umbridge, I know what they’re talking about! I knew there were lots of H.P. references I didn’t get, but once I started reading the books, I was more aware of just how often they pop up in daily conversation and on the internet. Very often. Like, maybe we should all pull back a little on the Harry Potter references to avoid oversaturation. Although I didn’t really mind being H.P.-illiterate, I’m pleased to say that I am now part of the club. (But not literally. I’m assuming there are probably many actual clubs, right?)

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Here are my thoughts, not particularly in-depth and not including any spoilers: I liked the series. I never felt like I couldn’t put them down, but they didn’t feel like homework. Some books were harder to wade through than others, especially when they included extensive descriptions of Quidditch matches – apparently I’m just as disinterested in fictional sports as I am football. But overall, I enjoyed reading them and I felt satisfied with the way Rowling finished the series.

There were several times, especially in the first three books when I thought, “Well done, J.K. I didn’t see that coming.” But one of the big twists at the end I saw coming for like 1500 pages.

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I liked that Harry talked through everything with his friends. I know I can’t feel like something really happened until I discuss it with my best friend and I think it was the same for Harry. I was glad that, surrounded by characters who betrayed or disappointed Harry, Hermione and Ron were constant and trustworthy. Throughout the series, I kept thinking that Hermione, with her vast knowledge and quick thinking, was very useful to have around, but what did Ron do? Most of the time, it seemed like he was there just to be a good friend – funny, but not necessarily one to depend on in a tricky situation. But in the final book, Ron came through like a champ. Maybe he was just a late bloomer.

When I read children’s books, I have a hard time leaving my mom-ness out of it. I keep wondering what messages my children are getting when they read it. Not that I want everything to have a clearly spelled out moral like a G.I. Joe episode.

But I hope they learn from Harry Potter the importance of treating everyone with kindness, even the weirdos and dorks. Characters like Luna, Dobby, Neville and Kreacher were beneath others’ notice and the object of ridicule. Hermione was particularly sensitive to the plight of the misunderstood, and even though Harry and Ron were sometimes slow to catch up with her, they did eventually come around. Each of those misfits surprised Harry in some way and each ended up playing pivotal parts in Harry’s success. I hope my own children are willing to show kindness to the weirdies as well. Or, more likely, (because have you met my kids?) I would hope others would be willing to show kindness to them.

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I also hope that when my children read these books, they internalize the underlying message about the power of choice. Dumbledore tells Harry early on, “It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities.” I was glad that Harry was portrayed as fallible – some of his decisions were pretty stupid, and he was only able to survive when someone else stepped in to help. But he moved on, learned from his mistakes and, as a result, was better prepared for the bigger choices he faced later on. I found it interesting that Voldemort’s psych-out tactic when fighting Harry was to point out all of his failures, to get him to lose hope by listing off all of Harry’s mistakes. But by the end of the series, Harry realized he couldn’t do anything about his past choices. He could only control what he chose to do in the future.

We like to think that if we just teach our children well enough, they won’t make any stupid mistakes, but that’s obviously not going to happen. I think one of the most important things we can teach them is how to recover from their own dumb choices. I want them to know that it’s possible. And knowing is half the battle.

Know

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