Casting a magic spell

19th August 2005 at 01:00
Books bring out the imagination of young people yet all too often adult authority tries to ban the ones they want to buy, says Jennifer Baker.

When my novel is finally published, I am going to try very hard to get the Vatican to come out against it. Two of the most widely sold authors in the world today have had that dubious privilege. The Da Vinci Code and Harry Potter have both stirred the ire of the prelates in the Vatican (so far, admittedly, the HP denunciation is only alleged).

According to the BBC news website, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertoni even hosted a seminar to rebut the claims made in The Da Vinci Code, and apparently some years ago Pope Benedict XV1, then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, wrote to a German author, Gabriele Kuby, that the HP stories "have a profound effect and can corrupt the Christian faith in souls".

Where does it all stop? When will we get a declaration on the immorality of Goldilocks - a robber guilty of breaking and entering, and yet regarded as a hero by children around the globe? Or Snow White, who left home at an early age because of abuse by her stepmother and avoided homelessness by living with seven miners and became their slave? Or the woman who reneged on the deal she made with Rumplestiltskin and is also feted as someone who overcame the bully when, in fact, all he did was to request that she honour her promise?

All of this lot are a crowd of ne'er-do-wells who have somehow come out pure as the driven snow. Why? Because they are not real. They are characters in stories and human beings have been telling stories about goodies and baddies and their interrelation since the beginning of time. It is part of the human condition. We need stories and storytelling.

For many years, I was head of English at a large comprehensive school. For me, the most important part of my teaching was to encourage children to read. Every lesson started with 10 minutes of reading. We discussed books endlessly with the children; we reviewed children's literature and we read what they were reading. We had book reports that parents had to sign; we sent letters home with booklists so that parents would know what to buy or borrow. We even sent letters home begging parents to take computers and televisions out of children's bedrooms (not much success with that one).

I think the message got through over the years. The students became aware of the importance of reading - not only to exercise their imagination and widen their knowledge but to increase their vocabulary, improve their spelling and, most important, to make them interested and interesting people.

And then Philip Pullman arrived, followed later by J K Rowling, and our work became much easier. Pupils were saving up pocket money to buy books; they were queuing outside bookshops at midnight waiting for the latest edition of Harry Potter. True to my credo, I read the books and, frankly, they don't do anything for me. But that doesn't matter: they're not written for me. What was wonderful was that children of all ages and abilities were reading. We were elated.

Then, on one memorable open evening, a woman sought me out to ask if we were teaching HP. I told her that we weren't. "Thank goodness," she said.

"I will not have my children reading it." I asked her why. "Because it's evil," she said. "It's about the supernatural and the forces of evil."

"OK," I said. "But, although we don't teach Harry Potter, we do teach Macbeth so you may not find this school suitable." She laughed gaily.

But that's it, you see. It's inconsistent. If HP is to be banned, then logically, so must a lot of Shakespeare, most of the fairy-tales, A Christmas Carol, Alice in Wonderland, Peter Pan, the Pied Piper of Hamelin, Star Wars, and so on.

If we are going to worry about the formation of young minds as we should, then perhaps we should concern ourselves more with computer games. Solitary children sitting in darkened bedrooms graphically and bloodily disposing of virtual enemies is, in my opinion, far more sinister than any HP novel I have read.

A final thought. Long ago, when I was young, there was, for Catholics, something called the Index. This was a list of books that Catholics were not allowed to read on pain of fairly serious sin. I read one of those books when I was a teenager. It was called The Three Musketeers.

Apparently, it was on the Index because duelling was frowned on.

Shortly after that, the Index was dumped - rightly. Enlightened clerics, inspired by the basic common sense of Pope John XXIII and the Second Vatican Council, realised that ignorance is not innocence and that children (and the rest of us) must learn to choose good. Are we travelling backwards? It's worrying.

Jennifer Baker teaches in the west Highlands.

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