Children's books

30th March 2001 at 01:00
BEACHAM'S SOURCEBOOKS. Exploring Harry Potter. By Elizabeth D Schafer. Ebury Press pound;12.99.

A CLOSER LOOK AT HARRY POTTER: bending and shaping the minds of our children. By John Houghton. Kingsway pound;5.99. Tel: 01323 437700.

The aim of Schafer's study, a US import, is to help readers "appreciate the Harry Potter books' literary qualities". To this end the author examines all aspects of the series in minute detail. For example, Hogwarts "is in northern Scotland, which is the setting of Celtic lore and legendary figures, such as William Wallace, known as Braveheart, whose physique and daring somewhat resembles Hagrid, the school's gamekeeper".

Elsewhere, Hagrid is Poseidon (presumably when he isn't being Mel Gibson). Dumbledore, the Hogwarts principal, is Churchill (when he isn't being Zeus), and so on. Unsure about the settings in the Potter books? Hey presto! The "geographical overview" of the British Isles comes to your aid. "While London and England represent the more sophisticated and aristocratic side of Great Britain, Scotland symbolises its mystical and wild nature." No cliches there, then. As for the Welsh: Anne Robinson, all is forgiven.

The banner on the front cover proclaims, "NOT approved by J K Rowling", and with good reason - this is to literary criticism what Spinal Tap is to rock music.

Nevertheless, at times in the 480 pages you catch fleeting glimpses of an interesting book trying to get out, principally in the surveys of foreign editions and illustrations, websites, a potted history of magic and teaching notes. These are presented as an overview of each book, chapter-by-chater synopses and key questions.

There are also projects and activities for each volume ranging from report-writing through map-making to crafts. Variable quality, but some good suggestions.

Schafer also examines the anti-Potter camp and the "Is Harry evil?" debate. This forms the subject of John Houghton's book, which is reasonable, sensible and more interested in promoting the Bible and Christianity (and the author's own fantasy series) than in damning Potter. Indeed, Houghton complains that some Christian fundamentalists do harm to the message of the Gospel, "by quoting sensational nonsense drawn from X-rated satirical sources as though it were true". He says: "We should be ashamed of such folly."

He concludes that prohibiting books is a dangerous game and we should leave it "to those with children to decide for themselves whether or not the books are suitable reading matter for their charges".

That's where we come in as teachers, and where we have to ensure parents are satisfied with our decisions. This is a message that, while rightly encouraging people to think for themselves, will not satisfy the book-banners.

These two volumes are further evidence of Pottermania - stirring up controversy and debate, hitching a ride on a lucrative gravy train. And the film isn't even out yet.

Amid the inevitable and, at times, beautifully orchestrated hype, it's as well to remind ourselves that, enjoyable as J K Rowling's books are, there are other good books out there for children to discover for themselves.

Kevin Harcombe is head of Redlands primary school, Fareham, Hampshire

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