Sunday, April 3, 2016

Harry Potter and The Exhausted, Frazzled Dad, or: The Kids Who Lived

If you are a parent who knows me in real life, you have likely already heard this come out of my mouth.

“The best thing I have done as a parent is read the Harry Potter series with my kids.”

This could be an oversimplification - meh, so what.

My parents always read a lot.  I grew up surrounded by books, and used more than my fair share of every library.  My kids have grown up the same way.

Books are people.  Books are family members.  Books take a LOT of space in my wee home.

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone was published in the US in 1998 about the same time my wife evicted our daughter from the womb, which meant we didn’t pay attention to (yet another substandard, throwaway) kids’ fiction book. Besides, our son was four years old. Unless Harry Potter was going to climb aboard Thomas the Tank Engine, Harry Potter was irrelevant to us.  

We didn’t pay attention until the absolute hysteria for the release of the fourth book nearly derailed my wife’s and my anniversary plans in July 2000 (I was involved in some logistics and security surrounding the release of Goblet of Fire, and it was pure insanity).

My son would turn six in October 2000.  I passed bookstores with six-year-olds in block-long lines with their parents, waiting for this book.

The Day Midnight Stood Still for Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire

Even I, dense as my father’s shortbread cookies, took note.

I trekked to the World’s Best Used Bookstore EVER (Gray Wolf Books in Hayward, CA; now out of business because THIS WORLD IS DISAPPOINTINGLY CRAZY) and picked up well-loved copies of the first three books.

I read the first book by myself and knew my weird, brilliant son needed to read it too.

My wife was unsure.  Was he too young?  I lobbied for NO, he was not.  There was a lively debate about whether to read it when he was eleven, the same age as Harry when he receives his letter from Hogwarts, or whether to start NOW NOW NOW NOW!

In an act of fascinating marital and parental compromise we started reading three months later, on his sixth birthday.

We read it together aloud, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.  If I was Mad Omnipotent Dictator Of The World, it would be Law that the first time any child read a Harry Potter book, it would be read aloud with a parental figure.

These books are so marvelously descriptive, so full of character and wonder.  The act of reading them aloud forces us to hear (and create for ourselves) the characters voices, to experience the suspense and wonder and cruelty and humor contained within.

My family reads too fast when we read silently.  In our heads, we read fast enough that the alliteration and the newness of the prose get extinguished by the torrent of words and ideas in the next paragraph.

How can we actually understand the wonder, the fear, the frustration of the characters if we speed through in our heads?

Aloud, I would read two pages, my six-year-old son would read one page.  Sometimes my wife would read a page.

One chapter per night.  On the weekends, perhaps TWO chapters per night.  If homework wasn’t done, no reading (that just about killed me).  Two-year-old Little Sister had to be in bed first.  No reading unless both parents were available.  Those were The Rules.  When I had to travel, no reading got done.  THAT was suspense!

Three years after we started Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone in October 2000, my son and I picked up our reserved copy of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix on the first day it was released.  

By the time Little Sister was old enough to read Sorcerer’s Stone (six years old in 2004, the same age her brother had been), we had a dilemma.  Harry Potter and his friends keep getting older, and acting like older kids, as the series progresses year by year.  By the time Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix was published in 2003, Harry was a sixteen year-old adolescent jerk, and the series was getting thematically darker.  My son had had a natural break - after the third book, he had to wait for each new book to be published.  But my daughter had started later - there were more books on our shelf by that time.

The way was clear: Little Sister could read one book per year.  Each year after her birthday, we began the next book, and it became a whole-family event.  I would read two pages, Little Sister would read a page, Big Brother would read a page or two, sometimes my wife would read a page (other times listening, a brief respite from both kids).

We could not wait.  The entire family was involved, the entire family was entranced.  The suspense was real, and difficult, as our schedules became harder to synchronize as Cub Scouts and Gymnastics and work schedules and clients all conspired to get between us and the next chapter.  The wait from one weekend to the next weekend’s chapters was excruciating.  As the kids got older, the new books had to be literally locked away until we were all together again.  

After reading, and in-between chapters, there were conversations about the characters choices - Why did they do that?  Could they not see how wrong they were?  Conversations about What would YOU have done?  Conversations about how raging hormones destroy your emotional balance and wreck your ability to THINK.  Conversations about when should you break the rules?  When should you involve an adult?  Conversations about when do you NOT trust an adult?  When should you lie?  When should you come clean?

In 2007, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows was published and all the members of my family were in sync.  We read each chapter together, all of us together at the same time.  We all cried.  This might have been the first time my kids have seen me cry.  It’s rare, and I tend to do it in private.  I can be a hard man, and occasionally emotionally blunted.

Last night, before watching Spy (Melissa McCarthy, Jason Statham, Jude Law) as a family full of grown folks, I dragged out of hiding the Illustrated Edition of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, with paintings by Jim Kay.

My family didn’t know it was in the house.  I don’t know that anyone else in my family knew it existed.

We put our movie on hold and instead read the first chapter of the book.  I read two pages, my twenty-one year-old son read two pages, my (sometimes-snooty seventeen year-old) daughter read two pages; my wife listened, smiling).  It was magical all over again.

This will be my family's third copy of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone.  The first was well-used, and disintegrated.  The second is the leather-bound edition on the right, whose spine has separated from use.  The new book is on the left.  It, too, will soon be floppy . . .
This is my Book Review part of the page, where I rave about this version because it’s filled with actual magic.

This edition of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone is the first version of Harry Potter that contains illustrations that look and feel like the characters and settings and situations are described by JK Rowling.  They are beautiful and exultant and weird and funny and sometimes a little scary, exactly as described in the prose.  These illustrations are moody and revelatory, and make each new page turn a joyful surprise.

This is not to knock the original illustrations by Mary GrandPre; they serve well as an icon at the beginning of each chapter, showing us a symbolized snapshot of something we can expect to experience in the coming pages.

The Jim Kay illustrated edition, though, is an emotional accompaniment to the prose on each page.  Every single page (whether or not they feature a painting) is textured, spotted with paint drippings, or otherwise reminding you this is a work of art and a work of love.  There are more than one hundred illustrations, and there is no single page that features only text on a stark white page.  It is impossible to read this book by yourself and still feel alone.

This book feels alive.  

It can set your family back about $24 . . .  

This is the Harry Potter part of our home library, which spans five rooms of the house.  Don't be deceived by the slipcovers of the last four books; underneath, the books have been very well loved.