With the release of Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, I have found myself asking the question “Which is the best Harry Potter book?” I realize that this question is like choosing your favourite child, and has the potential to end friendships, so let’s do something less controversial, and make it “Which is your favourite Harry Potter book?”
Mine is the third. The Prisoner of Azkaban.
I’m not going to argue that Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban is the best Harry Potter book. Objectively, it plainly isn’t. It doesn’t have the childhood charm of the first two, and it doesn’t have the greater scope and in-depth themes of the last four. It’s a transition, an awkward teenage phase between innocence and coming darkness. But it remains the one book in the series that I have read multiple times, and that I feel compelled to read again, and it remains so for one main reason: Remus Lupin.
Professor Lupin is the best teacher at Hogwarts. Admittedly, the bar is not high; the teachers of the wizarding school are either lost in their own world or overly punitive. That’s without even considering the Defence Against the Dark Arts teachers, who are, in no particular order, weak and treacherous, manic and treacherous, self-absorbed, ineffective, or just plain nasty. What about Dumbledore, you say? He is a less a teacher than he is a feature of deus ex machina, a god-like figure that swoops in to alter the plot in dramatic and implausible ways.
Professor Lupin is none of those things. He is instead the one teacher in the Harry Potter books who actually teaches; he shows Harry not only how to create a Patronus charm to defend himself, but how to hold onto happy memories in the face of despair. When Lupin does have to reprimand Harry, he does so not by taking points away from his house, not by assigning him menial tasks, but by talking to him, and reminding him why his actions were selfish and wrong. It’s Professor Lupin that insists, in the face of violence and revenge, that the student must understand why. Perhaps it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the one non-human Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher is the one who teaches with the most humanity.
I can’t confirm why The Prisoner of Azkaban appealed to me as an adolescent, but I can say why it appeals to me now, and I think it’s for the same reason; Remus Lupin teaches as we would want to be taught, and as we would want to teach. He is able to guide Harry because he connects with him. He gives Harry hope, explanation, and a sense of control at a time when Harry faces fear and uncertainty – and what adolescent doesn’t need that?
I would like to thank publishers for making books cool for young people.
I recognize the problems with that sentence, particularly as a writer, but I don’t take it back. Instead, I cast my mind back to 1996. I was in grade six, and an avid reader. I distinctly remember that one day when I was reading a novel at lunch, a girl came up to me and told me “Just so you know, reading isn’t cool anymore.” There is obviously so much wrong with that statement, but what was strange about it was the tone. It wasn’t meant to tease, or bully; it was a statement of fact, spoken with concern, in case I hadn’t heard. There was no social media back then; if you wanted to know what was trending, someone actually had to tell you.
Actually, there were a lot of things that we didn’t have back in 1996. Children’s fiction had a wealth of good, classic pieces, but teen fiction, such as it existed, was pretty terrible. (Have you read a Sweet Valley Twins book recently? Don’t.) The revolution to young readership that was Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone hadn’t yet been published. So it’s unsurprising that my ill-informed classmate would think that reading wasn’t cool.
It would be a nice narrative to say that writers are wholly responsible for the books that we read, but ultimately the way we read books and the way we buy books are inextricably linked. Writers can change the way we think and feel, but the choice of what book we pick up is out of their hands. Books are consumer goods like anything else; we buy them because they are well advertised, or because our friend has one and we want one, or because everyone around us has read it and we can’t be left out. Young people read differently now because publishers are selling to them. They have been offered books to buy that are marketable, desirable, and worthwhile, and just like any other good, they have bought and consumed them.
This isn’t new, either. Books have been commodities since the 19th Century. Charles Dickens was not only a writer; he was an editor, a publisher, and a powerful marketer of his own material. He was good at it – he had to be. On the negative side, Mundie’s Circulating Library was the single largest library, and therefore purchaser of books, in England; if its founder, Charles Mundie, didn’t find your book “appropriate”, you had very little chance of selling it. We judge books by their covers, and we always have.
For all their success with young adult fiction, modern publishers still miss things too. A recent notable example is Andy Weir’s The Martian, which remained self-published nearly up until it was signed into a movie contract. And while teens now have a wealth of thoroughly decent reading material to choose from, the target is moving. Readers that were once content to have decent fiction will want great fiction. Young people are smart – they want smart books, and they don't need to rely on contemporary publications to find it.
Once a year, my class does an assignment called “The Classics Project.” Students choose from my “Shortlist of Classic Reads” – basically, a list of books that I like – and they do a presentation on the book, including an explanation of why this book remains “a classic.” Inevitably, every year, at least one student will come up to me, holding Stoker’s Dracula, or a tome of unabridged Sherlock Holmes, or Pride and Prejudice, and they will say “Madame Perrella, this book – it’s really good!”
It is. Thankfully, it’s also still in print.
Remembrance Day seems like a good day to talk about heroes. While Canada is quietly reflecting on its real heroes, we’ll start with fictional ones.
Heroism in fiction, like strength in characters, can so often be confused with violence. It's easy to see why. When the show Firefly says “time for some thrilling heroics,” it means a shoot out. Final showdowns in most blockbuster movies mean daring deeds coupled with explosions. Even fairy tales – or maybe especially fairy tales – tend to feature a hero that vanquishes great evil with a sword, and saves the day with blood.
Yet even in all these works of fiction, what makes a hero is not how they fight, but how they fall. In his sensation novel The Woman in White, Wilkie Collins opens the novels by telling the reader that “this is a story of what a Woman’s patience can endure, and of what a Man’s resolution can achieve.” (Yes, I know, the quote is full of all kinds of problems of the roles of men and women, and yes, we could open up a discussion of how The Woman in White actually has one particularly strong female character. But now not.) What strikes me as most important in this quote is the word “endure.” As readers have responded to my writing, they have often commented that the moments where they most love the characters are the moments when the characters are in the most pain.
Heroes are heroes because of what they endure. A story that is compelling is so because of how a character rises when they fall. This is the case whether the character has a sword and shield, whether they wear a cape, or whether they simply stay standing in the face of terrible circumstances. Those we remember on Remembrance Day are heroes as much for their endurance of the pain as for their participation in the fight. It is a heroism that never really ends, as they continue to endure the memories and pain that claim so many, even after the fighting stops.
Does it seem childish to still want fictional heroes? Maybe. Maybe one of our flaws is that instead of looking for ordinary people doing decent things, we search for heroes, figures who are larger than life, who make us feel safe even as they make us feel small. I like to think of it in a different way – that heroes in their purest form are hope, in the face of so much darkness. In the words of C. S. Lewis, “since it is so likely that children will meet cruel enemies, let them at least have heard of brave knights and heroic courage.”
Arthur C. Clarke was right in saying that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. I think we’ve got there with computers.
Stay with me – this requires some explanation. I was working with some students yesterday on the school computers. The school computers are not the most cooperative of machines, but with a little coaxing, they can be made to turn on.
The computer was continuously cycling through an attempt to load a restore key which I didn’t have. So while the students were watching, I rebooted the computer, cancelled the restore process, and when I got to a black and white screen, moved the arrow keys to restart the computer normally. So that’s the boring part. The interesting part was what my student said. She looked at me, smiled, and said that I was a “computer magician.”
It should be abundantly apparent by the way I describe a computer rebooting that I am not a computer magician. Nor am I, in the vaguest sense, any kind of programmer. Yet as a grade six and seven teacher, I am continuously struck by how little many of my students know about how to use a computer, never mind what’s inside it. This seems counterintuitive. They are digital natives, aren’t they? They are surrounded by sophisticated electronics – they use computers regularly in school, and almost all of them use one at home. What is strangely sad about this is that because computers have become so sophisticated, and because the layers between the user and transistors have become so dense, most of my students have less of an understanding of computers than a previous generation, not more. For them, computers may as well be magic.
It is striking to think of how much this is true. In my novel, The Steel Lady, I feature the Analytical Engine, a mechanical computer designed in the 1830s, that was designed by Charles Babbage. Though the machine itself was never actually built, Ada Lovelace created what we might now call code for it. It is clear from our attempts to build pieces of Babbage’s Engine that both he and Ada Lovelace had a greater understanding of computing than most of our population today, in spite of the fact that the computer had never existed.
As ubiquitous as computers are, this strikes me as a problem we can’t afford to ignore. We think that we’re creating children whose familiarity with computing and electronics makes them innovators and designers – it doesn’t. What it does is make them reliant on electronics, and make them unable to solve the problem when one arises. The answer doesn’t seem to be to give them more sophisticated computing tools – it is to give them less sophisticated ones, computing tools like Arduino and RaspberryPi, that strip the magic away.
“But how will we interest them? They are digital natives, after all!” So? They’re still kids. What they crave isn’t electronics, it’s stimulus. And that doesn’t need to come merely from YouTube. They still read, and love, paper books. They still collect and sort chestnuts and rocks – yes, even at age 12. They still get genuinely and obsessively excited when I teach them to knit as part of our Applied Skills class. Why? Because they can see themselves create things, things that are not, even on the surface, mysterious in any way.
If they do become innovators, it won’t be because they are digital natives. It will be in spite of it.
Jane Perrella. Teacher, writer. Expert knitter. Enthusiast of medieval swordplay, tea, Shakespeare, and Batman.