I didn’t read much during the last two weeks of October because I spent every second of my free time turning my 8-year-old daughter into Crookshanks for Halloween. Crookshanks is Hermione’s cat from Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban.
I don’t know what came over me. I don’t know why I thought I could *make* a Crookshanks costume when I couldn’t find one to buy. A black cat costume just wouldn’t do. Crookshanks is an enormous, orange furball:
Ron buckled as something huge and orange came soaring from the top of the highest cage, landed on his head, and then propelled itself, spitting madly, at Scabbers. […] “What was that?”
“It was either a very big cat or quite a small tiger,” said Harry.
“Probably getting her owl—”
They made their way back up the crowded street to the Magical Menagerie. As they reached it, Hermione came out, but she wasn’t carrying an owl. Her arms were clamped tightly around the enormous ginger cat.
“You bought that monster?” said Ron, his mouth hanging open.
“He’s gorgeous, isn’t he?” said Hermione, glowing.
That was a matter of opinion, thought Harry. The cat’s ginger fur was thick and fluffy, but it was definitely a bit bowlegged and its face looked grumpy and oddly squashed, as though it had run headlong into a brick wall. Now that Scabbers was out of sight, however, the cat was purring contentedly in Hermione’s arms.
–Harry Potter and the Prizoner of Azkaban, Chapter Four
I can’t knit or crochet (unfortunately), so I purchased a beige sweater and then looped orange yarn through it. This took forever. I worked on it in the office during my lunch breaks and every evening while listening to election coverage. I should’ve listened to audiobooks instead. That would’ve been better for my mental health.
Anyway, here’s Crookshanks standing with Sally Ride and an octopus:
Like all cats, Crookshanks sheds. This morning, I found little pieces of orange yarn in my hair, dangling from my purse, and trailing from the bottom of my shoe. It’s going to be a long time before I work with yarn again. I’ve learned my lesson!
My daughter needed someone she could talk to about Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, the play by Jack Thorne based on a story by J.K. Rowling, Thorne, and John Tiffany. So, I read it during my commute to and from work this week.
It took me a little while to get used to the script format, in which dialogue drives the plot and much of the setting is left to the imagination, but, soon enough, I found myself sucked into the story. It features Albus Severus Potter and Scorpius Malfoy, two boys limited by their fathers’ reputations. One cannot live up to his father’s heroism, while the other cannot escape his family’s association with Lord Voldemort, the most infamous wizard of all.
Scorpius’s plight reminds me of a line from Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice: “The sins of the fathers are to be laid upon the children (Act 3, scene 5, line 1).” Justice Brennan of the U.S. Supreme Court (from 1956 until 1990) quoted this line in his dissenting opinion in Tison v. Arizona (1987), a case in which the court reviewed what punishment the state could constitutionally impose on the two sons of a murderer for their lesser roles in their father’s crimes. As Brennan noted in this opinion, “an intuition that sons and daughters must sometimes be punished for the sins of the father may be deeply rooted in our consciousness.”
I agree with Justice Brennan. The actions of parents often tarnish their children’s reputations, even when the children have done nothing wrong. This belief is so ingrained in the culture that we have numerous idioms to describe it: the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree; like father, like son; a chip off the old block. Even Harry Potter and the Cursed Child revolves around this concept — that, spoiler, a part of Voldemort may have survived in an heir — despite encouraging sympathy for lonely outcasts like Scorpius, who is “guilty” by association.
Why do we impose expectations and limitations on children because of who their parents are? I suppose it relates to the assumption that parents have a strong and influential bond with their children. As Stephanie from The Eclectic Scribe aptly observed:
Raising a child is kind of like a love story in reverse, a rom com on rewind. It starts out with an intense bond so all-consuming, so dizzyingly intense that it’s simultaneously overwhelming and perfect in every way. Then there are all the ups and downs, the great moments and the many missteps. And it ends with someone who seems to view me as a stranger.
During “the ups and downs, the great moments and many missteps” in this process, we hope to impart enough wisdom to help our children lead their independent lives.
However, we’re not the only influence on our children during their formative years, contributing to why our children often end up viewing us as strangers. They also have other family members, friends, teachers, movies, television, the Internet, and, of course, books (among other influences) in their lives. These sources introduce children to concepts that may reinforce or counter the messages they receive at home, making it less likely that children will turn out to be just like their parents.
All children deserve a chance to forge their own way in life, including Scorpius, no matter who his father is or might be.
I am glad I read Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, which fueled a healthy discussion with my daughter. She expressed her sympathy for Albus and Scorpius and her belief that children are not simply extensions of their parents. She added, “You’re a lawyer, and I definitely don’t want to be one too. I want to be a writer instead.” Ha. Maybe the apple hasn’t fallen so far from the tree after all? 😉
Who’s afraid of the big bad wolf? How about the evil queen?
I was afraid of both. As a kid, I stood up during the movie version of Snow White and, at the top of my lungs, begged the title character not to eat the poisoned apple. I was devastated when she didn’t listen to me.
Two of my three children are just like I was. They do not enjoy Grimm’s fairy tales, and they’re having a hard time finishing the Harry Potter series. Voldemort’s tricks are far worse than anything the evil queen ever did.
Normally, I wouldn’t strongly encourage my girls to read a novel that scares them, but Harry Potter is an exception. How are they going to communicate with their peers if they don’t know what Hogwarts is? They need to read the series for cultural literacy. They also need to read it to face their fears.
According to psychologist Emma Kenny, as quoted in a recent Guardian article, being frightened by fictional experiences helps children “forge resilience”:
When you are reading a scary story to a child, or they’re reading to themselves, the child has got a level of control – they can put it down, or ask you to stop. And the story can raise a discussion, in which they can explore and explain the way they feel about a situation.
I read the first book in the series, Harry Potter and The Sorcerer’s Stone, to my twins two years ago. Now, reading on their own, one is in the middle of the fourth book, The Goblet of Fire, while the other is in the middle of the second, The Chamber of Secrets.
So far, most of their conversations have focused on how scary the books are, but they’re definitely mesmerized by the wizarding world. Last weekend, I overheard the following conversation:
S: “I want to be in Ravenclaw. How about you?”
M: “Ravenclaw too, but do you think mom will tell the sorting hat to separate us?”*
S: “I don’t think the sorting hat cares what she thinks.”
Ha. Well, Ravenclaw is probably a good option for them. They don’t have the courage required for Gryffindor. Not yet.
*We’ve separated our twins into different classrooms since they were two. We agonized over the decision. For more on this topic, see A Controversial Parenting Decision: Separating Twins in School and Boo: The Things Parents Don’t Know Are Often The Most Important.
Recently, in the LA Review of Books, Lily Gurton-Wachter discussed her observation that there is a dearth of literature about pregnancy, childbirth, and motherhood, saying:
We have a rich, challenging, and complex canon of war literature… The same cannot be said about a literature of pregnancy or childbirth or parenting, though these are also extreme experiences that stretch our understanding and push us beyond comfort or even comprehension.
While I won’t go quite so far as to analogize pregnancy to combat, I agree with Gurton-Wachter that motherhood — however it happens — is a transformative experience. My pregnancies were terrifying, so much so that it was almost a relief when the doctors wrested the little beings from my body at 26 weeks for my twins and 34 for my singleton. Since then, parenting has had its lows and its highs, from the helplessness and fear I felt while watching my twins struggle to survive in the NICU to the joys of sharing my favorite children’s books with them and collaborating with them on an Anne of Green Gables-based writing project that reflects our heritage and community.
The experiences of motherhood are life-changing and deserve to be discussed and memorialized in writing. I’m sure we can all think of a few books that focus on the experiences of pregnancy, childbirth, and motherhood — Gurton-Wachter mentions what she calls “the emerging literature of new motherhood,” including Eula Biss’s On Immunity (2014) and Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts (2015) — but it seems literature (of the “literary” and “serious” variety) has largely avoided these subjects. I haven’t seen empirical research on the issue, but Gurton-Wachter’s observations are certainly plausible when, as she notes, “most philosophy and literature has, historically, been written by men.”
A dearth of honest literature about motherhood would also reflect our societal norm of silencing women by censoring our bodies. Pregnancy, childbirth, and motherhood are inherently tied to women’s bodies, a subject that is taboo because our society ascribes a sexual meaning to it (at least in the United States).
We’ve come a long way since the days of women “wearing wool all summer long” (19th Century), breast cancer being described as a “disease of the chest wall” (1950s), and school districts forcing female teachers to leave the classroom as soon as their pregnancies were showing (which the Supreme Court declared unconstitutional in 1974), but censorship of the female body is a cultural norm that simply refuses to disappear entirely.
- Despite the proliferation of laws protecting a woman’s right to breastfeed in public, women are frequently forced to do it in a bathroom or not at all;
- Even though the non-sexual exposure of breasts is legal in many places in the United States, women are often arrested when they they bare as much skin as a shirtless man;
- Many women are so embarrassed about menstruating — a natural process without which the human race would cease to exist — that they go to great lengths to hide tampons en route to the bathroom; and
Additionally, new mothers venture into the public sphere at their own risk:
- Mothers who want to express milk in the workplace — which, in many (but not all) cases is their right under the law — often face resistance from their employers;*
- “Mommy bloggers” are shamed for discussing their parenting experiences on social media (there are genuine concerns about the privacy of children, but such concerns should not silence women who have found an appropriate balance for their families); and
- Just this week, Donald Trump shamed a mother who brought a baby to one of his rallies, saying, “I love babies. I hear that baby cry, I like it… What a baby. What a beautiful baby. Don’t worry, don’t worry. The mom’s running around, like, don’t worry about it, you know. It’s young and beautiful and healthy and that’s what we want [But then saying, less than two minutes later…] Actually I was only kidding, you can get the baby out of here … I think she really believed me that I love having a baby crying while I’m speaking. That’s OK. People don’t understand. That’s OK.”
Clearly, for mothers to get the respect we deserve, our society must change how it views our bodies and our roles in society. It’s telling that, even among one of the supposedly most educated and sophisticated groups of people, i.e., the publishers of serious literature, there seems to be a hesitation to address one of the most common and fundamental human experiences. Hopefully, filling in the “motherhood gap” in the literary record will be a step in the right direction. I’m going to keep an eye out for these books.
*This is one of many examples of how our modern workplaces fail to acknowledge and accommodate the reasonable needs of working parents, but I won’t go into that subject right now.
In Please Stop Parenting My Children, I asked others to stop providing unsolicited parenting advice, especially when that advice related to what books my children should not read.
However, right now, I will provide my own unsolicited parenting advice to families. It’s advice that I believe is not only good for families, but also good for our society and the world:
By “diverse books,” I mean literature that features individuals who come from underrepresented racial and socioeconomic backgrounds, as well as literature that features gender minorities and individuals with disabilities.
This advice is most important for those parents who live in communities blighted by homogeneity. The United States Supreme Court ended race-based restrictive covenants on real estate in Shelley v. Kraemer (1948) and declared segregated schools to be illegal in Brown v. Board of Education (1954), but well over a half a century later, Americans still live in residentially segregated communities and send their children to racially segregated schools. For children in this unfortunate situation, their first exposure to diversity may be through books.
Fictional playmates from diverse backgrounds should not be a substitute for real-life playmates from diverse backgrounds, but it’s a start. As research suggests, this start may well result in more empathetic children who see the value of diversity.
Hopefully, these books will bring us closer to someday achieving Martin Luther King’s dream in which individuals are not “judged by the color of their skin”– and I will add, their gender status, whom they love, or any other characteristic beyond their control — “but by the content of their character.”
It’s 2016, and we’re not there yet.
If you’re looking for a place to start, here are a few of my favorite children’s books featuring diverse characters and themes:
- Barack Obama’s Of Thee I Sing
- Francisco X. Stork’s Marcelo in the Real World
- Frederick Lipp’s Tea Leaves
- Jonah Winter & Shane W. Evans’s Lillian’s Right to Vote
- Louise Erdrich’s Chickadee
- Peter Parnell & Justin Richardson’s And Tango Makes Three
- Todd Parr’s The Family Book
I hope your family enjoys these books as much as my family has.
A few weeks ago, I downloaded the U.S. Supreme Court’s opinion in Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin on my e-reader so I could read it during my commute.
I share this account with my 8-year-old twins, one of whom said: “Fisher is the most boring book ever. It’s just about some girl who couldn’t get into college.”
I can’t believe she read enough of the opinion to know what the case was about!
I’ve been thinking about the Fisher decision as the events of this past week have highlighted how much race matters. For more on this topic, see The Supreme Court’s Affirmative Action Case Reminds Us Why #WeNeedDiverseBooks.