half-bloodedness in Harry Potter

This Wednesday, I am giving an informal talk about the concept of half-bloodedness in the Harry Potter series (not to be confused with the Percy Jackson series, in which being a half-blood means one of your parents is special.  In Harry Potter, it means one of your parents is NOT special–a perspectival difference only, but a crucial one).  My talk will be based on a paper I contributed to a collection a number of years ago, but since it’s been a while since I really engaged with that paper, I thought I’d use this post as a vehicle for updating my thoughts.

First things first: When I wrote that paper, I committed a major oversight.  I said that there are three characters in the series who we know to be true half-bloods (i.e. having one wizard/witch and one fully Muggle parent): Seamus Finnegan, Severus Snape, and Tom Riddle.  The character I forgot is, ironically, Penelope Clearwater.  One could argue that Penelope is not a major character–after all, she didn’t even make it into the movies–and that she never discusses her parents or her blood status, but it’s assumed that she was a deliberate object of a basilisk attack in Chamber of Secrets because of that very blood status, so I could have used her character to reinforce my point that wizarding world racism extends not only to the completely Other but also to those whose origins are less obvious.  I will probably put in a Penelope plug on Wednesday night.

I was just talking with a student today about how the fact that Harry Potter is a fantasy makes it a safe space to discuss “mature themes”–child abuse and neglect, slavery, political corruption, you name it–in the classroom.  The issues are no less real because they are present in a fantasy, but the fictional context provides a layer of detachment, allowing the difficult conversations to be less charged.  The concept of half-bloodedness creates a forum for discussing issues such as racism, racial performativity, and biracial identity, but it does so with a situation that’s not exactly like any situation in the real world.

In the paper, I use Seamus Finnegan to introduce the concept in a relatively light-hearted way (just like the books do), but my main argument contrasts Tom Riddle, whose attempt to erase his diverse racial history backfires, leading to a fragmented personality and a literally shattered soul, with Severus Snape, who, though he keeps his half-blood status largely private (like so much about himself), never denies that he is a half-blood, and therefore achieves an integrated identity and a character of integrity.  A lot of big words, but I’m basically arguing that Snape remains true to himself (even when his mission requires him to present a false front), whereas Riddle/Voldemort destroys himself through his own self-directed racism and denial.

If I were to rewrite the paper today, I would probably say more about my current Harry Potter interest, which has to do with the effect of the home and family of origin on how characters turn out.  Both Snape and Riddle grew up in loveless homes, but they were different kinds of loveless homes, and I think the differences in their situations contributed to the differences in how they handled their half-blood status.  I will think about this idea, try it out on Wednesday night, and perhaps blog about it next week.

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the fandom panel! (updated with more cool links!)

In May, I told you about a panel discussion on fandom that I had just begun, along with a committee, to plan.  This morning, all the planning came to fruition, and we had a wonderful event that was collegial, fun, scholarly, and well-attended by enthusiastic fans (not of us, but of a wide range of fandoms), many of whom were wearing t-shirts representing their chosen texts.

In the spirit of “remix culture” (which we could have discussed this morning if we’d had more time), I’m not going to give you a traditional, single-authored recap of the event; instead, I’m going to give you some cool links that will inspire you to join the conversation!

  • One of our panelists captured an iPhone audio recording of the discussion that turned out surprisingly well.  Here it is on YouTube.  The image you’ll see is the fantastic event poster created by Ms. Mariannette Oyola–also mentioned in the next point.
  • We had two fabulous vendors selling their fannish wares.  One has an Etsy shop, GeekOutsidetheBox; the other posts her work on her Instagram site, @misssoyola_art.  I bought something from both, and there was a lot more I had to restrain myself from buying.  Check them out.
  • During the discussion, I mentioned Confessions of an Aca-Fan, the blog of Henry Jenkins, who was one of the first media scholars to study fandom in a positive light when he published his book Textual Poachers in 1992, and who is still going strong today.  If Jenkins and/or his blog sounds familiar to you, it’s probably because I’ve mentioned him several times on my blog.
  • I’m going to pull a Gilderoy Lockhart and tell you to see my published works for further details.  My doctoral dissertation is about, among other things, fans.  In it, I mention the intriguing (if I do say so myself) idea that some authors, like J. K. Rowling and Charles Dickens, are fans of their own work.  I don’t mean that they’re arrogant; I mean something more positive and productive.  Read more here.  (I am not sure if this link requires a log-in.  If it does and you can’t get in, let me know–I’d be happy to send you a PDF.)
  • Panelist Marybeth Davis Baggett referred to her Christ and Pop Culture article on Kurt Vonnegut, of whom she is a devoted fan.  Read the piece here.
  • All of our panelists are active (and saying really smart things) on some blog or social media platform, but I didn’t ask which is each person’s preferred platform.  I’ll check with them and post their handles here so you can follow them.  (And if you’re a panelist and you happen to be reading this, go ahead and comment with all your info.)

Let’s keep the conversation going.  Share some cool links that you think would be relevant!

It’s tough to be a kid.

First, I’d like to apologize for not posting last week.  It’s a busy time of the year.  But I’m back!

Over the past week, a number of situations and stories have brought to my attention, with unusual force, the difficulties that face many children.  Some of these difficulties are brought about or compounded by social ills like poverty and abuse; others are just part of childhood.  Yet we adults tend to romanticize childhood retrospectively, talking about it as a carefree time when all we had to worry about was winning at baseball or video games.  Millennials talk about “adulting” as if life just recently became hard, forgetting or denying that being a kid can be just as tough.

That was all very abstract, so let me quickly run through the situations and stories that I mentioned.

  • I went to see It, which shows children being empowered by genuine friendship but also portrays harsh bullying and parental abuse that are just as frightening as the elemental force of evil that comes out of the sewer embodied as a creepy clown.
  • I am about to start training to become a volunteer CASA (Court Appointed Special Advocate).  This means I’ll be assigned to observe and report on behalf of children involved in court cases due to their guardians’ abuse or neglect.  Just from filling out the paperwork and reading the manual, I know this work is going to break my heart sometimes.
  • But this is the example that stopped me in my tracks.  I recently reread Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory in preparation to discuss it with my children’s lit class.  Like all of Dahl’s novels, this one is zany, exuberant, and the utter opposite of realism—except for one passage in chapter 10, “The Family Begins to Starve.”  This bears quoting: “And now, very calmly, with that curious wisdom that seems to come so often to small children in times of hardship, [Charlie Bucket] began to make little changes here and there in some of the things that he did, so as to save his strength.  In the mornings, he left the house ten minutes earlier so that he could walk slowly to school, without ever having to run.  He sat quietly in the classroom during recess, resting himself, while the others rushed outdoors and threw snowballs and wrestled in the snow.  Everything he did now, he did slowly and carefully, to prevent exhaustion.”  Here, in the middle of this wacky, colorful story about Oompa-Loompas and marvelous candy, is a textbook description of a child who can barely function because of hunger.  I told my students, mostly future teachers, to pay attention—they might see a boy just like this in their classes one day.

And even for children who aren’t abused, bullied, or starving, everything feels more intense in childhood: fear, jealousy, shame.  The good feelings are more intense too, sure.  But be careful when you make rosy generalizations about childhood.  Don’t let yourself forget that it isn’t easy.

calling all creative writers

Well, folks, it was a good weekend for football.  The weather was unseasonably crisp (more like October), which made it perfect for the college game I attended Saturday night.  Yesterday was a good football day too.  I’m wearing black and gold today, and it’s not because of Hufflepuff Quidditch, if you know what I mean.

That has nothing to do with my topic today, but a good Monday football conversation never goes amiss.

Here’s my quick post: I need your help.  If you 1) have done any kind of creative writing (even if you have no intention of publishing) and 2) have conducted any research for the benefit of your writing, I want to hear your research stories.  Have you ransacked the personal archives of the obscure historical figure you’re basing a novel on?  Have you slept on the ground with no sleeping bag to know how the characters in your quest fantasy must feel?  Have you asked your mom for some unusual names of townships north of Pittsburgh?  (I did that last week.)  Have you Googled a lot of stuff?  All of that counts as research.  I’m developing a course on creative writing research, and I want to find out how other people do it.  So pause and expand your definition of research, and then comment below to share your stories.  Thank you in advance!

middle brother syndrome in British fantasy literature

Every once in a while on this blog, I like to write about Edmund Pevensie (here is an example) because he is one of my favorite fictional characters, even though he spends most of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe as a selfish brat.  (Selfish brats are easy to identify with, at least for me.)  In one post, I paired him with Percy Weasley because they both suffer from the same condition: both are middle children who feel they’ll never live up to their older siblings’ perfection and who need to assert their superiority to their younger siblings, so they end up betraying their family (in Edmund’s case) or at least betraying their values (in Percy’s case).  And both are, prodigal son-like, restored to their families, but not before suffering humiliation and loss.

Just the other day, I realized there’s another character in British fantasy literature who fits in with these two.  I’m teaching Peter Pan in children’s lit this week, so I’ve been immersing myself in the story and its context for the past few days: watching the Disney cartoon and Finding Neverland, reading a biography of J. M. Barrie and the Llewellyn Davies boys called The Real Peter Pan, and even bringing my flying Peter Funko Pop to my office, where he’s currently about to take off from a stack of books (including a volume of Barrie’s representative plays) on my desk.  And now I have just one question for you: Can we give a little love to poor overlooked John Darling?

John is, unlike Edmund and Percy, an exact middle child, the second of three.  And though he seems, unlike them, to have a good relationship with his siblings, I always sense a subtle bitterness toward Wendy for her obsession with Peter Pan (John’s natural rival in age and leadership ability—notice how annoyed John gets when Wendy won’t let him sit in Peter’s chair) and a bit of jealousy of Michael for being everybody’s cute little favorite.  And there is that moment where John comes perilously close to signing up for a life of crime with Captain Hook; it’s only when he finds out he’d have to forswear loyalty to the King that he refuses.  Note that he doesn’t seem, in that moment, to care about abandoning his family—just about being a bad British citizen.  Doesn’t that sound like Percy?  John has that same self-importance—and, related to that, desperation to be seen as grown up—that we see in our other two examples.  The detail Barrie includes of John “seizing his Sunday hat” before flying out the nursery window is brilliant—it confirms our impression of him as a stolid, middle-aged, middle-class banker in a ten-year-old’s body.  (The Disney movie really plays this up, giving John a fussy little umbrella and a prodigious vocabulary.)  And that’s why my heart melts when I’m reminded that he is still a boy, a tired and homesick boy who is ultimately very glad to go home.

One reason I love all these characters is that everyone else seems to either forget about them or hate them.  I’ve never been a middle child or anyone’s brother, but I know what it’s like to wish to be taken seriously, so I feel for these boys, selfish and self-important as they may be.  Can you think of anyone else who might fit into this category?

what I’m reading

This is the second in the trilogy of posts on what I’m watching, reading, and listening to.  I may make this a regular, periodic feature.  

I teach a college-level children’s literature course, so I read a lot of children’s books, and I have no reason to be ashamed of that.  Most of the below list of books I’ve finished or started within the past week are children’s or YA (young adult, technically a subcategory of children’s lit).

  1. Salt to the Sea by Ruta Sepetys.  I mentioned this YA novel in my recent post about World War 2 stories.  It’s about the sinking of the Wilhelm Gustlav (an overcrowded ship that was evacuating civilians, many of whom were not ethnic Germans, from nearly-defeated Germany in 1945), the largest maritime disaster of the 20th century.  I think being informed about this little-known event is important, but I was disappointed with the book.  Sepetys was too ambitious in trying to write in the voices of four very different adolescents, some of which voices succeed more than others.  In particular, I became increasingly annoyed over the course of the book with the voice of Emilia, a character with whom readers are clearly meant to sympathize.  I think part of the problem was the too-precious voice of the audiobook narrator, but beyond that, the character was overly dreamy and seemed strangely unmoved by the horrors that had occurred in her young life.  Several of her overwrought similes made me cringe.  In contrast, the most successful voice belonged to Alfred, the probably sociopathic young Nazi sailor.  I occasionally felt sorry for him in his delusions, but I mostly felt disgusted–as the author wanted me to feel–by his racism and cowardice.  But the most effective scenes in the book were the minimalist, objective descriptions of the human and inanimate flotsam that floated by the protagonists during the long, freezing night after the sinking.  These scenes were actually more powerful than similar scenes in Titanic (to the extent that you can compare a book with a movie), but the rest of the book was a disappointment–to me, anyway.  Apparently not to people on Goodreads.
  2. And now for a book with a wonderful narrative voice: Bud, Not Buddy by Christopher Paul Curtis.  I reread this book over the weekend because I’ll be teaching it this fall, and I chose it because the protagonist, who tells the story in first person, is an absolute delight.  He reminds me of Huckleberry Finn in that he’s an at-risk youth in pretty dire circumstances, yet he shows his resilience by finding the humor in everything.  I laughed out loud at several of his flights of imagination, like when he tries to drive a car (he can’t) to escape a man he suspects of being a vampire, or when he pretends his mop is the submarine in “20,000 Leaks under the Sea”–“10,000 leaks stopped, only 10,000 more to go!”  The hilarious, genuine voice of Bud–along with the fact that readers are learning unobtrusive lessons about the Great Depression, labor unions, and the Jim Crow era–is probably why this book won the Newbery Medal.
  3. A Ring of Endless Light by Madeline L’Engle.  I’ll probably finish this one tonight.  I read An Austin Family Christmas every Christmas as a child, so I’m enjoying reading about Vicky and her family (and Mr. Rochester the Great Dane) now that they are all a little older.  It took me a little while to get used to the dialogue–it seemed stilted at first, but I eventually realized that these are just really thoughtful and articulate people.  This isn’t a fantasy in the sense of A Wrinkle in Time, but Vicky’s dolphin communication project hovers at the line between science and magic (to quote a Thor movie).  The rest of the novel, though, is firmly realistic.  It’s about death, family, growing up, dating–it’s pretty weighty.  But Vicky’s subtle faith and strong support system make it a hopeful story.
  4. Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer.  This is a book that breaks textual convention (it includes blank pages, photos, cross-hatching, etc.) in an attempt to articulate the inarticulable–death and, more specifically, the deaths of thousands of people (represented by one man) on September 11, 2001.  In keeping with this theme, I won’t say a lot about this book, but I will say that it’s a great example of the principle that having a child narrator (even a successfully authentic one like Oskar in this book) does not make a book a children’s book.

Let me know if you have opinions about any of these books.  Next week, I’ll be back with music I’m listening to.

the war that launched a million stories

The thesis of my blog post today is going to make you say, “Duh.”  Here it is: There are a lot of books and movies about World War 2.  (Really?  I didn’t know that.)  It’s just something I’ve been thinking about over the past couple of days, ever since I watched the new Christopher Nolan film Dunkirk on Sunday night, listened to the YA verse novel American Ace by Marilyn Nelson in the car yesterday, and then started listening to another YA novel, Salt to the Sea, by Ruta Sepetys.  Also on Sunday, my grandmother told me she’d been watching some documentaries on the war (which took place when she was a young girl) and observing that there was a lot more to it than the heavily-narrated European front, and I recommended that she read and/or watch Unbroken, the story of American POW Louis Zamperini.  Even in the murder mystery that I’m reading for book club, Magpie Murders by Anthony Horowitz, the detective-protagonist of the book-within-the-book (this story is very meta) had been in a concentration camp, and the fictional novelist modeled him after Ben Kingsley’s character in Schindler’s List.  So now we’re telling stories about stories about World War 2.

This is not meant to be a philosophical post on causes and consequences, but I want to offer two (again, really obvious) reasons why we can’t seem to stop telling stories about World War 2.  One is that the war changed everything: It brought whatever Victorian optimism was still lingering after the first world war and the Great Depression to a screeching halt.  It reminded the world that the human race is capable of committing–and of surviving–horrors so outlandish they seemingly can’t be narrated (but they can be, of course, as writers and filmmakers have proven over and over).  It changed the way we think about ourselves–and “we” includes those of us born many years after the war.

The other reason there are so many World War 2 stories is that it was a world wara sprawling, complicated event that encompassed hundreds of battles and thousands of stories–millions, if we consider the story of every person who was affected.  So there are always new narrative angles to be taken and under-researched events to be reported.  To use the examples above, Dunkirk and Salt to the Sea are both about massive water evacuations (one in France, one in Germany) that I knew almost nothing about before the release of the movie and book.  American Ace is about a present-day white teenage boy who finds out that his real grandfather was probably one of the Tuskegee Airmen, the squadron of African-American fighter pilots whose story has only recently begun to receive wide exposure.  Unbroken focuses on the war in the Pacific, which I know very little about compared to the war in Europe.  A children’s book I listened to earlier this year, The War That Saved My Life by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley, is about the children who were sent to the English countryside before the bombing of London–who were, functionally, orphans during that time.  Other than the frame narrative of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, I had never read a book or seen a movie about the experiences of these children.

These stories not only teach us the facts of history, which are important to remember if we want to avoid repeating history, but they also give us examples of hope, sacrifice, and courage.  Again, you’ve heard this a hundred times.  But there are millions of stories from World War 2 that we still haven’t heard.