Editor's Note: I featured Susan Sipal, a Pittsboro mom and Harry Potter expert, last week, just as her book, "A Writer's Guide to Harry Potter," was released. She shares her thoughts on how the blockbuster series can teach kids important reading skills.
In a world where online content is increasingly filled by anyone with a social media platform, parents face rising pressure to teach children critical reading skills. So much of what our young ones are exposed to both online and off comes from sources that may not have the highest fact-checking or journalistic integrity. Everyone has their own agenda and helping your little social media omnivore recognize these subtle messages is challenging. Especially when parents are usually not looking over their offspring’s shoulder 24/7.
However, trying to get your 10-year-old to listen while you explain why a game designer has skimpily-clothed women next to fully-armed heroes will only get you eye rolls and a slammed door. Give them a Harry Potter book, though, and then point out one or two of JK Rowling’s hidden clues and watch as your child races through the text to find every hidden mystery and analogy that lurks like the Giant Squid beneath the surface of Rowling’s books.
Rowling likes to play with her reader. She acknowledged in a 2003 interview with Stephen Fry: “I want you to be able to guess, if you've got your wits about you. There are a few surprises coming.”
She definitely surprised me and my son. As we read together and fell in love with Rowling’s quirky characters and delightful world building, we discovered the best Easter eggs lay hidden below the text. From the time my son figured out that there were clues hidden everywhere, he became obsessed with hunting out and finding every possible meaning beneath Rowling’s surface words.
For example, one of the earliest secrets Rowling’s young readers caught onto was the meaning behind her names. Petunia is as petulant as her name sounds. Minerva McGonagall is quite the wise yet strong professor, like her namesake goddess. And Argus Filch, indeed, seems to have a hundred eyes in spying miscreants about the castle.
As the subtext became more layered, the fans embraced the challenge. Mythical and legendary references underpin the series, from pulling swords out of hats inspired by King Arthur, to the “Minotaur” monster waiting to devour the young sacrifice portkeyed from the center of the Triwizard maze. Perhaps the most impressionable and lasting references were to social issues, from concern over the treatment of people with illnesses like AIDS, as represented by Remus Lupin, to the dangers we face when a world is increasingly broken down among ethnic identities, as exemplified by the pure bloods, half bloods and mudbloods.
When children as young as 10 become so fascinated with a world and characters that they research myths to hunt out more clues, debate with their friends over what’s to come and even write articles to post on fansites to share with other equally passionate fans, they have learned perhaps the greatest gift Rowling gave a whole generation. The knowledge that what lies upon the surface of the written word is not all there is, and that sometimes, what is most fascinating and mysterious, is what lies underneath.
Reading together has always been a cherished activity between parent and child. How much more meaningful it is when reaching the end of a book, parents see their beloved offspring better prepared to face a world where, sometimes, monsters truly do lurk below the surface of the page.
S.P. Sipal is the author of A Writer’s Guide to Harry Potter, which help writers and fans alike peer beneath the surface of Rowling’s pages for the Giant Squid of myths, mysteries, and subtext within a Harry Potter novel. You can find Susan online at her blog at HarryPotterForWriters.com or on Twitter at @HP4Writers. She will be presenting and signing her book from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m., Aug. 6, in Pittsboro, at the Chatham Marketplace during the mini Renaissance Faire hosted by Starrlight Mead.