Sunday, January 23, 2011

Comparative Literature in Elementary Grades? You bet!

When our daughter was 9, she read the Harry Potter series repeatedly. She's always been one for a long, involved story, particularly one with colorful characters. The adventure, mythology and magic J.K. Rowling provided in her books were equally compelling to E. But in January 2010, we had her put the series aside. There are other books to be read, we told her, and there were other issues that created a need for changes in reading and activities here at home.

Fast forward to January 2011. E asked if she could pick up the series again. We made a deal: for each Potter book, she needed to read one book from which the Potter stories have purportedly been derived, or which Rowling has claimed in public interviews have provided inspiration for her writing in general. I didn't even think about what I was doing, that this was the beginning of something pretty big for a little kid: a comparative literature course for the Harry Potter set.

I researched some articles and interviews online to which I felt E could safely refer. (We still don't allow free access, even to Google search, because of the weird and random stuff that pops up. I've seen things, thanks to the Internet, that no one should ever have seen.) We began with these:

We'll also be reading:

E chose to begin with Shakespeare, but in short order discovered that the Bard was some awfully heavy reading, particularly for a modern American. She moved on to a more child-friendly list and the hunt for books in our local library began.

We talked about reading The Legend of Rah and the Muggles and Larry Potter and His Best Friend Lilly,  the author of which filed suit against Rowling when the Potter books were published. Indeed, the titles lead to some questions. However, after viewing the website I started to have reservations. There are LOTS of fantastic books in this world, and only so much time. If the writing in the books were at like the writings online, certainly these titles wouldn't rank. Still, it was up to E. She checked out the site, too. She couldn't wade through the complete introduction the author has made available there. "This is really bad, Mom." And she read the reviews. "I think we can skip these."

She's already lead the Narnia series, and the Tolkien series, and many of the others to which our research pointed. So we settled on these titles for the project reading list. I don't know if she'll read them all, but she'll certainly read six of them. They are, after all, her gateway to the "next book" in the coveted HP series:
Matilda (Dahl)
James & The Giant Peach (Dahl)
Book of Three (Alexander)
Groosham Grange (Horowitz)
Wizard of Earthsea (LeGuin)
Worst Witch (Murphy)
Charmed Life (W. Jones)
Wizard's Hall (Yolen)
Secret of Platform 13 (Ibbotson)
Tom Brown's School Days (Hughes)

E whipped through Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone (aka book 1) in a day. She was trying to draw it out, but she's just a fast reader and hardly put it down. Then she selected from the list. She tried to read James and the Giant Peach, but said she didn't like it. "It's not very interesting," she explained. There's no depth to the characters, and for her, that's typically the death knell for any title. She set Dahl aside and picked up Wizard's Hall. Here's her take:

Harry Potter and Wizard's Hall are very similar, but I like Harry Potter better. Harry Potter is a little more advanced than Wizard's Hall. Here are some comparisons. 

The main character in Wizard's Hall has no talent for magic, unlike Harry Potter. Tansy is a lot like Hermione: smart and kind of bossy, but nice. Will is a lot like Ronald Weasly, down to the looks, even.

The schools themselves are a lot alike with doors that are one style Sunday, and by Monday, they're different. Also, Wizard's Hall seems to be a lot smaller than Hogwarts.

The storylines are a lot different. Wizard's Hall is a lot simpler, and Thornmallow wins completely, without losing anyone he so much as likes. In Harry Potter, Harry wins, but loses lots of friends.

Basically, I like Harry Potter better, but they're both very good. They are both very alike and very different. I would recommend Wizard's Hall to younger kids, and Harry Potter to older ones.

On to explore the Chamber of Secrets...


  1. Thank you! This is so interesting. I don't think of the HP series as unique, and I'm sure it's because I read a bunch of the "influences and analogues" over the years... but my kids don't have the same perspective. I love the comparative reading idea!

  2. Mckenna and Spencer have both loved Dahl and return to them nostalgically. Perhaps because they were exposed to them pre Potter the depth of character issue wasn't a problem as it might be now that theare getting older. The girls might like some of the lesser known Dahl titles which are shorter but tasty none the less. We have loved George's Marvelous Medicine, Fantastic Mr. Fox, The Twits, The Enormous Crocodile. My favorite is the BFG (Big Friendly Giant). This is a fun read with great wit. We have also enjoyed listening to these in the car on a long drive. Same with the Potter series even if you have read them they are really well done in the audio book version.


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