Almost a year ago, I fretted that my daughter Maddie, a newly minted second grader, didn’t love to read the way I did at her age. She read, all right, in a dutiful sort of way, but she hadn’t yet had the experience of losing herself in a book — she hadn’t crept out of the house with Caddie Woodlawn or gotten lost in Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory. But then, after hearing classmates rave about J.K. Rowling, Maddie picked up Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone — and became a child possessed. In less than a week she had read all three books, and then she reread them, sneaking the books in bed with a flashlight, chattering about Buckbeak, Muggles, Crookshanks, Every Flavor Beans, howlers, and house-elves. I had to pick up the books myself so I could understand what she was talking about.
And she wasn’t the only kid speaking another language. As I soon discovered, Harry Potter has eclipsed Pokemon in many circles. Children don’t just read the books, they play Harry Potter make-believe games on the playground, spin their own sequels, and play Quidditch on the official Harry Potter website. They make Harry board games, trading cards, even their own costumes: Last Halloween I was amazed to see, amid the prefab Queen Amidalas and Pikachus, dozens of homemade Potter outfits. My daughter was Hermione, complete with cloak and a Beanie Baby owl. The boy across the street carved a Harry pumpkin, getting the round glasses and lightning-shaped scar exactly right.
In short, my kid, like millions of kids all over America, has been using her imagination to fuel her play — and just her imagination, since, blissfully, there haven’t been any tie-in toys or merchandise to get in the way: no cloaked Harry action figures sporting laser-beam wands, no Hermione Barbies with different clothes (Hermione in her school robes! Hermione in Professor Snape’s class!), not to mention sleeping bags, candy, lunch boxes, Band-Aids, and cake decorations.
But there are about to be. And as a parent who loves these books, and loves what they’ve done for children, including mine, I cringe at the thought of what will happen this fall, when the deluge of Potter stuff hits stores. I hope the toys don’t dilute the books themselves, as they did with Ludwig Bemelmans’ venerable Madeline series and, to some extent, Marc Brown’s Arthur adventures. Frankly, I wish there weren’t going to be any Harry merchandise at all. I wish we could stay in this quaint time warp. But since that’s not possible, I just have to hope that the toys are good — that they have been conceived with thought and care, that the people who have designed them understand what these books and characters mean to kids. Is that too much for a parent to ask?