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Books: Kiddy lit

Books | Potter series is a delight, but beware of children's books by celebrities

Issue: "Is our military ready?," May 29, 1999

There are some children's books that I can't put down. No, really. I mean I can't put them down, because my 2-year-old often engages in two of his great passions at the same time: reading books and eating peanut-butter sandwiches. So you see what I mean. I have come to appreciate board books, which stand up to washcloths. Stickiness, as a result, has become a pretty reliable meter for the merit of books. Titles such as We're Going on a Bear Hunt, by Michael Rosen and Helen Oxenbury, are positively gluey, while certain Disney books (particularly Pooh in his post-classical period) couldn't catch flies, if you know what I mean. Current bestselling kiddie lit titles cover both ends of the stickiness spectrum. At the high end, ranking with superglue, duct tape, and grits, is the new Harry Potter series by Scottish author J.K. Rowling. At the low end, nearer to that elementary school paste that was frankly better for eating, is a slew of spiritual self-help titles for children, written by celebrities. Della Reese, of Touched by an Angel, has authored a confusing book called God Inside of Me, while Maria Shriver gives wrong answers to the question, What's Heaven? in her new book. Horror-movie heroine Jamie Lee Curtis, in Today I Feel Silly, offers advice in verse that would embarrass a commercial jingle-writer. The publishing sensation in children's literature today is Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, scoring huge sales and ardent young fans. Christian parents may wonder if they want their children to get caught up in the Harry Potter craze, especially considering the Sorcerer in the title. Magic and wizardry are problematic for Christian readers. Mrs. Rowling, though, keeps it safe, inoffensive, and non-occult. This is the realm of Gandalf and the Wizard of Id, not witchcraft. There is a fairy-tale order to it all in which, as Chesterton and Tolkien pointed out, magic must have rules, and good does not-cannot-mix with bad. But there's more to the Harry Potter series than just this, as grand as fairy tales are by themselves. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone is a delight-with a surprising bit of depth. It's the first in a 2-year-old series about a young misfit who learns he's a wizard (the third in the series is slated to be released in the United States next month). He's sent off to a wizard's boarding school, and the adventures begin. What makes this not uncommon premise work is author J.K. Rowling's skill as a sub-creator. This mother from Edinburgh has crafted a believable world that exists alongside our own. The tricky part, and what she does well, is making that other world as mundane, in its own ways, as our own. Harry Potter, left as an infant with his aunt and uncle, learns on his 11th birthday that he's a wizard. His aunt and uncle knew all along, of course, but being caretakers in the grand tradition of fairy-tale stepparents, they sought to smother any signs of magic in the child. "Knew!" Shrieked Aunt Polly suddenly. "Of course we knew! How could you not be, my dratted sister being what she was? Oh, she got a letter just like that and disappeared off to that-that school-and came home every vacation with her pockets full of frog spawn, turning teacups into rats." "That school" is Hogwarts School, where Harry's parents had become famous wizards (at least among other wizards). And that's where Harry is now sent, leaving his Dickensian life of sleeping in a cupboard and wearing his awful cousin Dudley's hand-me-downs. He finds that he's famous himself, being the only survivor of a plot by a dark wizard. Though he doesn't know his own history, everyone else does. But he soon learns that fame, and even magic, haven't solved all of his problems. His new world is fascinating-and very like ours. The aforementioned Dudley is a rotten kid, but some of the students at Hogwarts turn out to be rotten kids, too. Harry is still a misfit, but he finds other misfits, and he seems to fit with them. There's Ron, the fifth of six children in his family to attend Hogwarts (even his magic wand is a hand-me-down). There's Hermione, the slightly bossy girl with a knack for transformations (she was the first in her class to turn a match into a needle, for example). There's the burley gamekeeper, Hagrid, who knew Harry's parents, and of course Fluffy, the three-headed hellhound. What becomes clear after a few chapters is that Harry Potter's world is a particularly good analogy for adolescence. What junior high-aged kid doesn't feel misunderstood and mistreated? And as the high-school years commence, he learns more about himself, his talents and his proclivities. He also sees his own shortcomings more clearly. The mundanities of Harry's world make it believable. Yes, there are magic candies, such as Bertie Bott's Every Flavor Beans, but by every flavor, it means just that. Harry bites into a green one-sprouts. The next one he tries is sardine-flavored. There are ghosts, such as Nearly Headless Nick, but they tend to be tattletales and depressing conversationalists. The children learn spells, but they learn them from books and teachers and studying. And there are exams. The second and third books in this series, already published in Great Britain, will be published here next month. That's none too soon for Scholastic-Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, book two in the series, is a hot seller through's UK site, which ships to the States and bypasses paying Scholastic its American royalties. Della Reese, the gospel singer and star of CBS's Touched by an Angel, has written a confusing and ultimately forgettable story, God Inside of Me. Kenisha, a young girl, loves Sunday school but hates dragging her brother along (he's a slowpoke). Others in her life have grievous faults, too. Rabunny, a stuffed rabbit, snores. Clown can't make up his mind. Rackeroon asks too many questions. Luckily, Dolly Dear is brimming with wisdom. "Everything and everyone comes into the world with everything they need inside of them," Dolly Dear contends. Kenisha agrees, since her Sunday school teacher told her "there is a piece of God inside of us, and inside that piece of God is all the stuff we need." That's just confusing. At times Ms. Reese seems to be making a valid point about how God loves us, while we are yet sinners. And yet, she rejects the concept of sin. At other times she seems almost to be making a case for natural law. But "the God inside" bears little resemblance to the transcendent God of the Bible. The characters here may be going to Sunday school, but they are learning New Age lessons. Also confusing is Ms. Reese's mix of imaginary characters and real characters. Her book comes dangerously close to making a truth-claim or two, and whether or not those claims are valid, it doesn't help to obscure them by putting the words in the mouth of a doll. Ms. Reese's magic, in short, doesn't play by the rules. Maria Shriver's book, What's Heaven?, is not confusing. It's simply wrong. Ms. Shriver says she wrote it after the death of Rose Kennedy, to help explain their great-grandmother's death to her children. And so it's about an inquisitive girl named Kate, whose grandmother dies. "Heaven," said Kate's mom, "is a beautiful place up in the sky, where no one is sick, where no one is mean or unhappy. It's a place beyond the moon, the stars, and the clouds. Heaven is where you go when you die." Are there entry requirements? Nothing much, Ms. Shriver assures us. Her mom replied, "I believe if you're good throughout your life, then you get to go to Heaven. Some people believe in different kinds of heaven and have different names for it." At death, Kate is told, angels come and escort one's soul to Heaven. And from Heaven, those souls can look down upon us. Personally, I'm starting to look down upon Kate, because as inquisitive as she seems, she fails to ask her mother one question: "Where are you getting this stuff, Mom?" An even stranger title is Jamie Lee Curtis's Today I Feel Silly & Other Moods That Make My Day. It's literary cereal for Prozac kids. "I'd rather feel silly, excited or glad/ Than cranky or grumpy, discouraged or sad./But moods are just something that happen each day/Whatever I'm feeling inside is okay!" We probably needn't worry much about the go-with-the-flow message; children probably won't care for the limping, lame rhyme-scheme. The illustrations, by Laura Cornell, are charming enough, but not even they can overcome the painfulness of "Today I am angry, you'd better stay clear./My face is all pinched and red ear-to-ear./My friends had a play-date, and I was left out,/ My feelings are hurt. I want to shout!" But it could have been worse. What if she had come up with a rhyme for "group therapy"?

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