So my husband shared a video with me of a stand-up comedian Aaron Woodall comparing Harry Potter to Star Wars. It’s pretty funny, and definitely worth a watch.
But the part of the act that caught my attention was this line:
“A book you read when you were 12 can’t be your favorite book today.”
Woodall introduces his Star Wars/Harry Potter analysis by insisting that it’s strange adults his age (30s) still like Harry Potter. To be fair, his exact quote is “are obsessed with,” and I respect there are levels to obsession. Personally, if someone my age buys themselves a wand or knits a Gryffindor scarf, I think it’s fun and harmless. I’d only have an issue or they were blowing all their rent money on HP merchandise or punching people in the nose over the Ron/Hermione vs Harry/Hermione shipping debate. I am not obsessed with Harry Potter, but I am 38 years old, and I do enjoy it greatly. I am on book 7 in perhaps my 3rd complete reading of the series.
But there is a book I first read when I was 12 that could be considered an obsession: The Perilous Gard by Elizabeth Marie Pope. I have reread the penultimate chapter every Halloween since the 7th grade (the climax of the book takes place on Halloween). It was the basis of my college thesis project. I’ve written a musical soundtrack to parts of it.
Does this make me immature? Have I not grown up yet? According to Aaron Woodall, perhaps that’s the case.
“There’s 30-year-olds everywhere who are like, ‘Oooooh I’m a Ravenclaw.’ No, you’re an adult, Sarah.”
I suspect Woodall picked the name Sarah at random, but I do feel like it makes the comment a personal challenge. I do recognize this is a comedy routine, with points that have been exaggerated for humor. But I publicly reject Woodall’s thesis that “A book you read when you were 12 can’t be your favorite book today. It can’t.”
It can. Sometimes it should.
But first, let’s give credit to Woodall for some valid arguments.
“Like if you ask me what my favorite book was and I told you The Hatchet, you’d think I was an idiot, and you’d be right. This dude hasn’t read a book since the 5th grade. No, I haven’t. I have not.”
Let us lay aside the merits of Gary Paulsen’s novel, which I have not read, and admit Woodall does have this point. If we have not read a book since the 5th grade, that’s an issue. When people ask us what our favorite novel is, we shouldn’t default to our childhood books simply because we haven’t read anything since. Adulthood and the simple passage of time (there are books out there that weren’t even written when we were children) open up a broad new world of literature to us. Certainly at age 12 I would not have enjoyed Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, but now I can, and this 800 page tome certainly stretches me as a reader.
But Woodall misses one key point in his argument.
He assumes books must be exclusively for one age group.
And sure, some are. But I did not grow up with Harry Potter. I was a legal adult before I read my first one. As was my mother. And we both enjoyed HP as adults without any childhood sentimentality.
In discussing HP with the many youth volunteers I’ve worked with over the years, I recognize that I may get something out of the novels they don’t, or vice versa. Take, for example, the Yule Ball chapters in Goblet of Fire. Ron and Harry must find dates to the dance. Harry thinks he would rather face battle with another dragon. When I speak to young readers, they relate more to Harry’s angst. Finding a date to the dance, risking going alone or going with the wrong person, being mocked for wearing something unfashionable, seeing your crush with someone else, having to dance while others watch you, all these are immediate and potentially traumatic to the young. But to adult survivors of puberty, these chapters are hilarious. We’ve been there, we relate, but we have the perspective of distance now to recognize the humor.
The difference in interpretation is highlighted in the movie, where the angst is highlighted over the humor. Emma Watson as Hermione ends the scene in tears over Ron, while in the novel the same line is more of a sassy, even triumphant retort. This is perhaps because the movies target young adult viewers more explicitly than the novels ever did. The pain of the moment, not the humor, is forefront in the movie.
I believe Rowling wrote HP for multiple ages to appreciate. Look at the amount of time Rowling spends on adult characters: Lupin, Snape, and others in the adult generation are at times given more development than some of the young characters who are Harry’s own classmates.
And I would argue that many young adult novels these days are written knowing that adults may pick them up. According to The Atlantic, approximately 55 percent of today’s YA readers are adults. I read Marissa Meyer’s Lunar Chronicles in my 30’s, and I know I’m not the only adult out there that loved the series. Sometimes, a good book is simply a good book.
As I said, I never read HP as a kid, but I do reread some of my childhood favorites still. Rereading a childhood favorite can be comforting as wrapping up in a blanket with a bowl of cheesy mac. Sometimes the magic of the book is muted by time. I notice the plot points are not as original as I first thought. Or the struggles of the characters are not as raw and fresh to me as an adult. But other books remain relevant, because they have grown with me. In fact, I have insights as an adult I lacked when I was a younger reader.
Take, for example, The Perilous Gard. When I was 12, I focused more on the adventure, on the main character Kate’s awkwardness and bravery. As an adult, I notice Elizabeth Marie Pope’s depth of research. The details of the Elizabethan Era blend with layers of period ballads. I notice the symbolism, the push and pull of conflicting religious and cultural beliefs. In The Perilous Gard, The Fairy Folk are dangerous and mysterious, but they are not evil. They are a complex culture coming to terms with the passage of time and the fading of their own traditions. I also better appreciate as an adult Pope’s interpretation of The Ballad of Tam Lin. In the original ballad, the hero literally changes into different shapes and our heroine must literally hold on to him. In Pope’s retelling, it’s a psychological journey. As an adult reader, I can see it as a loose metaphor for depression, or as commentary on the nature of loving another complex person who takes on many “shapes” over time.
My husband just walked in and added to this argument that he read Alcott’s Little Women at age 12 and it’s still one of his favorite novels. One of his long-term dreams is to stage Little Women as a play. His search for the right music to underscore the scenes also speaks to his adult understanding of the characters’ emotions and the themes of the novel.
So, Aaron Woodall, I appreciate your humor and your point that we should not pick a favorite book at age 12 and quit reading. But I challenge you take a deeper look at some of your own childhood favorites. Some may reveal to you insights you never saw as a child.
Which of your own childhood favorites do you appreciate even more as an adult?