On JK Rowling and the Value of Listening


I didn’t really like JK Rowling ‘s Harry Potter novels when I first started reading them. My kids consumed them. I read them as I teach children’s lit. Skimmed more like as the ‘voice’ and tone of the novels, intensified through the 5th and 6th, irritated me. I read for the magic and the plot, what happens next? how will this be resolved? what is that mysterious thing?

Along the way I heard the story of JK Rowling ‘s extraordinary generosity to a Toronto girl dying of leukemia long before it was public knowledge. That Rowling sent an encrypted outline of the remaining novels so that this girl could know how the story continued and ended before she died.

Rereading the novels in order to teach Azkaban, Rowling’s choices made more sense. That we are immersed in Harry’s frustration and isolation so that we understand the arc of his choices vs. those of Voldemort.

Fan wikis opened up the extraordinary depth of Rowling’s vision and patterning across the series and I remain impressed by her craft and imagination every time I teach her. However, I don’t think I can teach her novels anymore.

Right now, I am flummoxed by Rowling’s failure of imagination. Her hurtful comments on trans people and ‘people who menstruate’ mark the limits of her imagination and understanding. That she chooses to tweet AGAIN on the life experience of trans people when the response to similar ‘stake my ground’ tweets in December 2019 were widely criticized. Then, Rowling tweeted “support for a researcher whose views on transgender people were condemned by a court on Wednesday as “incompatible with human dignity.”

Rowling’s latest tweets are decidedly more troubling than her prior statements, as she continues to double-down. When we are challenged on our beliefs and views, we have an opportunity to stretch and flex our understanding to see beyond our conditioning, culture, and values.

Rowling’s failure to listen to voices and experience outside of her own recall for me insights that can reframe these moments that can happen to all of us.

A core recognition of value pluralism, according to philosopher Isaiah Berlin, is that values across cultures may be incompatible and incommensurable, such that there may be no equivalence, no ‘oh this X in your beliefs is like Y in mine.” When we are called out as Rowling has been, we have a choice as to whether we will pause and listen to the experience of others. We have a choice as to whether we are open to learning we may be wrong in our views. We have a choice as to whether we will respect that the experience of others may be different from our own and we can respect that diversity even if we will never understand it.

Rowling immerses us in the experience of a 15-16-17 year old boy in a way that becomes believable, with emotional depth, complexity, and truth. Her series also reveals failures of imagination, in her 2-dimensional depiction of bullies (Dudley in particular), and the heteronormative binarism of the series. Fans, thankfully, have enriched her storyworld with fics that imagine what she couldn’t. An adult Dudley struggling with their trans identity and calling on Harry to help with that transformation, which Harry notes, is something the wizarding world is very good at. There are many more.

The second insight is Ngọc Loan Trần’s model for calling in vs. calling out. In their 2013 blog post, Trần outlines how mistakes by those we love can be opportunities for dialogue and transformation, when those who have injured and those who have been injured share their values, engage with “patience and compassion” with a commitment of “genuine care” for each other.

As a cis-gendered woman of a similar age, I am regularly challenged by my now adult children and by my students on the limits of my understanding. I am grateful for every instance of being called-in. Indeed, that model was originally shared with me by a student.

Why Rowling feels she needs to restate her views on trans people now is perturbing. What her own writing makes clear is that these stories are not hers to tell. Thankfully, fans continue to imagine a much more inclusive and diverse wizarding world. If you miss her world or feel excluded from it, there are other new more inclusive voices and stories to explore on Archive of Our Own and other fan fic sites. And, if you feel inspired, you can write your own fics and let your imagination explore what Rowling seemingly can’t.

Harry Potter’s Early Years: J.K. Rowling to co-produce magical new stage play


hpfascinating – a transmedia extension to explore Harry Potter’s early years.  Warner Bros is involved and who knew that WB is behind a musical version of  Roald Dahl’s Charlie And The Chocolate Factory? That production is  currently at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, and directed by Sam Mendes. Smart smart, as either one will be touring production gold.

Read more: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/tvshowbiz/article-2526685/Harry-flies-West-End-J-K-Rowling-produce-new-stage-play-based-best-selling-books.html#ixzz2o1Ey3bnL ;

Why The Hunger Games is not Harry Potter, & Why We Should Care

Warning: Spoilers – lots & lots of Spoilers from the Trilogy. Don’t read if you don’t want to know

Have you read The Hunger Games? the full series? been on the Facebook Capitol PN or District pages lately? Dipped into the Twitter feed #LookYourBest?

If you have, you may have noticed something really odd. If you’ve read the first book (now in theaters near you & soon to be released in IMAX!), then you know that Katniss Everdeen volunteers to be a tribute to save her sister, Prim, from certain death.

In the first novel, we see the poverty of District 12, learn about the uprising of the 12 Districts against the Capitol, the ensuing annihilation of District 13, the brutal subjugation of the remaining 12 Districts and the founding of the Hunger Games as a reminder of the destruction that rebellion & civil war lead to.


In The Hunger Games, Suzanne Collins’ story exemplifies what I have come to see as the moral core of children’s literature, which I have taught roughly twice a year for 10 years now. The power & the truth of children’s lit lies in the valuing of a child’s point of view, which in the ‘real’ world, we adults view as immature, naive, ignorant, etc etc, in contrast to the more mature, nuanced & complex understanding adults have as a result of experience, knowledge, and wisdom, as the result of more time spent on earth.

The moral core of good children’s lit is the absolute assertion of the value of the individual relationship against arguments of sacrificing one or many for the greater good. Children refuse to treat others as objects, affirming instead subject to subject relationships. You see this in Huckleberry Finn, where Huck cannot betray the immediacy of his friendship with Jim, even though he believes helping a runaway slave is wrong & will land him in hell. And in Twain’s extended critique of Tom Sawyer’s cruel victimization of Jim in the final section, when Tom directs a prolonged, unnecessary prison escape, despite knowing that Jim is now free.

It’s there in The Golden Compass where Lyra always commits to helping those who are being victimized, and she consistently positions herself against the adults in power who kill the weak for the greater good: the children at Bolvangar, Roger… Philip Pullman makes this contrast explicit in Mrs. Coulter’s and Lord Asriel’s complete lack of empathy for those they torture & kill respectively.

This moral core is fundamental to Rowling’s Harry Potter series, as Harry, Hermione, Ron & Dumbledore’s Army consistently choose to fight Voldemort’s totalitarian regime. And most importantly, what Rowling makes absolutely clear is that her characters assert their love for one another, and that those bonds exist as an aspect of identity and community that are worth self-sacrifice, as Harry shows us in the final book, but never the sacrifice of others as symbolic, token or necessary substitutes.  In the film version of the Half-Blood Prince, Dumbledore says to Harry, “Just like your mother, you’re unfailingly kind. A trait people never fail to undervalue, I’m afraid.” Throughout the series and across generations, Rowling repeatedly sets kindness against cruelty, and in the final battle, we see the impact of those forces on different character arcs (Neville, Luna).

So, if you’ve only read The Hunger Games, the first novel seems to hew closely to this model. The Hunger Games are an annual sacrifice of two youths for the greater good, Katniss’ volunteering for her sister is a self-sacrifice that saves her sister from experiencing a horrible death played out as spectacle for the entertainment of the Capitol and which the Districts are obligated to witness.


And here’s where the novel starts to become tricky – Katniss’ preparation for the Games by her team of stylists is both glamourous and an enactment of the power of the state on the body of the subjugated. As Collins repeatedly tells us, Tributes are often sent into the Opening Ceremonies in stylized nakedness and as Katniss is waxed and groomed, she is grateful that her team stops short of radical body modification. The novel tenuously balances Katniss’ resistant pov on her transformation into the most beautiful girl at the Games and the seductiveness of luxury that is the central focus of the Twitter hashtag, #LookYourBest and the messaging of the Facebook Capitol and District pages.

Here’s where the disjunction between the novel(s), the marketing, and the reception start to get really strange. If you’ve read the Trilogy, then you know SPOILER! that Katniss takes on the role of figurehead leader of the revolution of the Districts against the Capitol, that she is manipulated by the leader of District 13 (not dead after all), by Abernathy, by Cinna, that Prim is killed in an unconscionable attack on the children of the Capitol, and that Karniss becomes a morphling (morphine) addict who is repeatedly being medicalized against her will, spending what seem to be numerous stretches in opiate induced unconsciousness.


That Lionsgate has made identification with the Capitol and the vacuous, privileged, style & spectacle obsessed residents of the Capitol the focal point for fans of the series is an unbelievable misstep in terms of what the series depicts as the evil at the heart of what America has become. So if you’ve read the series, images such as these are weighted with the problematic identifications we are asked to make – to President Snow, to the Capitol inhabitants who enjoy watching youth being maimed & destroyed.

In the screen shot below from The Capitol Facebook Page, the invitation to wear a white rose to ‘honor President Snow’ is distinctly problematic, given the sadistic inventiveness of the torture enacted in the Games & the violence that follows the uprisings.


Collins also makes clear that Katniss’ final choice [SPOILERS!] of killing President Coin (no accidental name here) is an act to protect the future, where the shooting of President Snow would have avenged the past. This is explicit in the contrast between Katniss and her best friend/erstwhile boyfriend, Gale, who chooses a different path, designing death traps that intentionally sacrifice the innocent for the greater good. The fact that she and he can never know for sure if his strategem killed Prim and the hundreds of Capitol children she had rushed to help is a deciding factor in Katniss (finally) choosing Peeta (which we don’t see in the novel).

What is most difficult about the series & where it is distinctly NOT Harry Potter, is that Katniss’ story, told in first-person, is the story of a teenager suffering acutely from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder without relief. The first-person voice is strategic as it means that Katniss is initially ignorant of how she is being manipulated by both sides, President Snow & District 13 leader, Coin. What it means though is that we experience Katniss’ world & story from within an extremely traumatized psyche. Unlike Rowling’s series, Katniss has no community, no network of friends, and bluntly, there is no joy in the series, which the Harry Potter series has in abundance with the affirmation of friendships and love, and the delight and wonder of the magical world. In contrast, Katniss is repeatedly betrayed by those she trusts, trauma is inflicted on her repeatedly, in the first games, then the 75th Games, where all surviving Victors compete against each other. Finnick & Annie’s wedding in The Mockingjay is a brief moment of relief and yet, Katniss is superficially engaged and Collins then kills Finnick.


Why then is this a series that speaks to its audience now?? It’s not just the parallels between the novel’s dystopic vision of a future America and the polarization and activism that has sprung up around the Occupy movement and its language of the 1% and 99%. And to be frank, this critique seems to be completely missing from the engagement Lionsgate invites and the role-playing fans engage in dressing up as Effie or playing tributes on the various online games.


What no one to my knowledge has flagged are the parallels between Katniss’ acute experience of PTSD (one could add Peeta, Haymitch, & all the other victors here, with the nightmares, the constant fear of attack), the descriptions of her physically traumatized body with the extensive burn scarring and the parallels to the phenomenon of PTSD in American military personnel returning from Iraq & Afghanistan. Here too, Peeta’s loss of a leg resonates, even though he has been fitted with a high-tech prosthesis. As a Canadian, not living in a country militarized to the degree that the US is now, I have to ask if the dystopic vision of The Hunger Games series is a mediation of what seems from across the border to be an awareness of the challenge of reintegrating the severely traumatized veterans of the War on Terror.

Nicholas Kristoff has reported that for every American soldier’s death in Afghanistan and Iraq, 25 military veterans commit suicide (TWENTY-FIVE), one every 80 minutes. That is an astonishing, devastating phenomenon. In this context, I cannot but read The Hunger Games series as a reflection on and mediation of the scarred bodies and psyches of those who return who, like Katniss or Haymitch, are barely able to connect back to an everyday life of normalicy. Collins gives us a snapshot of the future, Katniss & Peeta in the future with children, yet Katniss is clearly still scarred, not surprisingly.

So when my 13 year old daughter tells me that she loves The Hunger Games and that on reading The Mockingjay for the second time that she started crying on the first page & didn’t stop until the end, I’m not surprised. The degree of violence, victimization and brutalization surpasses that of Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker, Kimberley Pierce’s Stop Loss, or even Michael Cimino’s The Deer Hunter (yup, I’m going that far). The sadism enacted in the series  matches or surpasses the details of Charles Taylor’s regime that have hit the news this week.

There may be some parallels between Collins’ series and Rowling’s, but they are absolutely not the same in tone or experience. It might be time to start asking why this series resonates now, what fans are responding to, and what is actually being critiqued in the novels. Having read the series, how Lionsgate is going to adapt the following two novels for a PG-13 audience is beyond me as the current marketing of the film through its ARG extensions firmly positions the audience in the role of those who oppress and torture. Good luck, Lionsgate.

Nicholas Kristoff’s article here: