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Not all the numbers are nice, of course: the American Library Association ranks the Harry Potter books as the most challenged in the country; more parents have requested that Harry be banished from bookshelves than they have Huck Finn, more than Catcher in the Rye. Conservative Christian parents have argued that the books promote witchcraft and Satanism; a student in Houston had to get up and leave the room every time the teacher read aloud from Harry Potter. But even that ruckus has calmed down or come to stand for a much larger conversation about what should shape the moral life of children. "I think any unusual focus on things like magic and witchcraft is a bad idea," says Charles J. Chaput, Archbishop of Denver, "but these things can also be a natural part of storytelling with children. So I think the Potter argument is really about bigger and deeper battles going on all over the culture about our national character."
There is also a small secular culture war about whether these books are good enough to deserve their acclaim, whether they will endure as classics or fade as fads. The charge, which given the mass popularity is typically made rather quietly, is that the stories are formulaic and conventional. The attack came first and most famously from stuffy Yale professor Harold Bloom, keeper of keys to the literary kingdom, who dismissed the first Harry Potter book as thin and derivative in a 2000 article in the Wall Street Journal and has since refused to look at any of the sequels. "I would think in another generation or so," he told TIME, "Harry Potter will be in the dustbins everywhere. It will be period-piece rubbish because it is so atrociously written."
He is, to put it mildly, in a minority; Bloom might be surprised at the number of adult readers who scour the texts for Jungian archetypes and trace the folkloric roots of hinkypunks, mischievous creatures who mislead travelers into bogs. "I think she's a terrific writer," says Maurice Sendak, author and illustrator of 80 children's books, who has read the first book. "And she's a ripper-offer, like me. She has taken from some of the best English literature and cooked up her own stew. It's brilliant, and I have every intention of reading the others; otherwise children I know will kill me."
Teachers who actually encounter children every day are just as appreciative. "I don't know that it is literature like The Grapes of Wrath," argues Gail Hackett, a librarian at Monroe Elementary in Des Moines, Iowa. "But it's not Captain Underpants either." Beyond their gratitude at anything that gets kids to read, parents and teachers appreciate how Rowling doesn't pander or patronize. "Generally adults in children's literature are horrible or incompetent," observes Debbie Mitchell of the Magic Tree Book Store in Oak Park, Ill., while Rowling shows adults being wise and fair and, in the gamekeeper Hagrid, the best friend imaginable. Her tone can also grow dark and Grimm in ways that many contemporary children's fantasies don't. "Children's psyches are a lot more sophisticated than we give them credit for," says Suzanne Ferleger, a child therapist in Encino, Calif. "Adults would like to think that in kids' minds the world is rosy. But they sugarcoat the deeper feelings of children. Rowling taps into that on so many levels."