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Harry Potter -- magic or menace?

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DAYTON, Ohio -- The skeleton, perched on the roof of a 19th-century mansion, wore a witch hat and clutched a tattered Oscar Wilde volume in his bony hands.

Our hostess appeared in a quite convincing Bride of Frankenstein costume, which she thought would double nicely, with a few minor revisions, for Marge Simpson.It was, in other words, the best of all possible parties in that best of all possible seasons for the imagination, Halloween. Everyone had a good time, including a neighbor child who had declined to come the year before. "I don't go trick-or-treating," he explained at the time. "I'm going to Heaven."

You can always count on someone -- some adult, that is -- trying to spoil the fun of Halloween, to find evil in the inventive, menace in the magical.

So I suppose it was only a matter of time before someone tried to ruin Harry Potter for us. Parents in Columbia, S.C., have persuaded the state's Board of Education to review whether the runaway best-sellers should be allowed in the classroom. Now, the Cincinnati-based Family Friendly Libraries (www.fflibraries.org) has jumped on the bandwagon, attacking the books about the young magician for their supposed occult themes, violent content and anti-family bias.

In place of Harry Potter, the group recommends a list of fine books, but most are from the 19th century and almost none from the second half of this century. Some are still widely read, such as "Charlotte's Web" and "Little Women" and the "Little House" series.

Nothing tears my son away from the TV quicker than the words, "It's Harry Potter time." No telling what he'd say if I hollered, "Time for Pollyanna!"

It's hard to imagine many boys today -- let alone many girls -- checking out these titles: "A Little Princess"; "Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm"; "An Old-Fashioned Girl"; and "Little Lord Fauntleroy."

And "Pollyanna"? "I don't think I've ever seen a boy pick that up," says Stephanie Bange, children's librarian for the Kettering-Moraine branch of the Dayton and Montgomery County Public Library.

It has been a long time since any children's book has created a Harry-Potter-sized buzz, among children and adults alike, Bange says: "A really good fantasy is hard to come by. The books are well-written, the loose ends are tied up, and there's nice character development."

What strikes one about reading the Family Friendly Libraries' approved books is not how different they are from Harry Potter -- an orphan -- but how much they have in common.

"But Pollyanna was an orphan," Bange points out. Same with "Anne of Green Gables," and Mary in "The Secret Garden."

"And nobody makes a fuss about C.S. Lewis' 'Chronicles of Narnia' series, which are based on Christian theology, but there are also witches and the dark side," Bange says.

There are other elements familiar to classic children's literature -- and, supernatural elements aside, will remind them of their own lives. "There's a lot of self-discovery that kids relate to," Bange observes.

The series is popular with "reluctant readers" as well as bookworms, Bange says: "For kids to find books that send them to another world -- it sends me. That's why we're here, to make kids into lifelong readers."

That may be Harry's greatest magic trick of all.