"It was Harry Potter's 13th birthday and, since he was surrounded by his occult-o-phobic relatives, the high point was a trio of owls arriving with cards from his best friends at the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry."
The big news was that Ron Weasley's family had won a pile of gold and was investing its grand prize in a pilgrimage to Egypt. Classmate Hermione Granger was happy for him but added: "I bet he's learning loads. I'm really jealous — the ancient Egyptian wizards were fascinating."
Millions of readers may have passed over this early detail in "Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban," book three in the omnipresent series by British author Kathleen Rowling. But out in flyover country between New York and Los Angeles, these words led many to search the Book of Exodus for its account of a showdown between God, Moses and Aaron and the "sorcerers," "magicians" and wizards of ancient Egypt.
More than a few proceeded to ask their local librarians a loaded question: Whose side is Harry Potter on, anyway? Obviously, critics will dissect each of the 752 pages in "Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire," 5.2 million copies of which rolled through American and British bookstores and World Wide Web portals after midnight on July 8. Its release is being hailed as the biggest publishing event in the English-speaking world, the planet, the universe — pick a venue, any venue.
This much is certain: Harry Potter IV will make millions of people happy and others very worried. The first crowd will be greeted warmly when it visits public libraries and schools. The odds are good the critics will not.
"Anyone who has had any experience in library work and with children's literature could see that these books were going to be hot," said Kimbra Wilder Gish, a librarian at the Vanderbilt University Medical Center. She recently published an article titled "Hunting Down Harry Potter" in The Horn Book, a prestigious journal of children's literature.
"These books had everything — witches, warlocks, magic, evil spirits, the whole lot. So I wasn't shocked by the controversy. I was shocked that so many librarians were shocked by the controversy. . . . It's like they were saying, 'Haven't all of those intolerant fundamentalists been wiped out, by now?' " This worried Gish, because she is proud of being both a librarian and a fifth-generation member of an evangelical family. She believes fervently in the free exchange of ideas and information, but she also believes that public institutions should handle the wishes and fears of their patrons in a respectful manner — even religious conservatives.
Two years ago, she read one too many Internet postings by librarians attacking the motives of believers who were worried about Harry Potter. Her response covered many Bible verses that address this topic, especially a Deuteronomy passage that calls an "abomination" anyone that "useth divination, or an observer of times, or an enchanter, or a witch, or a charmer, or a consulter with familiar spirits, or a wizard, or a necromancer."
That covers just about everything in the Harry Potter books. Yet, in Rowling's work these elements are woven into the lives of witty characters those adventures have millions of young people turning pages instead of switching TV channels. The books also have been praised by religious leaders, including the moderate evangelical editors of Christianity Today, who called the series "a Book of Virtues with a preadolescent funny bone."
But public officials must realize that there are scores of others who simply don't think it's appropriate for their children to be exposed to books that portray magic in a "cool," winsome manner, said Gish. Some even criticize the work of Christian authors such as C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien and Madeleine L'Engle.
What should librarians do? It would help, she said, if they didn't act like the Harry Potter books are the only works of children's literature in existence. Displays and promotional events for classic works of religious fiction wouldn't hurt, either.
"We must strive for balance," said Gish. "We must stop acting like every conservative Christian who walks in the library door is an alien from another planet."
Terry Mattingly (www.tmatt.net) teaches at the Alexandria, Va., campus of Regent University. He writes this column for the Scripps Howard News Service.