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What's the secret of Harry's appeal?

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Tuesday, Jul 10, 2007
by Sarah T. Williams [Star Tribune (Minneapolis) (MCT)]

Michael Dahl, a children’s book author and editorial director of Stone Arch Books in Mankato, Minn., oft has been heard to say that “the No. 1 rule for writing good children’s books is to get rid of the parents.”


No need to take “Umbridge,” moms and dads; it’s just food for thought during the burbling buildup to the July 21 00:01 release of “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows,” the seventh and final book in J.K. Rowling’s phenomenally successful series.


Part of the secret to Rowling’s success, said Dahl and other children’s book experts, is that she understood the enormous appeal of creating an orphan (or otherwise unparented child) and throwing him to the wolves. It’s a formula that has worked well for others.
  
Many of Rowling’s beloved European predecessors employed it, including William Morris (“The Wood Beyond the World”), J.R.R. Tolkien (“The Lord of the Rings”) and C.S. Lewis (“The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe”).


The formula works its magic three ways, Dahl said:


1) It puts the focus squarely on the youthful protagonist.


2) It eliminates any censor. (“That way, the kid can have incredible adventures. Otherwise, he’s having to do his homework or be in bed by 10 - instead of climbing through the tunnel, exploring the pyramids or going off into outer space.”)


3) And it immediately gives the protagonist a goal - “to find his parents, find out what happened to them, or maybe create his own family.”


Dahl followed this formula in his Finnegan Zwake mystery series (“The Horizontal Man,” “The Worm Tunnel,” “The Viking Claw”), in which an adolescent boy, whose parents disappear in Iceland during an archaeological expedition, is left in the care of a kind but absent-minded and sometimes ineffectual uncle. Each harrowing but humor-leavened adventure brings him closer to finding his parents.


Dahl said that while writing the series, he took to heart some advice from another Minnesota writer and writing coach, Erin Hart: “She said the one thing you always want to do with your characters is be mean to them - put them in horrible, horrible situations - because we want to see how they’re going to come out of it.


“And one of the worst kinds of situations you can have as a child is to lose your parents.”


The same painful truth slowly dawned on a group of struggling children’s writers who started meeting 16 years ago and whose members over the years have included Jane Resh Thomas, Phyllis Root, Catherine Friend, Janet Lawson, David LaRochelle and John Coy.


Coy (“Two Old Potatoes and Me,” “Crackback”) said some of the rough drafts they read aloud to each other suffered from an “incredibly uninteresting” tendency to introduce the character of a mother to problem-solve. “As soon as mom showed up, mom was fixing everything and figuring out the best way to do things,” taking the attention off the youngster, he said. Soon the members of the group began to challenge each other: What would happen if you killed the mother? In other words, took her out of the story? The question was posed so frequently that eventually the group took on the name Kill the Mother.


“Make it clear that wasn’t my idea,” Coy said.


Few kids actually want to be orphaned. But many like to imagine what they might do if they were in Harry Potter’s shoes, Coy said: “They have this fascination: What would it be like if I could just make the choices? Reading is a wonderful way to explore that without having to be an orphan.”


For a children’s writer, he said, it was an invariably effective device to keep in mind.


“I think of the way this was done in the Charlie Brown television shows, where the adults just made sounds but you never saw them. If the parents aren’t there, then the child just has to figure things out. It escalates the tension dramatically.”


Vicki Palmquist, co-founder with husband Steve Palmquist of the national Children’s Literature Network, said Rowling has her pen firmly planted in the tradition of the “heroic fantasy” - whose distant cousins include “Beowulf” and the “Old Norse Eddas.”


She summarized the work of Jan de Vries in “Heroic Song and Heroic Legend” (Oxford University, 1963):


1. The begetting of the hero (his genealogy).


2. The birth of the hero.


3. The youth of the hero is threatened, often by abandonment.


4. The hero reveals unusual characteristics.


5. The hero often acquires invulnerability.


6. The hero slays a dragon or other monster.


7. The hero wins a maiden, usually after overcoming great dangers.


8. The hero makes an expedition to the underworld.


9. When the hero is banished in his youth he returns later and is victorious over his enemies.


10. The hero often dies.


(About that last bit? We don’t know anything more than you do about what happens to Harry in Book Seven.)


Though Palmquist said she prefers more reality-based fiction, she agrees that children gravitate toward the Harry Potter series “because it shows they can be heroes as well. At some secret level of their being they would like to go it on their own and prove what they can do. It’s part of the journey to adulthood.”

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