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The Wizard of Simi

Just by looking at its jacket, Cynthia Kersey was disturbed by the book her son Andy brought home from his fourth-grade class at Simi Elementary School. She read it cover to cover: “I was even more horrified by what I found inside.” It wasn‘t the Story of O or The Anarchist Cookbook that Andy took out of his book bag. It wasn’t even The Catcher in the Rye. Andy‘s teacher had assigned the best-selling children’s book, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer‘s Stone, which, Kersey decided, was “nothing but an advertisement for the occult.” She complained to the teacher, and that very day, while other students read about boy-wizard Harry Potter’s showdowns with the forces of evil, Andy read The Swiss Family Robinson in another room.

But it wasn‘t just her son that Kersey was worried about. The Columbine killers, she says, were into Wicca. Harry Potter is a wizard. Wizards practice witchcraft. Wiccans practice witchcraft, therefore . . . “I don’t want to see the book read at all in the district,” Kersey says, because “I don‘t want to see another school shooting. I don’t want to see that in Simi Valley.”

Kersey took her complaints to district officials, who convened a committee of teachers and administrators to review the book and pass their recommendations on to the superintendent. On Tuesday, the Simi Valley superintendent deemed Harry Potter suitable for classroom use, with the proviso that teachers reading it should first notify parents. Kids whose parents object can, like Andy, read something else. Kersey characterized the decision as “real wimpy.” “If they send a student out of the class, that‘s punishing the student,” she says. “If one student objects to it, then the teacher should have to stop reading to the class.”

The Harry Potter series has faced similar attacks both locally -- in Moorpark and Costa Mesa, as well as in Simi Valley -- and nationally, in New York, Georgia, Minnesota, and South Carolina, where the debate made it as far as the state board of education. The opposition has been fairly small. Only a handful of parents has protested in each case, though their voices, passing through the echo chamber of national media attention, have been loud. And no schools, thus far at least, have actually banned the books.

Each book follows a year in the life of Harry Potter -- age 11 in the first installment -- who hails from purely magical stock, but whose witch and warlock parents were murdered by “the greatest Dark sorcerer of all time, Lord Voldemort.” The fledgling wizard is forced to live with his cruel and stupid relatives, the Dursleys, who are Muggles (“not a drop of magical blood in their veins”), until autumn swings around and he can return to the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry to begin his adventures anew. With the help of a few good friends, young Potter battles giant serpents and spiders, a mass murderer, malicious teachers and sadistic classmates, even the dreaded Voldemort himself.

Harry Potter’s fans say it‘s the very adversity that Potter faces, which Cynthia Kersey condemns as evidence of the books’ “anti-family bias,” that provides the most valuable lessons. Maxine Macha of Costa Mesa says her fifth-grader broke his arm but “did not want to miss school because he‘d miss Harry Potter.” She says, “One of the good messages is that all of us don’t grow up like they used to in the ‘50s. There are so many kids that don’t grow up in the Ozzie and Harriet situation, but you can still have a real normal, adventurous, magical life even if your family is a mess.”

Fans like Macha are far more numerous than the series‘ detractors. The three books published thus far -- Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets and Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone -- have been extraordinarily successful. They occupy the first, second and fourth slots respectively on the most recent New York Times hardcover best-seller list (Sorcerer‘s Stone is No. 1 on the paperback list) and have sold over 14 million copies worldwide. You can’t find a copy on the shelves of any of L.A.‘s public libraries, or even at Simi Elementary’s library. “The kids have them out,” says the school‘s librarian.

Author J.K. Rowling’s local appearances have drawn huge crowds. Hundreds of Potter fans, young and old alike, lined up for blocks to attend a book-signing at a San Marino book store last month. San Marino police denied fans‘ requests that they be allowed to camp out on the sidewalk the night before the signing; they had to wait until 6 a.m. to begin lining up (Rowling was scheduled to arrive at 2). Two cops were on hand to deal with any disturbances, but despite the sinister influence of Harry Potter, the crowd was fairly orderly.

Parent after parent credited the books with getting their children excited about reading. Nine-year-old Simmons Sherwood of La Cañada--Flintridge explained Harry Potter’s appeal: “I like it because there‘s a ton of excitement and there’s a lot of danger that people could die but they always seem to get out of it.” His mother, Karen, concluded, “Anything that gets a child reading is great.”

The foes of Harry Potter, though -- be they Draco Malfoy, his bullying rival at Hogwarts, Cynthia Kersey in Simi Valley, or Teresa Schmidt, who lobbied unsuccessfully to have the books banned from Moorpark schools -- are unimpressed by his popularity. “Look at tongue-piercing, look at crack . . . Those are popular too, but is it right?” asks Schmidt, who requested a classroom change for her fourth-grade son to shield him from the young wizard‘s dark powers. He was later relocated to another school.

Schmidt’s list of complaints about Harry Potter and the Sorcerer‘s Stone, the first in the series, is extensive. “It was plagued with witchcraft and abuse of all kinds -- alcohol, lighting a teacher on fire. It talked about drinking animal blood, calling it the elixir of life,” says Schmidt. In addition, she goes on, “The book was plagued with poking fun at fatness,” referring to Rowling’s portrayal of Dudley Dursley, Harry‘s cousin and tormentor. (“Dudley had spent most of the summer in the kitchen, his piggy little eyes fixed on the [TV] screen and his five chins wobbling as he ate continually.”)

Schmidt’s efforts in Moorpark failed. Following her complaints, principal Teresa Williams asked teachers to stop reading Harry Potter until a committee of teachers and parents had reviewed it. The committee ultimately decided that the book was suitable for classroom use and teachers resumed reading it in class. Schmidt says the process was rigged against her (Williams, she insists, “picked nine ‘yes men’ for the committee”), but she is hoping the district superintendent will still decide to ban the Harry Potter series. Assistant Superintendent Frank DePasquale says that‘s unlikely: The Schmidts are the only family in the district who have objected to Rowling’s books. Moorpark‘s PTA governing council met recently “and came up with a strong statement endorsing the use of Harry Potter.”

A few miles south, in Orange County, Jean Lespier shared some of Kersey and Schmidt’s concerns. Her daughter was reading the first Harry Potter book in a fourth-grade class at the Davis Education Center in Costa Mesa. The book, Lespier says, “runs the gamut from murder, to child abuse, to wizardry, to sorcery, to vampire themes, to revenge.” Despite her complaints, the book is still being read at the center.

J.K. Rowling herself is no longer commenting on the controversy her work has spawned. While in Southern California last month, she was only talking to kids and parents, not to reporters. But before coming out here, she summed up her response: “I think the children are being much smarter about this than a few other people.”

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