Reading Harry Potter with my son bonded us in ways I didn't expect

For me and my son, books became our lingua franca, a bridge between us that helped shape our understanding of each other.

Photo: Courtesy of Anne Thériault

Last November, my son came home school and announced that he and a group of friends were founding a Harry Potter Club. He had a sheaf of promotional items he’d made for it—posters written in a mispelled mishmash of second grade franglais, including a picture of a castle mysteriously labelled “HAGWORESDS”—and was very keen to tell me about the club’s first meeting. Each of them had decided which Harry Potter character they were and he thought he was a Ron, but he couldn’t be entirely sure because he hadn’t actually read the books or seen the movies.

I pulled out my old copy of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, the same one my mother had given me some twenty years ago. It had been a mute (if well-thumbed and slightly waterlogged) witness to most of my life’s major dramas: I’d packed it deep in my suitcase when I left home for the first time, brought it with me on two cross-country moves, clutched at it like a raft in a storm when my life turned upside down and I needed a familiar escape. Handing this book to my son felt a bit like a ritual, like I was inducting him into something. In some ways, I guess I was.

That first night, we read four chapters in one sitting, right up until Hagrid’s iconic “yer a wizard” scene. My son was immediately smitten, consumed by that very specific type of obsession that accompanies a dizzying first crush. We’d read books together before, but this was the one that made him understand the deep magic of stories, how the best ones are like portals to other worlds that feel just as real (if not more real) than our own. Every night, he would rush through his bedtime routine so that we could climb under the covers and fall back into Hogwarts together.

Mom and school-aged daughter cuddled up on a bed reading a book together How to raise a readerI don’t know which of us was more excited; him, increasingly engaged and thrilled by every new chapter, or me, experiencing the profound joy of watching my kid fall in love with something I loved. I don’t just mean with Harry Potter, although that happened to be the specific story in this case, but reading in general. Books had been my own private language since I first learned to read—I related everything I thought or felt or did to things that happened in books, telling myself things like, “now you know how Anne Shirley felt when Marilla didn’t believe her about the brooch,” or, “your sister embarrasses you just like Ramona embarrassed Beezus at the park.” Now, with my son, they became our lingua franca, a bridge between us that helped shape our understanding of each other.

Our shared language also gave us the chance to talk about some of uglier parts of the Harry Potter series, passages that I either ignored or didn’t have the tools to fully deconstruct when I first read them. Anyone in the books who is not white, English and middle class is strictly othered. Many of the racialized characters are tropes or stereotypes. Even “good” characters are casual classist xenophobes (looking at you, Mrs. Weasley!), and the fatphobia is both excruciating and endless. There are no queer characters, in spite of what Rowling (who is apparently on an endless quest to destroy whatever positive legacy she and her work might have) might say.

Together, we went deeper than the text itself. My son came up with his own interpretations of the storylines, like deciding that Ron’s jealousy over Hermione and Krum going to the ball together was because Ron had a crush on his quidditch hero. We explored diverse corners of the fandom and discovered the ways people had built on (and often improved) the wizarding world. We moved beyond the borders of the books themselves and into the spaces readers have carved out for themselves.

I was in my twenties when the final Harry Potter book came out in 2007, but in many ways I still felt like a kid—or, at least, when I first read The Deathly Hallows, I still identified more with the teenaged protagonists than anyone else. This read-around, I found myself much more interested in the inner lives of the parents and teachers. I saw myself in Mrs. Weasley, in Professor McGonnagall, in the ghost of Lily Potter; I wept over things that had never made me cry before, like when Harry’s parents say that they’ll always be proud of him. It felt like some kind of official confirmation that I had become a Real Bonafide Adult. These books weren’t for me anymore, and my kid was only too happy to accept that torch and run with it. But in a way, they won’t really be his books, either. He’ll discover his own series someday, one that sustains his private dream-life, one that will teach him the particular exquisite longing of waiting for the next book to come out, one that will make him feel comforted or understood or some intangible feeling between the two in a way that nothing else does.

We’ve moved on to other series since finishing Harry Potter, and each has been great in its own way. We read the Bruno and Boots books, Canadian classics that are almost as funny as the first time I read them. We’re currently reading the Blackthorn Key series by Toronto writer Kevin Sands, which are great for people who love history, codes and explosions as much as we do. Next up is Percy Jackson, which a lot of people I respect have recommended. But nothing will ever be quite the same as those first heady nights of reading together, when I got to hold open the door to the world of books and watch my son walk through.

Read more:
How I got my toddler back on books after she got a taste of screen time
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