Caroline Jones, editor

The Effect of Book Banning on Child Culture: A Close Look at the Harry Potter Series

Allyson J. Casares

Allyson Casares completed her Master's Degree in Curriculum and Instruction with a focus on Literacy and Language Education at Purdue University in the summer of 2004. She currently works as a Reading Recovery Teacher at Nicholson Elementary School in Crawfordsville. During her graduate work, she taught undergraduates and supervised undergraduates in teaching elementary students reading and writing. Since completing her undergraduate degree, she has worked in elementary classrooms, college admissions, and as a director of a Sylvan Learning Center.

This paper was originally written in the fall of 2003, for Professor Jill May's Children's Literature course at Purdue. The course was a survey of classical and contemporary children's literature that examined the development of literary theory. For their final paper, they were to come up with a question that they were interested in pursuing. Allyson says, "My interests lie with the child and how environmental factors such as art and literature affect their development. Since the definition of child culture was one of the first discussions we had in class, I was immediately interested in connecting this to the Harry Potter craze, so I chose to examine child culture with a close look at the series".


The Harry Potter series landed in my lap on a road trip from Massachusetts to Ohio. My husband insisted that I read aloud while he was driving. In my eagerness to understand the frenzy among young readers, I agreed. At the time, Harry Potter books quickly found their place on the New York Times bestseller list, but also consistently lived on the list of most challenged books. Were students intrigued because of Harry's character, the dangerous events or the wizardry? Were they intrigued because of the literary value, the intertextuality or the controversial issues that began to permeate society? Perhaps all of these things have played a role, thus J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter series has led scholars to consider the books and their financial success a cultural phenomenon.

Harry Potter has consumed many contexts of our everyday world. We can hear his story discussed on National Public Radio, we can read his story in thirty-five languages, we can find his figurines in various stores and we can watch his adventures in the movie theater. Clearly, this illustrates how Harry Potter has infiltrated our children's imaginations. Perhaps the text and the images have become a part of our identity (Heilman 2). In order to examine this cultural perspective, it is important to identify why some have celebrated this series, why some have condemned it and then to assess its impact on child culture.

With the intention of examining how censorship affects child culture, we must first understand what is meant by child culture. Perhaps there is no finite definition because it is constantly changing, but child culture can be described as a place where children feel most comfortable in their environment. They can experience the sanctity of being a child through art, music and literature. The culture stimulates the child so she or he is able to learn how to make valid judgments in everyday life situations. Through experience, peer interactions and exposure to all of these parts of the culture, a child's thinking is shaped. With this in mind, it is clear how fragile child culture can be.

It is certain that many Harry Potter readers enjoyed this imaginative fantasy, but it is also important to pay close attention to what well-known journals are saying about this popular series. Horn Book Magazine is quite an influential publication for librarians and publishing companies. Horn Book reviews on Harry Potter were very positive and enthusiastic about continuing the series. When reviewing Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, the Horn Book Magazine stated the following:

For the record, then O future reader, this latest installment in Harry's saga is quite a good book .. But all the elements that make the formula work are heightened here. The characters are particularly interesting.and Harry himself, who in facing reality of his parents' violent deaths becomes a stronger person- and a more complex hero. The quidditch action is the best yet; the Hogwarts classes (Care of Magical Creatures, Divination, and Potions) are inventive and entertaining; and Rowling pulls off a nifty bit of time manipulation in the book's exciting climax.
(Parravano 743-745)

The review suggests that as the series continues, reviewers at Horn Book favor the quality of writing. Many teachers and librarians rely on these reviews to make their next reading and purchasing decisions, so this stance will have an effect on the book's use in schools.

Publishers Weekly is very well known and respected by industry book buyers. Along with Horn Book Magazine, Publishers Weekly finds the series to be "holding strong":

In many ways this installment seems to serve a transitional role in the seven-volume series; while many of the adventures are breathlessly relayed, they appear to be laying groundwork for even more exciting adventures to come. The beauty here lies in the genius of Rowling's plotting. Seemingly minor details established in books one and two unfold to take on unforeseen significance, and the finale, while not airtight in its internal logic, is utterly thrilling. Rowling's wit never flags. The Potter spell is holding strong.

Obviously, Rowling has won the respect of two well-known trade publications. Both reviews were written after the publication of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, which was published earlier than expected because of high reader demand. These reviews would seem to guarantee an increase in sales. In 2000, all three of J.K. Rowling's books dominated the bestseller lists. Perhaps we should not necessarily equate top sales with literary value, but the series is obviously being celebrated.

The sales success and the sheer popularity of the Harry Potter series have caused researchers to identify these remarkable events as a phenomenon. However, Tammy Turner-Vorbeck argues that perhaps it is not the authentic uniqueness of the books that has caused such a phenomenon, but that this phenomenon was artificially generated through corporate America's interpretation (18). So, have American readers defined Harry Potter as an essential commodity or is mass media marketing the cause of this phenomenon? If the latter is true, it is important to recognize this represents control over child culture. Mass media marketing creates a front row seat in every store window for children to see. We can even see a parallel to this in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone. After Harry learns about his acceptance to the Hogwart's School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, he is required to purchase his "school supplies" at Diagon Alley. Harry is being led by Hagrid through the intriguing sales market, Rowling writes:

Several boys of about Harry's age had their noses pressed against a window with broomsticks in it. "Look," Harry heard one of them say, "the new Nimbus Two Thousand -fastest ever".

Upon entering his new world of wizardry, he quickly learns about the most important and supposedly valuable commodities of that world. There is no chance for Harry to define his own commodities, even though Rowling portrays the controlling environment, suggesting that materialism is inevitably a part of child culture.

Rowling's books are essentially fantasies, but interwoven in her fantasies is mimetic reality of current child culture. The image of the children's noses up against a store window is very real. Many children simply have to have the latest video game or the latest Harry Potter book. Mass media marketing has taken advantage of this reality by creating the myriad of Harry Potter products. If something is Harry Potter, the majority of children define it as "cool." Children are affected by these outside sources and it forces their culture to be defined by those outside (possibly 'adult') standards. Still, if the child is told what to buy and what to read, there is a level of control over their culture. Literature can provide children with authentic experiences because it is their own to interpret. Helping children understand their literary experiences will help them play a role in defining their own culture. Not only has the Harry Potter series elicited the overpowering popularity for likeability, it has also been in the limelight for its controversial component. The Office of Intellectual Freedom has received a record number of complaints about the Harry Potter series. Complaints originated from parents in several different parts of the country who hoped to remove the series from library and classroom shelves (Herb 49, 1). Protesters complained that the books promote wizardry and witchcraft, which is religiously intrusive and does not belong in public schools. Conservative Christian groups are primarily leaders of such protests.

In "Hunting Down Harry Potter: An Exploration of Religious Concerns about Children's Literature," Kimbra Wilder Gish explores the problems that conservative Christians have with the thematic characteristics of the Harry Potter books. Rather than voicing unsupported complaints about the series, Gish offers the specific scriptures that support these complaints. Gish's article illustrates her struggle as a librarian and as a conservative Christian. She recognizes the difficulty of pulling a book away from a child, but she also understands why the books have caused such religious controversy among parents (263).

Gish identifies the basis for criticism for the occult in fiction in Deuteronomy 18:9-12,

There shall not be found among you any one that maketh his son or his daughter to pass through the fire, or 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. For all that do these things are an abomination unto the Lord: and because of these abominations the lord thy God doth drive them out from before thee.

Many other scriptures forbid the practice of witchcraft, but this clearly supports parents' reluctance to include Harry Potter in their home libraries. Parents are concerned that their children may consider these sinful acts as acceptable. Gish specifically states, "if you believe that witches and occult practices are real, and contrary to God's laws, those books are quite different from what the authors probably intended" (263). Not all of us consider witchcraft as a true practice; therefore, we have no problem including it in children's fantasy. However, when it is a very real belief for some religious groups, it may be more likely to cause them to reject the Potter books. Gish claims that to conservative Christians, witchcraft is as real to them as any other religion (263).

The Harry Potter books not only present wizardry throughout the adventures, but they seem to promote it. From the very beginning of the series, Hogwarts is Harry's escape from the horrible Dursleys, and it is where he may learn the truth about his parents. The reader wants Harry to be "saved" by his invitation to Hogwarts:

"CAR CRASH!" roared Hagrid, jumping up so angrily that the Dursleys scuttled back in their corner. "How could a car crash kill Lily an' James Potter? It's an outrage! A scandal! Harry Potter not knowin' his own story when every kid in our world knows his name!"
(Rowling 53)

Immediately, the reader learns that through wizardry, Harry will escape the confines and mistreatment of the Dursleys. Hagrid clarifies that Lily and James were simply too powerful to die in a car crash and that if Harry enters the school of wizardry, he will be treated honestly and fairly. Therefore, conservative Christians criticize this positive portrayal of the occult since in their interpretation any sort of witchcraft is clearly against the Lord. Gish informs her readers about such reasons for criticism with well-supported statements, such as the verse from the King James Version of the Bible. However, she also struggles to determine her stance on the matter since she has these beliefs about witchcraft and her profession involves children's literature, a field full of magicians and wizards. However, at the end of the article, Gish decides that over- protecting our children may not necessarily be the answer. She compares Harry to Tolkein's Frodo, whose dark journey led him to see new ways in the world. She claims that we all can benefit from understanding the differences that might reside in children's literature (271). Gish's suggestion allows us to actively guide child culture rather than let adults' silence define it. I respect her commitment to her faith, but I also value her broad perspective on children's literature and the understanding that the Harry Potter series is not the only piece of children's literature that has included references to magic and wizardry. Obviously Gish is grappling with her own conflicted religious interpretations, so it forces us to wonder if children would be making these same religious interpretations independently?

One of the most highly publicized protests against the Harry Potter series took place in South Carolina, where a group of parents persuaded the South Carolina Board of Education to review whether the books should be allowed in public schools. Parents complained that the books had a "serious tone of death, hate, lack of respect and sheer evil" (Herb 26). Indeed, some parents are becoming recognized as nationally known critics because of their published complaints about Harry Potter. Elizabeth Mounce is a mother of two children who thinks Rowling's books are "trying to disguise things as fun and easy that are really evil" (Foerstal 183). Theresa and Dominic Schmidt removed their son from school because of Harry Potter's presence in the classroom (Foerstal 183).

In Simi Valley, California, parents objected to the reading of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban in class. These parents felt there were much better literary choices to read to children. A committee reviewed the book and came to the conclusion that the concerns expressed were not great enough to prohibit a child from reading it for recreation. It was decided that the book would not necessarily be assigned for required reading, but it could not be taken off of the shelves. The parent who instigated this process later accused the school district of being afraid to make a moral decision (Foerstal 184). In December 1999, Bruckner Elementary School in Saginaw, Michigan became the first to remove the books from classrooms when Principal Myra Fall decided to prohibit the books in classrooms because she thought it was necessary to avoid any controversy over them (185).

These are only a few of the numerous complaints that the Office of Intellectual Freedom eventually received, but they illustrate why Harry Potter continues to be one of the most challenged books by parents. Religion is a very personal issue, and parents tend to think they are protecting their children, but pulling books off of shelves has to be examined. Many schools have taken these complaints into consideration and dealt with them in their own ways. On a local level, Pam Jackson, Director of the Media Center at Dayton Elementary School in Dayton, Indiana, said she cannot speak for the whole school corporation, but she does not feel that it is her responsibility to censor books (personal communication, Nov. 25, 2003). Approximately five years ago, Jackson faced parental complaints about the books, much like those of the parents in South Carolina. She stated that Rowling's books were reviewed, and they have remained on the shelves. Jackson prefers to leave the discretion up to the parents. She is interested in providing students with as much literature as possible, as are many librarians. I applaud Jackson's stance on the issue because she respects varied responses to children's literature and continues to be a resource for her students.

Deborah J. Taub and Heather L. Servaty also take a look at the controversial content in Harry Potter, but they examine the issues from a pedagogical perspective. As educators, Taub and Servaty find it important to question if children can exercise judgment about fantasy. For example, parents who do not believe in magic or witchcraft are concerned that their children will think magic is real. However, Taub and Servaty point out that the ability to distinguish between fantasy and reality is in place at three years old. Thus far, there has been no evidence that suggests the reading of the Harry Potter series will affect a child's ability to distinguish fantasy from reality (59). In contradiction to parents' concerns, educators argue that there are benefits in reading fantasy. It allows students to think beyond the constraints of their culture and to think more abstractly and theoretically. Here again, children are allowed to obtain the tools to make sense of their interactions with literature rather than reading submissively and allowing other factors to determine their beliefs.

Harry Potter has also been criticized for being too scary. This criticism is strictly based on the confines of an adult understanding of what is frightening to children. Perhaps we can never really know where the limits should be. For example, children can be scared by different things and at different degrees. However, we do have evidence stating that visual images have a much greater capacity for frightening children than fantasy found in stories (Cantor, 41). A reader has more imaginative control over a purely textual story (Taub and Servaty 63). The images are safely created by the individual and not imposed on her/him. Deborah Stevenson has argued that "scary" books can help a reader master the control of fear and give him/her the opportunity to confront some real issues while reading a book (314). For example, Harry faces Voldemort in his different forms throughout the series. At the end of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, Harry witnesses Voldemort's evil image,

Harry would have screamed, but he couldn't make a sound. Where there should have been a back to Quirrell's head, there was a face, the most terrible face Harry had ever seen. It was chalk white with glaring red eyes and slits for nostrils, like a snake.

Harry is naturally fearful of Voldemort, but handles his fear with strength and perseverance. At the end of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, Harry survives the wrath of Voldemort and arrives safely in a hospital bed. He may have received some help from Dumbledore, but Harry faced his fear and fought until he had no strength left. Dumbledore always helps Harry understand and after all is said and done, lessons are learned. Harry may be fearful of Voldemort, but each encounter with him teaches Harry that because of the help of others, his inner strength, and his unique abilities, he is able to conquer this fear. Survival becomes easier with each lesson that is learned.

Death is also a controversial topic of discussion in the Harry Potter books. Many question its appropriateness in the books. Parents, rightfully so, want children to remain innocent and unscarred, but death is a natural part of development. For example, if parents try to "protect" their children, they might disturb their natural emotional development. Therefore, if death is included in their literature, children can make sense of it on their own (63). Sadly enough, death is a common struggle to overcome for adolescents. The death of Cedric Diggory in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire is a sudden and disturbing death for Harry to deal with:

Cedric was lying spread-eagled on the ground beside him. He was dead. For a second that contained an eternity, Harry stared into Cedric's face at his open gray eyes, blank and expressionless as the windows of a deserted house, at his half-open mouth, which looked slightly surprised. And then, before Harry's mind had accepted what he was seeing, before he could feel anything but numb disbelief, he felt himself being pulled to his feet.

Obviously Rowling's readers are as stunned as Harry considering that just pages before this death scene Cedric and Harry decided to capture the Triwizard Cup together as supportive friends. Rowling sets the reader up to experience Harry's loss. Of course the context is different, but the unexpected death of a friend is not an uncommon occurrence in reality, so why is it so shocking to include?

Rowling has included some themes within her books that contain dangerous realities. Turner-Vorbeck argues that Rowling's stories portray some socially normative images (20). We have already recognized the ideological control that media has on children, and Rowling's work is no exception. If values and ideals are being characterized in Harry Potter, then child culture is being affected. For example, we recognize that females are primarily in secondary positions of power and authority in the Harry Potter books (20). Hermione is portrayed as the bookworm on whom Harry counts for solving puzzles, but he still remains in power in most situations. For example, in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire when he is trying to continue on the path to the Triwizard Cup, Harry is faced with a riddle obstacle and Rowling describes his thought process:

Harry's stomach slipped several notches. It was Hermione who was good at this sort of thing, not him. He weighed his chances.

Harry compliments Hermione here, but her talents are portrayed as those of a secondary position rather than an authority figure. There is also a diverse group of characters in the series, but there is definitely an illustration of a hierarchical order of power. Wizards see themselves as those with power over the Muggles' society (non-wizards). They are being privately educated and have certain knowledge that people like the Dursleys do not have. This promotes a hegemonic society where people without the same natural qualities are not as privileged:

I really don't think they should let the other sort in, do you? They're just not the same, they've never been brought up to know our ways. Some of them have never even heard of Hogwarts until they get the letter, imagine. I think they should keep it in the old wizarding families.
(Rowling 78)

These are the words of Malfoy, who is a character in the series portrayed as unkind and elitist in nature. Even though this is not the collaborated view of Harry, Ron and Hermione, who are the favored characters, it allows the reader to understand what type of a world Harry has just entered. We may not want to use the words of Malfoy, but as readers, we want to be the wizards and not the Muggles. We want to experience the privileges of being wizards. These critical views affect child culture; if we do not discuss and explore them, we limit the growth of the child.

Controversies over children's literature are not new phenomena. Judy Blume can empathize with Rowling because she is also considered a controversial children's author. Blume is not surprised at the accusations, and she sees a different problem for the books:

The real danger is not in the books, but in laughing off those who would ban them. The protests against Harry Potter follow a tradition that has been growing since the early 1980s and often leaves school principals trembling with fear that is then passed down to teachers and librarians.
(qted in Herb 26)

Blume's writing has been criticized for including information in her stories that was understood to be private to a young female. Still, adult women praise her for how much her literature affected their lives as young girls facing scary challenges. Perhaps Blume's literature created a culture for young women that would have never come about if her books had not been on the shelves. Where does child culture fit in the discussion? It is obvious that the Harry Potter series, like Blume's books about growing up, has influenced the lives of many children, and I feel that Harry's adventures are here to stay, so how will this affect child culture? If literature is banned, censored or burned, a level of adult control is established. Typically, book banning occurs for the purpose of protecting our children. We are the adults; we supposedly know what is best for children, but sometimes we may not. Our intentions are good, but are we really able to protect our children? In reality, if adults who eliminate certain types of literature determine child culture, we are robbing children of stimulating lessons of life.

Louise Rosenblatt maintains that reading is a transaction between the reader, the text, and the social context. The reader combines prior knowledge with new knowledge in order to make meaning of the text. I think this can also set the premise for child culture. If we want children's thinking to be shaped in the most authentic manner, we must provide them with as many transactions as possible. Protecting them from certain transactions will only leave them ill prepared for new knowledge and experience. Although there is some validity to the controversies discussed, eliminating Harry Potter based on these issues may only limit our children from growth in their culture.

For example, wizardry and witchcraft are the most controversial issues that stem from the Harry Potter series. Including this in a children's book can allow it to serve as a vehicle for examining spiritual beliefs held by an individual (Poe 210) or reinforcing the reader's own ideals. Suddenly, a transaction of learning occurs, and the reader's thinking is influenced. A new world is entered and the reader is free to explore. However, this does not necessarily mean that children will accept everything they read as true. Rowling is also confident that children can easily discern where reality and fantasy begin (Black 239). For example, she included the mirror of Erised in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone as unreal (Rowling 208), but the sense that children need to be loved is very real. According to Bruno Bettelheim,

The child intuitively comprehends that although these stories are unreal, they are not untrue; that while what these stories tell about does not happen in fact, it must happen as inner experience and personal development; that fantasy tales depict in imaginary and symbolic form the essential steps in growing up and achieving an independent existence.

Children understand that the mirror is not real, but they would recognize and feel reassured by the reality of Harry's love for his parents, and theirs for him. Rowling may not explicitly state this in her books, but through Harry's actions, children can understand. Reading the Harry Potter books will not simply inspire intellectual stimulation, but they can also play a role in the emotional development of a child. Even though the content is controversial, it helps affect child culture in a productive way.

The criticism of violence in the Harry Potter books also carries some truth, but this is not a new characteristic of fantasy. There must be a struggle between good and evil for the story to develop and typically, evil is illustrated in violent contexts. Rowling's Harry is a character of good intentions and he is portrayed as the hero. Rowling promotes the "good" hero, but she is not willing to illustrate he is clearly without "evil" influences from other characters.

Parents ultimately make decisions on what their child is allowed to read. I do not suggest that Harry Potter is valuable for every child at every age. I am simply suggesting that books containing controversial issues may be the worst books to keep closed. Nobody can assume exactly how children are going to interpret any book without allowing them to be exposed to the experience. Bypassing the controversial issues in Rowling's can cause us to homogenize our children (Zipes 188). If we want to feed a rich child culture through literature, we cannot discard or protect our children from new knowledge or ideals found in their fiction.

Rosenblatt believed that teachers should stimulate students to search for knowledge that could supply them with the capabilities for valid judgments (121). If we can help children make valid judgments, then they themselves will define child culture rather than having other artificial mediums controlling the child's world. By banning books like Harry Potter, we are eliminating the context that can allow children to make valid judgments about their culture. There is no harm in being cautious about what our children are reading, but being too cautious can leave children with narrow knowledge and experience. Literature requires active participation from its readers. Some children's literature, like Harry Potter, require parental involvement and extended discussions about how it relates to everyday life in order for productive learning to take place. Providing many transactions between children's stories and youthful readers will help us guide child culture rather than silencing it.


Works Cited

Black, Sharon. "The Magic of Harry Potter: Symbols and Heroes of Fantasy." Children's Literature in Education, Sep 2003: 237-247.

Bettelheim, Bruno. The Uses of Enchantment. Toronto: Random House of Canada Ltd., 1976. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1976.

Cantor, J. "Mommy, I'm Scared": How TV and Movies Frighten Children and What We Can Do to Protect Them. San Diego: Harcourt Brace, 1998.

Foerstel, Herbert N. Banning in the U.S.A.: A Reference Guide to Book Censorship in Schools and Libraries. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2002.

Gish, Kimbra Wilder. "Hunting Down Harry Potter: An Exploration of Religious Concerns about Children's Literature." The Horn Book Magazine May-June 2000: 262-272.

Heilman, Elizabeth E. Introduction. Harry Potter's World. Ed. Elizabeth Heilman.. New York: Routledge Falmer, 2003. 1-10.

Herb, Steven L. "Censoring Bestsellers: Harry Potter Under Fire." Newsletter on Intellectual Freedom, Jan. 2000.

Holy Bible: People's Parallel Edition. King James Version. Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, 1977.

Jackson, Pam. Personal Communication. 25 November 2003.

Parravano, Martha. Review of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, The Horn Book Magazine 1 December 1999.

Poe, Elizabeth. "Defending Harry Potter." Censored Books II: Critical Viewpoints, 1985-2000. Ed. Nicholas Karolides. London, England: The Scarecrow Press, Inc., 2002.

Review of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. Publishers Weekly 19 July 1999.

Rosenblatt, Louise. Literature as Exploration. 1938. 4th Edition. New York: Modern Language Association, 1983.

____ The Reader, the Text, the Poem: The Transactional Theory of the Literacy Work. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press, 1978.

Rowling, J.K. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone. New York: Scholastic, 1997.

____ Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. New York: Scholastic, 1999.

____ Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. New York: Scholastic, 2000.

Stevenson, D. "Frightening the Children?: Kids, Grown-ups, and Scary Picture Books." The Horn Book Magazine, May/June 1996: 305-14.

Taub, Deborah J. and Servaty, Heather L. "Controversial Content in Children's Literature: Is Harry Potter Harmful to Children?" Harry Potter's World. Ed. Elizabeth Heilman. New York: Routledge Falmer, 2003. 53-72.

Turner-Vorbeck, Tammy. "Pottermania: Good, Clean Fun or Cultural Hegomony?" Harry Potter's World. Ed. Elizabeth Heilman. New York: Routledge Falmer, 2003. 25-52.

Woolley, J. D. "Thinking About Fantasy: Are Children Fundamentally Different Thinkers and Believers from Adults?" Child Development 1997: 991-1011.

Zipes, Jack. Sticks and Stones: The Troublesome Success of Children's Literature from Slovenly Peter to Harry Potter. New York: Routledge, 2001.


Allyson J. Casares

Volume 8, Issue 3 The Looking Glass, September, 2004

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The Effect of Book Banning on Child Culture: A Close Look at the Harry Potter Series" © Allyson J. Casares 2004
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