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Kid Lit: Why Harry Potter And Percy Jackson Suck So Bad

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Jason Dias
Written by Jason Dias

There’s a major problem with kid lit, says Jason Dias. And the characters of Harry Potter and Percy Jackson illustrate exactly what that problem is.

aNewDomain — My son wanted to watch a movie. It was his reward for meeting the behavior standards of school for a week. That day, he wanted to see if there was something good in the free section of the On Demand library.

We scrolled through and found “The Hunger Games” was listed.  But he said: “No, I want Marvel.”

katniss eberdeen kid lit harry potterTrying to get metacognition from a ten-year-old can be difficult, but I wanted to know why. Why Marvel but not Katniss Everdeen?

I think he didn’t want to watch a film with a female protagonist, and he knew better than to tell me so. By and large, ten-year-old boys want to see big men solve problems with brute force. I know I wasted a lot of time on Schwarzenegger movies, Michael Dudikoff, Steve James, Bruce Lee. Anything with a ninja or a samurai in it. I even watched “Teenage Mutant Hero Turtles,” though we weren’t actually allowed to say ninja in England in the 1980s, which is weird on refection.

Anyway, we ended up watching “Pacific Rim,” which is a great movie — so long as you are shaky on all of the physical sciences. But giant robots punching monsters in the face? With your ten-year-old son? Not a bad waste of two hours.

So I watched “Hunger Games” myself a few days later, as background noise to grading papers – mostly because I had noticed my own resistance to the movie. I hope this did not result from any anti-feminist urges but if we’re being real we have to examine the possibility. 

Truthfully, though, I think the resistance comes from a general distrust of kid lit. 

Youth fiction has gotten really stale, boring, predictable. It’s gotten bad, even — and bad for us.

kid lit harry potter percy jacksonKid turns 17. Kid discovers he has special powers. Kid discovers he has enemies who hate him for his powers. Kid’s powers defeat enemy through no particular effort on his part. Kids buy the book or see the movie in droves, thinking they, too, might get an invitation to Hogwarts in the male one day. 

Oh — did I say male when I meant mail? I wonder how that might have happened.

Harry Potter might be the worst offender. It’s fashionable among us struggling writers to bash successful ones, and I don’t want to do that.  Rowling is, by all accounts, a lovely person. And she’s very successful. So what do I know?

I know this: I hate that my son loves her books.

Harry Potter is no hero to aspire to. He is whiny, self-indulgent, self-obsessed. His internal struggles are endless and quite dull. And he rarely has to make any brave choices.

He didn’t choose to go to Hogwarts, he had to. A choice between being treated as a conquering hero for no reason or comically exaggerated abuse at home is no choice at all. Disobeying the schoolmaster to chase his friend’s trinket was the stupidest possible response to provocation. Choosing Ron and Hermione as his friends because he met them before Malfoy might have been the very thing that lead Malfoy astray — nobody likes to be rejected.

Potter always wins because of who he is, not what he does. His friends are smarter than him. Hermione solves all the technical problems, swots away so Harry can play sports (where he wins all the time through natural ability and never through effort), cheat on tests, and generally not go at all out of his way to succeed.

In the first book, he defeats the evil Voldemort because his mother loved him. He walks straight into a stupid trap like a stupid child but the bad guy can’t touch him because of love. He doesn’t have to do anything at all. Ron has to sacrifice himself; Hermione has to know things she studied in books. Harry just has to show up.

Hermione even praises Harry for his simply being him. There are more important things than books and studying, like friendship. Or white, male privilege, she ought to add.

Potter is not at all alone here. Look at Percy Jackson.

kid litPercy finds out he’s a god, or at least a demigod. In his first training session, a bizarrely warped game of Capture the Flag that completely lacks any strategy or tactics, he’s getting his ass kicked by someone with better skills, more talent and years of experience. But all Percy has to do is touch water and all his problems are solved. His dad is a more important god than his opponent’s mom, so Percy suddenly heals up, gets super powers and kicks everyone else’s tail. 

Privilege turns the tables. Jackson doesn’t have to do anything brave; he can just trust in his powers. His dad wakes him from the lotus trance just like Harry’s wand spontaneously stops a killing curse from Voldemort.

Just think of all the kid-lit and youth fiction you like. Luke has the Force. Buffy is a slayer. You were born to be a vampire, a werewolf, a fairy; your father is really king of a galactic empire; you’re a Furian without human limitations.

Amy Chua, in her controversial Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, suggests we are praising our children too much and for the wrong things. We call them smart and pretty but don’t praise their efforts and actual achievements. We don’t scold them for not trying or point out when their grades are too low. We take their side in teacher conferences, blame the teachers and the schools and circumstance. We don’t make them practice, study, practice again.

And the fiction they love reflects these tendencies. Harry isn’t brave; Jackson isn’t brave. They are privileged and win because they deserve to, because they were born to.

Now enter Everdeen.

Katniss is pretty good with a bow – because she has to be. If she can’t shoot a pigeon on the wing, she doesn’t get to eat. Beyond that, she lacks super powers. She’s mortal, lives in a society in which she can’t expect to marry a rich man and be taken care of, can’t fly or punch through steel or shoot lasers out of her eyes.

kid-lit-percy-jackson-harry-ptterShe’s in the fight because of a choice: to suffer and risk death in order to protect her sister. She wasn’t born as a tribute or to lead a revolution.

And she relies on others without being dependent on them. She forms bonds of trust and affection that are mutual.

God does not descend on a rope to save her. She does most of the saving and rescuing. At one point a boy from another district saves her life – only because she helped and cared about his sister.

Katniss is everything Potter isn’t. She’s outwardly focused, there to help, be of service. She’s brave. Her choice was not obvious and carried a great deal of risk. And she’s not privileged. She doesn’t win because society thinks she deserves to, but because she works hard, makes good choices, trains her talents into skills.

I was at a writing conference recently, and I asked my companions at lunch whether we needed to accept a market-driven publishing system – with white men in charge of what gets published and buyers determining what trends or is popular. Don’t we have a responsibility, I suggested, to help people know about books that are better for them than the stuff they like naturally?

The answer, overwhelmingly, was that we can’t tell people what is good for them. That’s why we don’t like Chua that much. Because Americans believe that with all our hearts. Don’t tell me not to smoke. Don’t tell me how much to drink. Don’t tell me to lose weight and exercise.

But I beg to differ. We can and must tell people what is good for them — but people can choose to listen or not, and we certainly can’t tell people what to like or believe.

When it comes to smoking, we have quit so much that our tobacco industry has largely moved overseas. McDonalds is closing 700 stores next year, because the information about what food is bad for you and what is good has started to land. Racism is dying (oh, so slowly, and like Jason Vorhees it keeps standing up for one more ovation on its way out) as is opposition to gay marriage.

We can and must tell people what is good for them, even if we can’t say what is good.

People love Harry Potter. What can I say? If it gets my son reading, who really cares what it is in the end? But if Potter is good, then Everdeen is better. And not fake better like gluten-free bread, but actually better like an apple next to a bowl of bacon grease.

And writing things of substance is surprisingly not hopeless. The best, my favorite thing about “The Hunger Games,” the book and the movie, is that people like them. They made shit-tons of money.

See, we don’t have to keep writing the same tired stories of powers and privilege. People are hungry for something more and better. Come on, writers. Let’s give it to them.

For aNewDomain, I’m a novelist you’ve never heard of, Jason Dias.

Cover image: By Jdarn010 (Own work) , via Wikimedia Commons

About the author

Jason Dias

Jason Dias

Jason Dias, PsyD is an existential psychotherapist who breathes words. He's a senior columnist at aNewDomain.

  • Mac McCarthy

    Never thought of it this way.

    I was disagreeing in my head because I love the Harry Potter books — but when you brought up Katniss, I realized that the Harry Potter character is exactly the male kid equivalent of Princess stories that are so destructive to young women: They don’t have to do anything, or learn, or evolve, or struggle–they are just born wizards, or beautiful, or a princess–and it’s all handed to them.

    The perfect dream – for a kid who’d rather be discovered by a Hollywood agent or rich man, or wake up with magical powers from nowhere, rather than study and practice and think and battle with real demons.

    Hmmmph! Hadn’t thought of that. Thanks, Jason.

  • declan casey

    What a ridiculous fuck-truck of an article.

    First of all, Percy Jackson is Middle Grade, Harry Potter and The Hunger Games are Young Adult. Learn how to categorize.

    Second: Did you read, or at least watch, the Harry Potter series in its entirety? Your knowledge seems to extend to a few details convenient to your argument, details that mainly come from the first film and some of the most insignificant moments within it. Harry is an every man. So is Katniss. Harry wanted to escape the abusive situation he was being held in, so yes, he chose to go to fucking school. Also, your depiction of Katniss as some independent, strong, willing heroine is so warped and hilarious. Katniss spends the entirety of Mockingjay worrying about her boyfriend. She hides in a closet the entirety of the book, and is too easily swayed by the people around her. Her tough-bitch attitude gets old after a while, her talents don’t include a lot, she’s not really that instrumental in the revolution, she lets other people die for her…she flirts a dangerous amount with the Mary-Sue line. She’s your typical YA heroine.

    Harry, on the other hand, is just a teen boy. A realistic recognizable one. He reflects multiple times on the situations he’s been put in, and comes to realize the importance of standing up to this being who is threatening his life and the wellbeing of wizarding Britain, even if that risks his life. He has sporadic periods of intense reluctance, depression, rage, and sadness. Yet he musters the courage to do what he must in his revolution, even if that means sacrificing his life for at least 3,000 people (there’s a Christian allegory in his story,) or distancing himself from the people he loves to keep them safe. He gets directly involved in his job, figures the problems out, and kills Voldemort because he was smart enough. He saw Voldemort’s ignorance bright and clear. He is the ultimate selfless hero. And yet he is an Everyman. He just wants to be a normal teenager. We see him mature from a timid 10 year old to a strong 18 year old, and he changes immensely over the course of those years, as each of mentors and protectors is eliminated, as he has his innocence ripped away at every passing moment, as he forms relationships, romantic and sensual and platonic, with new people. He’s a boy who learned the meaning of self-sacrifice, and despite his tendency to fall into depression and mull over dark, suicidal thoughts, just like Katniss, he manages to use the physical and emotional skills he’s willingly taught himself or been taught by others to change his world for the better.

    Katniss is an unrecognizable, 1 dimensional weakling of a character. She lets herself be controlled by absolutely everyone she comes into contact with. Even at the end, she does exactly what Snow told her to do. Harry questions things like that. He gets uncomfortable at apathy, and Katniss is defined by apathy. Percy is a Middle Grade character, and he’s much more of a caricature. He’s relatively flawless, and he’s more your stereotypical action kid.

    But geeze. Keep your fucking mouth shut.

    Rowling’s writing skills are miles ahead of Collins, and as a piece of YA literature, the Harry Potter series is simply unmatched by anything, let alone the mediocre Hunger Games trilogy.

    The tone of self-confidence in this article clashes most annoyingly with your utter ignorance. You make me want to throw up.

    • Tom Simmons

      THIS.

      I’m always one of the first to pick flaws in the books despite deeply liking the series because I think they are critically overrated. But this article is already nitpicking only what the author find useful to his rant because yes, I think th article is more of a rant than a critic.

      For a start, I find this funny to say that Harry “… is no hero to aspire to. He is whiny, self-indulgent, self-obsessed […] And he rarely has to make any brave choices.” because one of the main criticism of the series early was th cookie-cut characters: the hero, the chick, the sidekick, the mentor etc. For me I would take a flawed character any day over a idol to cast unattainable expectations. You know why? Because despite those flaws, Harry still come in the end as a decent human being – his flaws have more to do with his human part than the decency one. I find those heroes a much better image to aspire to. Besides wasn’t characters like that successful authors tend to call good characters?

      And thats only story wise – character wise Harry has reasons to be the way he is. Whiny? His parents were murdered by the same nutcrack who had been trying to kill him the past seven years. And to top it he has to put with his abusive relatives. Half-blood Prince served to show very well how whiny was almost a virtue compared to other characters (ie Snape and Voldemort and in some ways Dumbledore) ended like under similar experiences. Self-obsessed? Indulgent? Not so much buddy. He does display those at certain points especially in OoTP (thinking he was better than Ron and deserved th badge more than his friend; wanting to repel people for his hero syndrome), and HBP (creepingly stalking Ginny with the Marauders Map), and Prisoner of Azkaban by escaping to Hogsmeade so he could have some fun despite the direct threat of a potential murder against him, but like I said, those are character flaws and some especially fitting to teenagers but they are not, in any way, defining characteristics of his personality. If they aren’t, though the character would still make it.

      Though I deeply disagree with the last part. Harry is not brave? Don’t had to make hard choices? The thing is, this aspect was build slowly through the series. Dumbledore said so in the Prince’s Tale that everything so far had been with the purpose of build his bravado – his selfless. And through the books this is shown – going after “Snape” in the Stone Chambers in PS, after the basilisk to save Ginny in CoS et cetera till the point he was willing to die so Voldemort could be beaten for the greater good in DH. And yet, despite all this, in the end is Harry choices that mattered as much as the Headmaster plans (let alone all the other factors like his friends loyalty, his enemies virtues and flaws etc) to Voldemort downfall.

      And the killing stroke of the article was saying Harry was dependent. Well, for a start not all his friends are smarter than him – Hermione, definitely, the Ravenclaws too, the Twins. But Ron, Neville, Ginny and others are all very much stalemated in that regard – Harry even smarter than some. So yes, is obvious he will need help when it comes down to brain stuff – If he could do everything alone then he would be a Gary Stu and thats another thing the successful authors agree about: they suck. Not even Hermione could do everything alone either. For one she needed Harry’s help at DADA.

      And please, Draco was the FIRST wizard kid Harry met. The reason why he didn’t chose to be his friends was because the first thing the asshat said was If Harry parents were “worthy” just after Harry said they died. Then he insulted the same family and his first friend who just helped him with racist rhetoric. Lets not pretend it was being rejected that send Draco astray, ok? the kid was already a nasty piece of work. Besides Harry didn’t exactly told Draco to fuck off, Draco who wanted him to chose between him and Ronald and Harry did. Eliedzer fanfiction “Methods of Rationality” show this very thing though reversed, with Ron playing the rejected bigot (sort of,Ron had very good reasons to act that way imo) and Draco the first friend.

      As for Percy, he’s meant to be overpowered for a reason: to show, all the times he fail that brute force/raw talent alone aren’t everything and Riordan even lampshades this more than once through the books. He even had his ass kicked a bunch of times by weaker characters who were more skilled or outsmarted him. And he eventually learn to the same and stop depending solely on his brute force to win.

      And I was going to finish my wall-text with Katniss but declan said everythin’ I wanted for me. To call Harry or even Percy a bad character but have all th world praise to Katniss… you probably never read the books.

      What was that, click bait? Siriusly.

      • Dan

        This dude is a teacher and parent. I think his real problem is this:

        Amy Chua, in her controversial Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, suggests we are praising our children too much and for the wrong things. We call them smart and pretty but don’t praise their efforts and actual achievements. We don’t scold them for not trying or point out when their grades are too low. We take their side in teacher conferences, blame the teachers and the schools and circumstance. We don’t make them practice, study, practice again.

        Harry Potter and PJ are books meant for entertainment. Get over it.

  • Jebby Lee

    The fact that Luke had the force didn’t mean shit. He still had to use it and when he left his training to go fight the bad guy using only his skills, he got destroyed. This entire article was pretty darn stupid. I have my problems with everything mentioned, but the way you explained your contempt for it was shitty

  • HenryWong122

    “His dad is a more important god than his opponent’s mom” How dare you use the horribly stupid movie as part of your argument? NEVER, EVER USE THE STUPID MOVIE AS EVIDENCE! You can’t compare the Harry Potter books to the Hunger Games movies & you can’t compare the Percy Jackson movies to any thing.

    • Proud

      Yuss! Finally someone understands!!!

  • DC

    I’m not sure I understand the point of your post. Are you advocating making an effort to separate the lovable dreck from the philosophically worthwhile so people who actually want the latter can find it more easily? Sounds great. Are you advocating “telling people what to do” because they’re incapable of deciding what’s best for them? I think that’s a premature assessment of your own powers and a dangerous philosophy of leadership if you generalize it too far.

    It’s not enough to say smoking is bad for you, McDonald’s isn’t healthy, or tiger parenting is good for children. You need to back this up with good evidence. (The first two, it seems, are backed up by good evidence; the last is not.) Without it, you’re just performing the social role of bossy know-it-all–and there are lots of good reasons people resent that, over and above the quite legitimate emotional reason that it’s insulting, obnoxious, and damaging to relationships. One practical reason is that (a) the bossy know-it-all is often wrong, but their confidence can persuade people to do things that harm them or to give up things that are worthwhile. At a deeper lever, (b) even if the authority is right in any given instance, learning how to figure things out for yourself, even if you get it wrong, is often much more important than depending for answers on someone else’s word. Rather than telling people what to do, you might want to focus on telling them what you know. If what you know is worth its salt, they might actually use it to make decisions later.

    In any case, feel free to being the Herculean task of mucking out the publishing houses…but don’t use the importance of separating the muck from the manure as an excuse to advocate authoritarianism or sneer at people who resent it. There may be good arguments in its favor, but you haven’t made them here.

  • Proud

    I think you didn’t even actually read the Percy Jackson books.
    You probably just watched the dumbass so called, ‘Percy Jackson’ movies.
    *Thousands of Percy Jackson fans from the whole world growl at the mention of ‘Percy Jackson movies’*
    Well.. but if you did.. *hands book to you* YOU’D BETTER READ AGAIN.

  • Proud

    Just think: Most if the things you’ve said about are FREAKING CHILDREN’S BOOKS. I am not going to insult your opinion, because we all have different opinions and nothing is really wrong. But surely, kids would like books like this. They want to see the protagonists as friends. They want the protagonists to share the same struggles as them. They want something fun to read. Do you ever see a kid reading The Lord of The Rings with burning passion, ignoring the lack of humor? Being a 10 years-old kid myself(As you can see from the grammatical errors), I have direct evidence.
    P.S. You want a Mary Sue/Gary Stu? Go get one yourself.
    P.S.S. I am not in any way insulting any if the characters. They are my childhood and still are.

  • Proud

    And you mean the gods decend down from a rope to help Percy and Harry? Haven’t you seen them struggle in tasks?