J. K. Rowling: “Children are not ‘they’. They are us.”

J. K. Rowling has been awarded the first ever Hans Christian Andersen Literature Award.[1] (This should not be confused with the Hans Christian Andersen Award, which is awarded to an author and illustrator.[2])  The award is given to someone who is comparable to Hans Christian Andersen.[3] As the author of the Harry Potter books, she has become well-known all over the world and this is just one of the many award and honors she has received.

The link in the Mugglenet entry leads to a Danish site called Nyhederne (TV2), which has an article titled Prinsesse overrakte pris til Potters mor (Princess presented the award to Potter’s mother) and a video of the award presentation and Rowling’s speech.  The ceremony took place in Odense, which is the birthplace of Hans Christian Andersen.[4] I watched the video of the ceremony and was moved by J. K. Rowling’s speech.  The following is a transcript of what Rowling said.  (Please do watch the video; there is nothing comparable to actually hearing the words in her own voice.)

Thank you.  Your Royal Highness, Mayor, Deputy Mayor, members of the Hans Christian Andersen Prize committee, ladies and gentlemen, thank you very much for that welcome.  I’d like that always to happen when I walk into a room from now on.  If you were having a bad day, that would really cheer you up.  I’ve also noticed that you’ve made me feel at home by putting a Weasley cousin on violin.  Have you noticed?  I am humbled and deeply honored to receive this wonderful and very, very heavy award.  Hans Christian Andersen is a writer I revere, because his work was of that rare order that seems to transcend authorship.  He created indestructible, eternal characters.  The Ugly Duckling, The Little Mermaid, The Snow Queen, and The Naked Emperor have become so deeply embedded in our collective consciousness that we are in danger of forgetting that we were not born knowing about them, that Andersen gave them to us.  His stories have spoken to generations across many nations and have spawned a million interpretations, yet the originals retain the greatest fascination of all.  Andersen understood that writing for children does not mean pureeing what one would have written for adults.  It ought not to be bland or soppy or devoid of challenging ingredients.  Those who write for children, or at least those who write best for children, are not child-like or immature, but they do remember with sometimes painful intensity both what it was to be small and confused and how wonderful was that fierce joy in the moment that can become so elusive in later life.  Any book that is written down to children or with one nervous sideways eye on the author’s fellow adults or in the belief that this is the kind of thing that ‘they like’ cannot work and will not last.  Children are not “they”.  They are us.  And this is why writing that succeeds with children often succeeds just as well with adults — not because the latter are infantile or regressive, but because the true dilemmas of childhood are the dilemmas of the whole of life:  those of belonging and betrayal, the power of the group and the courage it takes to be an individual, of love and loss, and learning what it is to be a human being, let alone a good, brave, or honest one.  Hans Christian Andersen’s work is an eloquent rebuttal to those people who would sanitize children’s literature.  For all the warmth, humor, and beauty of his stories, he was not afraid to depict cruelty, injustice, or pain.  His Little Match Girl dies quietly of poverty and his Mermaid shows that to risk everything and yet to lose has its own romantic splendor, its own grandeur.  I do not presume to compare the Harry Potter books with stories that have lasted two hundred years, but I loved my own characters so much that leaving them all behind after seventeen years was a kind of bereavement.  The fact that so many people enjoyed the world that I made stuns me every day, and yet miraculously, it still feels like my own private kingdom where I can’t help strolling occasionally just to see what my surviving characters are up to.  I love meeting young men and women who grew up reading the Harry Potter books.  Sometimes they are apologetic.  “You must hear this all the time.”  But I’m never bored by meeting people who lived at Hogwarts with me.  This is the miracle of literature to which no other medium can compare — that the writer and the reader’s imaginations must join together to make the story, so that there are as many different Harrys, Hagrids, and Forbidden Forests as there are co-creators, each one personal to the reader.  The books we read in childhood often have a particular power over us.  Perhaps this is not only because we are impressionable and sensitive in youth, but because we are so exacting when we are young — happy to reject anything that does not hold our attention.  Children don’t buy books because they think they ought to read them or because they want to display them on their coffee tables.  Children keep reading purely because they want to know what happens next, and as such, they are the most demanding yet satisfying readership of all.  So, thank you to everyone, young and old who stuck loyally with Harry through seven volumes of adventures, to everybody at Harry’s many publishers who helped bring his story to new readers and with particular thanks to Gyldendal, my Danish publisher, to my family for putting up with me all these years that I kept disappearing on the Hogwarts Express, and of course, to the Hans Christian Andersen Prize committee and the city of Odense for presenting me with an award I shall treasure all my life.  Thank you very much.

Her speech was inspirational and beautiful.  It reminded me of one of the many reasons I immediately loved the Harry Potter series when I first began reading it.  I was in sixth grade at the time (the school year from 1999-2000).  I read the first three books in quick succession and eagerly awaited the fourth, which was released in the summer of 2000.  One of the aspects of the series which stood out to me was Rowing’s willingness to address serious issues, even in a book with young characters that would most likely be read by many children.

By that time in my life, I had already noticed that several (though not all) of the books I’d read which were considered “appropriate” for children seemed to be simplified for a young audience; the writers’ efforts to “write down” to the young readers seemed obvious and I felt insulted and underestimated.  Even as children, we know that the world is not a perfect place.  We may not know the details or have a deeper understanding (and in fact, such understanding may even elude adults), but the idea that children are completely unaware of the difficult or confusing parts of life is a misconception.  It is important to remember that children, though young, are human and they live in this world just as adults do, experiencing and observing its nature.

The world and universe around us can be very confusing and scary but also wonderful and hopeful.  We all look out at the world and have questions about it.  Honesty in stories, an honest portrayal of the complexities of life including the presence of evil, can offer some counsel or comfort or camaraderie.  It can help us realize that we are not the only ones facing or thinking about such problem (that there are other people in the world who are also thinking about such things and who have taken the time to write about it).  The story itself can provide a different universe in which to consider problems similar to those in our own world.

In the Harry Potter series, the characters enjoy the joys of friendship and love and experience the sorrows of fear and hate directed towards them.  Rowling does not hesitate to describe the horrors of life, the images and ideas which keep the reader up at night.  Her books are hopeful in the end, but there is hope despite the darkness, not in the absence of it.  That makes a great deal of difference.  To read a story of perfection is an experience which makes me doubt whether there can be hope in this real, imperfect world.  To read a story in which there is hope and happiness despite the despair gives me real hope — that even in this imperfect world, there is still good and happiness and love.

Even as children, perhaps especially during this time, we can find meaning and inspiration in these ideas of hope despite despair, of bravery despite fear.  There is a candle in the darkness, a comforting hand to hold in the midst of the storm, as we make the essential journey through life.  The despair might seem strong as we see the worst of humanity’s capabilities, but the best within us is stronger.  Here’s to hoping that all of humanity finds the inspiration that lives in the written word, the hope that lives in the human mind.

#

Acknowledgements

Many thanks, of course, to J. K. Rowling for her wonderful books and for this wonderful speech.  Congratulations on receiving the Hans Christian Andersen Literature Award.


References

[1] Sims, Andrew.  Video:  JK Rowling receives Hans Christian Andersen Award, speaks about the impact of children’s books.  Posted at Mugglenet on October 19, 2010.  Retrieved on October 23, 2010 from http://www.mugglenet.com/app/news/show/3864.

[2] Hans Christian Andersen Awards.  Page on the International Board on Books for Young People website.  Retrieved on October 23, 2010 from http://www.ibby.org/index.php?id=273.

[3] Harry Potter author JK Rowling wins Hans Christian Andersen award.  Posted at The Telegraph on October 19, 2010.  Retrieved from October 23, 2010 from http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/harry-potter/8073373/Harry-Potter-author-JK-Rowling-wins-Hans-Christian-Andersen-award.html.

[4] Fisker, Trine.  Prinsesse overrakte pris til Potters mor.  Posted at Nyhederne (TV2) on October 19, 2010.  Retrieved on October 23, 2010 from http://nyhederne-dyn.tv2.dk/article.php/id-34363802:prinsesse-overrakte-pris-til-potters-mor.html.

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