Monday, November 7, 2011
Book Review - Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban
The third book in the phenomenally popular series by J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban is the last one, in my opinion, that should be read by a child under the age of 10 without fairly extensive parental oversight and debriefing. After this, the books grow progressively darker and Rowling becomes one of those authors who Kill Off Characters. And while the body count in books 4-7 may be appropriate to the context of the larger story arc, and the context may be appropriate for a Young Adult series, the eager 3rd and 4th graders who devoured the first few books may need to wait a few years for some maturity to set in before their parents let them loose on the last 4 books. This book, I believe, is the turning point. In many ways it is still a kids' book, and the mischief and pranks and teenage angst are all what you would expect in a kids' book. But the larger context is a war amongst wizards and the potential return of a great, powerful Dark Lord. Children discover they cannot trust everyone, and underlying the whole story is the horrific threat of the soul-sucking Dementors. Even some kids in the recommended age range (8-9 and up) may find parts of it disturbing.
I admit to being torn on this one: my 9-year old really wants to read it and I will probably let her next time she asks nicely. Her oldest brother read it before he was 8, and the 4th book before he was 10, but I would probably put her off longer than that on the 4th book. This third book has a movie counterpart that is one of the better adaptations: they are all good in their ways, but this one successfully tells the story and retains the pacing and characterization of the book in a way that the later films do not. (The later films tend to show only highlights from the books, leaving out the charming bits that make the books such a joy to the eager reader). For many of us longtime Potter fans, this was the book that made us fans and ensured we would be staking out the bookstores for the new release of each new sequel. In many ways, the enduring appeal of this series is for adults even more than children, but we probably shouldn't be greedy with this book. It belongs to children first and foremost.
In this book, Harry loses his temper with his dreadful Aunt Marge and finds himself on his own, more isolated that the maltreated orphan has ever been before, and expecting any minute to be expelled from Hogwarts. There is a terrible criminal on the loose: Sirius Black, an escaped convict from the wizard prison, Azkaban. Even the Muggle world is on the lookout for him. Harry's best friends, Ron and Hermione, are at odds because Hermione's pet cat keeps attacking Ron's pet rat. And Harry is afraid he is hallucinating when he sees a giant black dog -- or is it really the Grim, the ominous portent of death, as described by Sibyl Trelawney, professor of Divination? Things begin to look up when he seeks special tutoring in how to repel Dementors from Remus Lupin, the shabby and occasionally sickly Defense Against the Dark Arts professor. Hagrid, his first friend, is tormented by his own worries, and Harry's antagonists, Draco Malfoy and Professor Snape, are just as sneering and nasty as ever. Harry also begins to uncover troubling information about his late parents and their friendships; he is faced with some ethical choices which will have serious ramifications in the future. The kindly headmaster Albus Dumbledore keeps a close eye on Harry, but not too close until the end of the story: for the one thing Harry must learn is to face his troubles on his own, and win his way through by his own wit, character, and courage. This he does, showing that he is ready for even more demanding challenges in the future books.