Last night, cuddled close together in her bed, Brother and Daddy already asleep shortly after their 8:00 PM bedtime, Katie and I finished the last book of the Harry Potter series. What a magical shared reading experience this has been. Over 4000 pages, 120+ hours, months of excitement at every chance to read. I am not ready for our Harry Potter world to end. Thank you, J.K. Rowling, for creating a body of work so compelling and so beautiful. Thank you for this epic adventure with my daughter. It is a testament to your craftsmanship that my daughter, who will turn four-years-old in two weeks, has been able to absorb herself in the characters, places, plots, and themes you have imagined.

And what did Katie take away from these seven books? Did she truly understand the author’s themes and big messages?

This morning, Katie and I discussed the books over breakfast. At every step of the way, I have been checking and rechecking her understanding. Today, I was most interested in some of her culminating thoughts about the books. All of the following quotes and thoughts are entirely her own, and I wrote them down verbatim as she answered my questions. Her answers are italicized and in bold.

I began by asking her, “What do you think we were supposed to learn from reading the Harry Potter books?”

After a few false starts in which Katie started by rattling off  plot details (something I remember needing to overcome with some of my 9th graders), I rephrased the question a couple of different ways. She then understood that I was probing for something more abstract, and she responded that Rowling’s lesson was that:

“You need to have good faith in others.”

I asked her, “What else do these books teach us?” On a roll now, Katie said:

“It teaches us how to care.”

What else? I queried.

“You have to be nice to others.”

“You have to love others.”

Then I asked her a more difficult question: “Why do you think Harry was willing to die in the last book?”

She explained, “He wanted other people to be saved.”

Then, without being prompted with a question, she threw out there: “We learn from Harry Potter that Snape was good after all.”

We have been fascinated with Snape’s character—and what a rich character he is—since Book Six. Rowling has given us a flawed character who has done wrong things in the past, but who makes noble and good choices as he matures. He gives himself over to the power of love, at a crucial moment. I wondered all along how Katie would grapple with such an apparent massive character shift. Would she even understand, after reading Book Six, how the author ultimately reverses our expectations and redeems Snape in Book Seven?

But what a powerful lesson Snape is. No one is all good, or all bad—not even Dumbledore. Katie saw me cry when we read the part in which Snape dies. She saw me cry a few times throughout the series. When we see readers reacting to a text, we understand the power of words to transform and to feel real. Part of reading these books to Katie has been to show her how a seasoned reader reacts and responds to a text. If she can start to see that process now, I believe it will make her a stronger reader as she goes forward.

Continuing on, I asked her about Voldemort.

Why is Voldemort evil?

She reasoned, “Voldemort is bad because he has a bad group.”

Amen to that. We’ve been discussing the Death Eaters all along. She is too young to grasp the full historical import of how evil dictators exploit the insecurities and hatred of weak followers and goad them on through group-think to commit extraordinarily atrocious crimes against humanity, but she has begun to think about the influence of groups. We’ve talked about how Voldemort gains power over his group. The Malfoys, especially, are characters who reveal the nuances of this process. Someday, we will take this theme much, much further…

What else did Voldemort do that was bad?

Katie said, “Voldemort wanted to have no more good people. Because he was evil. He didn’t want any more good people to be here. He wanted everyone to be evil. He just wanted a Slytherin House.”

Yes, Katie. Yes. We spent time talking about Voldemort’s emphasis on pure blood. I know she understands that part at the plot level, at least. Someday she will connect that to the historical references upon which the latter books, especially, are based.

She had more to say about Voldemort:

“He tried to take over the whole city. He wanted no more Muggles.”  City, country, world—ah well, we’re working on that. That’s why we have our globe. 😉

I then probed her, “What do you think about the people who died for Harry? Why did they die for him?”

Imagine the glow in my ever-lovin’-English-teacher’s heart when she explained, “They didn’t want their hero to be gone.” Boo-ya! Boo-ya, baby girl! I mean, she used the word “hero.” Seriously? I had to restrain myself from a fist-pump.

I followed up, “What did they need their hero to do?”

“Protect the world.”

I shifted gears, “Let’s think about Harry’s friends. What do good friends do for one another?”

Her answers: “They care for one another. They help one another. They help one another be alive.”

Finally, I asked, “Pretend that you were a teacher and were thinking about teaching these books. Why would you want to teach these books to your students?”

Katie said, “I would teach it to them because they need to learn about good things.”

Approaching Book One, I wasn’t sure how long we would be able to hang with the series or even that Katie would become so engrossed as she has become. We had handled the Little House series well enough, but Harry Potter is a different reading level and on a different order in terms of character complexity. After we passed the issue of the Time Turner in Book Three, and the complicated things its presence does to the plot, I knew for sure that she was up to this challenge.

My next concern was the more violent content of many of the books. While the first three books contained, in my opinion, no more violence than any Disney film or fairy tale, I had bigger concerns about Book Four and the death of Cedric Diggory. I was also concerned about the graveyard scene in that book, as well as the way in which Charity Burbage dies in Book Seven. Still, the fact that most of the violence had an “unreal” fairy tale quality about it—wands and spells, instead of guns—seemed to make it an acceptable vehicle to me. Am I weird? I weighed the presence of the violence with the possibility of a bigger pay-off for Katie (messages of love, courage, survival, compassion, friendship, etc) by the end. If the violence had been sexual violence, or if the violence had been sadistically perverse, I would not have exposed her to it.

The bigger question in my mind is, “What next?” I mean, what can possibly be next after Harry Potter? Oh, I have some candidates: The Secret Garden, Island of the Blue Dolphins, Anne of Green Gables, Bridge to Teribithia, The Indian in the Cupboard… There are plenty of choices, books that I have truly loved. Charlotte’s Web might be a strong contender. I still remember my mom reading that to me, the first time I ever sobbed at a book. I remember my bedroom in Yorba Linda, cuddled reading it together. It is a mother-daughter tradition in our family.

Still, Harry… I don’t think Katie and I can let go of you right yet. We miss you already.