Enlisting Dumbledore’s army; children’s stories and human rights

This evening I attended The Fickling Lecture funded by David Fickling Books. It’s an annual lecture held at Newcastle University and invites prominent public figures to talk about children’s literature and its place in British culture. Past speakers have included Phillip Pullman, Nick Hornby, Sandi Toksvig, Andrew Motion, Roddy Doyle and James Naughtie.

Tonight saw the turn of Shami Chakrabarti Director of Liberty (The National Council of Civil Liberties). There is no doubting she is a controversial figure bourne out by the reaction from our taxi driver who commented “Oh I’ve seen her on Newsnight. An opinionated woman.” However, her opinions this evening were inspired by her belief that “Stories are more powerful than political speeches” and went on to use some of her favourite children’s stories to illustrate this.

Chakrabarti  read extracts from John Boyne’s Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, The Refugee Boy by Benjamin Zephaniah, Noughts and Crosses by Malorie Blackman, The Island by Armin Greder and Liz Kessler’s The Tail of Emily Windsnap.  These children’s books explore themes of oppression, discrimination, poverty, freedom of speech and basic human rights. Yes, that’s children’s books. Chakrabarti feels these books inspire and aid a young person’s understanding of the world because they are not preachy or sentimental.

She then moved on to what she described as “the best bit” because after all this lecture was entitled “Enlisting Dumbledore’s Army;children’s stories and human rights”. Chakrabarti sees the Harry Potter series by J.K Rowling as “steeped in human rights issues.”

The Order of the Phoenix in particular illustrated this for her. “A fear of evil leads us to do all sorts of things” she said and went on to liken The Ministry of Magic to the Home Office which rains down various draconian ways in response to the threat from evil Lord Voldemort. Owls being intercepted can be seen as increased surveillance and when Harry commits the crime of “underage magic” he is put before a kangaroo court. Torture undermines all basic human rights and in this novel Harry is subjected to an appalling act of torture, by of all people, his teacher.

Why she felt these books are so important is that not only are they great stories but that they can reach so many more children than she, or anybody who fights for rights and freedoms, ever could. “These books are real, exciting and funny.Most importantly they don’t patronise children when talking about human rights.” They were also, she said, about solidarity, optimism and great human virtue.

Chakrabarti finished her lecture with this thought.”As a human rights campaigner I have to believe that a hero like Harry Potter will triumph”

Shami Chakrabarti is quite clearly passionate about the power of children’s books like these, that encourage children and young adults to read, not because they have to but because they want to. And that is the real triumph.