Book Review: Teaching with Harry Potter: Essays on Classroom Wizardry from Elementary School to College, Valerie Estelle Frankel, ed. (2013)

Monday, July 29th, 2013

Something for Everyone!

four out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free copy of this book for review at the editor’s invitation.)

Since the debut of Harry Potter and The Philosopher’s Stone in 1997, the Harry Potter franchise has generated a wealth of scholarly research. “Aca-fans” – “those who participate in academic fandom” (page 1) – scrutinize, interrogate, and critique Harry Potter creations both official and unauthorized: from J.K. Rowling’s novels to the film adaptations and supporting websites, to fan-made works such as fan and slash fiction – all is fair game. Such discussions often focus on themes as diverse as literature, philosophy, psychology, history, gender studies, and the law. However, Harry Potter’s place in education is a topic that has, until now, been all but neglected – as some of the writers (most notably Elisabeth C. Gumnior, who devotes an entire chapter to the subject) in Teaching with Harry Potter: Essays on Classroom Wizardry from Elementary School to College are quick to point out.

The eighteen authors who contributed to this unique collection come from a variety of backgrounds; they are parents, teachers of middle and high school students, college professors, academics, and fans. Consequently, there’s a little something for everyone here. Common to the essays is a shared enthusiasm for Harry Potter and his ability to help educate the next generation. Composition, literature, creative writing, romance languages, medieval studies, modern history, theology, science: with a little creativity and effort, the lessons found in Harry Potter – especially useful as a “global cultural reference” (page 152) – can be integrated into almost any classroom.

1 – “From Hogwarts Academy to the Hero’s Journey,” Lana A. Whited – The author compares and contrasts her experiences teaching Harry Potter to two very different audiences: 10- to 13-year-old children enrolled in Hogwarts Academy, a week-long summer enrichment class, and college sophomore literature students. An enjoyable start to this anthology, I found myself wishing I was young enough to attend Hogwarts myself, what with its Care of Magical Creatures and Defense of the Dark Arts lessons. The course sometimes even hosts a Snape impersonator in the form of Dr. Powell, a chemistry professor who brews up marshmallows and ice cream! Meanwhile, the older students examine Harry’s growth in the context of Otto Rank’s stages of the hero’s saga and Joseph Campbell’s monomyth of the hero’s journey. The author concludes that there are two ways of “knowing” literature – by the head and by the heart – and you can sometimes achieve the former by beginning with the latter.

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Book Review: The Many Faces of Katniss Everdeen, Valerie Estelle Frankel (2013)

Monday, July 8th, 2013

Team Katniss

four out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free copy of this book for review at the author’s invitation.)

If you’re a voracious reader of THG criticism, you might already be familiar with the work of Valerie Estelle Frankel: in addition to a short guide to The Hunger Games (Katniss the Cattail: An Unauthorized Guide to Names and Symbols in Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games), Frankel also contributed an essay to the 2012 anthology, Of Bread, Blood and the Hunger Games: Critical Essays on the Suzanne Collins Trilogy (“Reflection in a Plastic Mirror”). I had the pleasure of reviewing each of these, as well as a study of Buffy the Vampire Slayer as it relates to Joseph Campbell’s model of the Hero’s Journey (Buffy and the Heroine’s Journey: Vampire Slayer as Feminine Chosen One).

In this latest book, The Many Faces of Katniss Everdeen: Exploring the Heroine of the Hunger Games, Frankel revisits and expands upon many of the ideas introduced in her previous guides and essays. In particular, Chapters 4 (“Katniss Lives the Roman Histories”), 5 (“Katniss the Hungry: Food in the Hunger Games”), and 8 (“Katniss the Mockingjay: The Power of Story and Song”) are an extension of Katniss the cattail: a more in-depth look at the names (Katniss, Gale, Peeta, Prim, Claudius Templesmith, Plutarch Heavensbee, Presidents Snow and Coin, etc.) and symbols (bread, arrows, primroses, etc.) found in The Hunger Games trilogy. Likewise, Chapter 1 (“Katniss the Reality TV Star: Reflection in a Plastic Mirror”) is reprinted from Of Bread, Blood and the Hunger Games.

But far from a rehashing of old ideas, The Many Faces of Katniss Everdeen is a fresh and insightful discussion of the major themes of the trilogy, from its criticism of our current obsession with reality television (which, coupled with our war fatigue, is especially insidious – we enjoy watching the suffering of others, but turn our backs when it happens en mass) to the execution of the film adaptation:

1 – “Katniss the Reality Star: Reflection in a Plastic Mirror” – No less enjoyable the second time around, the opening essay in this collection compares Panem to the modern-day US; the Hunger Games are an exaggerated version of our own reality television – our own bread and circuses, if you will. In this way, The Hunger Games isn’t just a future dystopia – but a present one, as well.

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Book Review: Katniss the Cattail, Valerie Estelle Frankel (2012)

Wednesday, January 23rd, 2013

The Cliffs Notes to Symbolism in THG

four out of five stars

“As long as you can find yourself, you’ll never starve.”

Names carry great significance in The Hunger Games trilogy. Residents of the Capitol and its favored districts are commonly given Roman names (Cato, Cinna, Plutarch, Enobaria), establishing a parallel with the rise and fall of a brutal empire, while those living in the districts are named after food (Katniss, Peeta), plants (Rue, Prim, Posy), and other natural forces (Gale, Annie Cresta), as well as their work – their district’s specialty (Thrush, Chaff, Wiress). Even the name of the country evokes images of ancient Rome: “Panem” comes from the Latin phrase “Panem et Circenses” – bread and circuses to entertain and distract the masses.

When one considers the cultural and historical context of each given and/or surname – particularly in relation to the character’s story arc in The Hunger Games – it becomes obvious that author Suzanne Collins chose many of these names with great care and attention to detail. (In this vein, I can’t help but laugh at those reviewers who complain that Frankel is reading “too much into” the names and symbols found in The Hunger Games. That’s kind of the point! Plus, it’s just plain fun.)

In Katniss the Cattail, Valerie Estelle Frankel – whose other 2012 release, Buffy and the Heroine’s Journey, I recently had the pleasure of reviewing through Library Thing – provides a kind of “Cliffs Notes” guide to the numerous names and symbols found in The Hunger Games. The book is divided into two sections: The Names of Panem (roughly 49 pages in length) and Symbols/Allusions to Literature and Life (21 pages). Frankel draws on a number of subjects to give greater context to the names and symbols of THG: history (especially military and Roman), literature (with Shakespeare receiving the lion’s share of attention), botany, linguistics, and religion and mythology, to name a few.

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Book Review: Buffy and the Heroine’s Journey, Valerie Estelle Frankel (2012)

Friday, September 28th, 2012

(Full disclosure: I received a free advanced review copy of this book through Library Thing’s Early Reviewer program.)

The Slayer Who Would Be Queen

four out of five stars

A newbie Buffy fan like myself, I was super-excited when copies of Valerie Estelle Frankel’s Buffy and the Heroine’s Journey: Vampire Slayer as Feminine Chosen One were offered up for review through Library Thing’s Early Reviewer program. At the time I was just finishing up Season Seven of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and picking up Season One of the comics, so the timing was perfect – fresh as the material was in my head.

Frankel didn’t discover the show until long after the final episode had aired; but, once she did, she was quick to devour it all: BtVS, Angel, and the comics. As she watched, she also worked on an impromptu, 100-page draft comparing Buffy’s trials and tribulations to the classic hero’s journey, as described by mythologist Joseph Campbell. Eventually her thesis grew into Buffy and the Heroine’s Journey.

A “monomyth” that can be found in the great epics of every culture (see, e.g., Hercules, Luke Skywalker, Harry Potter), the Hero’s Journey takes a somewhat predictable path – beginning with the call to adventure and ending with the “freedom to live” – during the course of which the protagonist gains wisdom and self-knowledge and successfully grows into a fully integrated adult. Of course, many adventures are had along the way: the hero battles with (and triumphs over) a Dark Lord (his Shadow) who threatens the world; he meets his Princess, goddess of the forest and embodiment of the earth’s magic; and he battles monsters of all shapes and sizes. Perhaps he’s also accompanied by a trustworthy friend or two, who function as outward reflections of his inner self.

As articulated in a handy chart by Frankel, Campbell’s Hero’s Journey includes:

* World of Common Day
* Call to Adventure
* Refusal of The Call
* Supernatural Aid
* Crossing The First Threshold
* Belly of the Whale
* Road of Trials
* Meeting with The Goddess
* Woman as Temptress
* Atonement with The Father
* Apotheosis
* The Ultimate Boon
* The Refusal of the Return
* The Magic Flight
* Rescue from Within
* Return
* Master of Two Worlds
* Freedom to Live

In contrast, Frankel offers up a different – but oftentimes parallel – outline of The Heroine’s Journey:

* World of Common Day
* Call to Adventure: A Desire to Reconnect with the Feminine
* Refusal of The Call
* The Ruthless Mentor and the Bladeless Talisman
* Crossing the First Threshold: Opening One’s Senses
* Sidekicks, Trials, Adversaries
* Wedding the Animus
* Facing Bluebeard
* Sensitive Man as Completion
* Confronting the Powerless Father
* Descent into Darkness
* Atonement with the Mother
* Apotheosis through Accepting One’s Feminine Side
* Reward: Winning the Family
* Torn Desires
* The Magic Flight
* Reinstating the Family
* Power of Life and Death
* Ascension of the New Mother

As you can see, many of the points on these paths are quite similar, with nearly all of the differences hinging upon the hero’s gender. (Paging Captain Obvious!) For example, while the male hero has daddy issues (the mother being largely absent), the heroine is plagued with mommy problems – and a weak father (and/or father figure), to boot. Whereas the hero will be seduced by a woman (“Woman as Temptress”), the heroine must remain vigilant against intimate partner violence (“Facing Bluebeard”). The hero meets and falls in love with a mysterious princess/goddess who introduces him to the magic of nature, whereas the heroine must wed the animus – her dark, masculine Shadow Self.

Drawing upon the whole of Buffyverse canon – the 1992 film, seven seasons of Buffy, five seasons of Angel, and Seasons One and Eight of the comic – Frankel elucidates the ways in which Buffy’s journey functions as a “perfect example” (I’m paraphrasing) of The Heroine’s Journey. Xander (passionate, practical) and Willow (innocent, intelligent) can be read as aspects of Buffy’s self, manifested externally, which must be nurtured and protected at all costs. Giles is both a manly guardian of knowledge and a (physically) powerless father (figure; Buffy’s actual father is both powerless and largely absent from her life). Maggie Walsh and Glory are Terrible Mothers – destructive forces that Buffy must avoid succumbing to. Whereas Joyce vacillates between a Good Mother and a mother who is at best oblivious to her daughter’s needs, Tara acts as a surrogate Good Mother in the wake of Joyce’s death; after Tara is murdered, Buffy must integrate Tara’s goodness into her own psyche, so that she can care for her little sister/adopted daughter Dawn. As Buffy confronts and defeats increasingly disturbing and powerful opponents – absorbing their darkness into her Self – she matures. So do her weapons: from a common crossbow (which allows to her keep a relatively safe distance from vamps), to a masculine, army-issued rocket launcher, culminating in the ultra-powerful, ultra-ancient scythe, which helps to unleash the power of the feminine so that all women are potential slayers.

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