Next Saturday, when the sixth Harry Potter book comes out, at the very least I want you to stammer excuses when I see "Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince" on your nightstand. I want you to claim you're reading it to make sure it's OK for your kids, or your future kids, or even, if you have to, for kids in general.
I don't want you to tell me how well J.K. Rowling writes, or that academics are writing papers about it, or that Harry Potter can be read on many levels. "Clifford the Big Red Dog" can be read on many levels too: One, he's a big red dog; two, if you read it after you're 4, you're a moron.
No, my dear Mr. Stein. If there is a moron present, I somehow think that it is more likely to be the person who deems himself the arbiter of good taste and the high inquisitor appointed to oversee quality in literature.
Mr. Stein, you probably believe that just because the NY Times changed its entire book ranking system so it could exclude the Harry Potter books from the best- seller list (except for the "Children's Books" listing) that this gives you the moral authority to denigrate the audience of the book. You probably suppose that by your supercilious sneering, you are demonstrating your intellectual superiority over the lowly commoners who think it is a damn fine story and can't wait to find out what happens next. You probably imagine that your lofty ridicule shows the depth of your sensitivity and awareness of reality.
You would be wrong on all counts. JK Rowling appears to understand people like you very well. You would feel right at home playing the part of the reporter Rita Skeeter; or trying to take over Hogwarts like Professor Umbridge.
When I first read Lord of the Rings in the 60's--much the same as what you wrote was said of Tolkien. Yet somehow Tolkien's "children's story" was ranked one of the best books of the 20th century. And decades after he wrote them, their themes of Friendship, Loyalty, Duty, Honor, Choices and Resistance to Evil--still provide meaning and inspiration to those who read them.
I daresay that Harry Potter will do the same. It is a marvelous book--incredibly creative; masterfully told; and carefully plotted. It has similar themes to LOTR; and remarkable depth and understanding of human nature. If Rowling manages to pull it all together by the 7th book (it is a septology), then I would lay you odds it will be one of the great books of the 21st century.
And what makes a great book? Mr. Stein would likely say that a "great" book is one that has little commercial success. Phooey. Most (not all, certainly) modern "literature" is a waste of the reader's time. That's why people can't be convinced to buy all those wonderfully highly acclaimed "literary" works of fiction. Commercial success is not a guarantee of greatness, but it is hardly an impediment to it. Frankly, some of the best, deepest, and most innovative writing today is being sold for "children". Books like Phillip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy; or Madeleine L'Engle and many other authors I could name. These books aren't written for children--they are written for intelligent readers who look to literature to give them the emotional fuel to work through issues of good and evil; to help them understand and make sense of the world; and to hold onto the best within themselves.
Tom Robbins, another very fine writer (in addition to JK Rowling) and one of my favorites, said in one of his books, "you're never too old to have a happy childhood."
Apparently, Joel Stein is.