Last weekend my oldest, Elias, turned 8. The only thing he asked for was a Harry Potter-themed birthday party. Inspired by his sparkly enthusiasm, I readily accepted the challenge. I rolled up my sleeves and began planning. And then I panicked. Having never read the series myself (I know, I know…it’s shameful!) I’d had no idea what I was signing up for. As I listened to my sons and husband discuss a series of names and locations I couldn’t quite keep straight, I realized that if I was going to enjoy this party in any authentic sort of way, I had some serious catch-up reading to do.
Two weeks before the big day, I began searching the boys’ room for volume 1 of the series. This time consuming hunt turned up nothing, and I was soon making a stink over the perpetual disarray that is their book collection. As we searched for the missing volume, my middle son, intent on shutting down my rant asked, “Why do you need this book anyway, mom?” And here is where it all gets interesting. I explained that I wanted to really enjoy the upcoming party and that knowing this story everyone was so excited about seemed like important preparation. Also, I added, that because Harry Potter was so important to them, it was important to me as well. The boys were quiet for a minute and I watched them consider my words quite carefully.
“Mom, we need to get you a copy at the library right away. I’ll help you find it there because we will never find it in this mess,” Jo Jo announced. While not exactly the solution I was hoping for, I loved his resolve to get a copy into my hands. We could organize bookshelves later on.
It was a couple days more before we could get to the library, but in the days preceding our trip there, my sons checked in frequently asking if I stilled wanted to read Harry Potter and then whether I wanted them to tell me the story while I waited to get the book. I told them that it was ok and that I could wait. While assuring me it was no bother, they reenacted a series of Harry’s adventures resulting in a serious case of little boy giggles.
I did finally read the book and it was fun. More fun than that were my sons’ periodic check-ins. “Have you read the part where Harry sees all the letters yet? Isn’t Uncle Vernon absolutely evil?” Literary critique and colorful conversation peppered each of our mealtimes that week. It was tremendous fun.
The day before the party I finally felt my research was thorough enough. I was prepared to move forward and had a terrific time planning and plotting party fun. Although I normally love involving the kids in event planning, I decided that this day needed to be full of surprises. My husband and I made our preparations without sharing even a hint of what was ahead for the birthday boy.
My son’s friends arrived at the party. Each was a fan of the Harry Potter series, and I was duly impressed by their robust seeming knowledge of wizardry. We began the party with a fun game, assigning wizard names. I had no idea how much fun this simple game would be, but it really got the kids (and even the most reluctant grownups) into character. Within 15 minutes we had new identities, and my sons’ favorite magical place had sprung to life on our farm.
We are fortunate to have lots of space for little kid adventures. We set up a large outbuilding to be Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. The rest of the farm’s outbuildings and fields served as Hagrid’s hut, a Quidditch field, Slug and Jiggers Apothecary, and the Forbidden Forest. A pond at the edge of the pasture was a dragon watering hole. It was great fun. A cooperative scavenger hunt for Hedwig, Harry’s missing owl, was the main activity for which the boys mostly stayed in character.
Although this was never my intention, Elias’s birthday celebration proved to be one of the very best English lessons my boys and I have had the good fortune to share. In bringing this story to life, we found ourselves engaged in golden conversations that involved deconstructing Rowling’s plot and characters. Without being asked, the boys memorized large passages from the text in order to play at wizardry more authentically, but with the confidence of seasoned editors, they were also quick to modify story lines as they saw fit. There was an important kinesthetic element in all this learning. Throughout the scavenger hunt, the kids walked purposefully through pages of their favorite story. As they consulted maps, trudged through muck, and dodged berry branches to rescue poor Hedwig, I am certain deep learning was cemented.
What a rich model this could be. What if this were how we taught great literature to children all of the time? Perhaps birthday cake would not always be included, but maybe sometimes!
I believe that beyond anything else, what most brought this story alive for my kids were not party games nor even our colorful conversations. Rather it was the opportunity they were given to lead and to share an area of expertise about which they feel great passion. So often, as well intentioned adults, we enthusiastically share favorite books with children. Indeed this is a generous and often times appreciated gift. But I saw my middle son’s eyes when he realized the tables had been turned and that I would be seeking their knowledge about all things wizard related. My willingness to pick up a book that I might not otherwise look over moved him. The chance to be experts, the chance to teach mom, was of monumental significance to both of my sons. As they recounted the ins and outs of potions class with precision, I watched their pride swell.
At the end of a long and wonderful day I snuggled with the birthday boy. We rehashed his favorite memories of the party. As I got up to turn off the light he gave me a final hug and sleepily told me, “thanks for all those Harry Potter things you did, mom. You did a really nice job today. And I’m really glad you liked the story. You should read volume 2.”
How does your family bring books to life? And if you want more photos, I left you a little slide show!
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