- A Roundtable on Kids’ Media
What current media text, franchise, or consumer product tailored to kids (or with kids as part of the intended audience) is particularly interesting to you? What makes it different from previous works, or what makes it illustrative of trends in kids’ media and culture today?
There are so many new developments in children’s media that interest me, but I sometimes think we move too quickly to the new without really absorbing the long-term impact of more established media franchises. So, if I am honest about which children’s media property has surfaced most often in my work in recent years, it is Harry Potter (and, by extension, other related YA stories such as Hunger Games and The Fault in Our Stars). Convergence Culture described the ways that Harry Potter was encouraging children and youth not only to read (the big headline in news stories about the book) but also to write (through fan fiction).1 I discussed the ways that young people at earlier and earlier ages were getting involved in media fandom, sharing their stories with each other, and getting feedback through various beta-reading mechanisms. I also documented the ways that these practices were embattled, under threat from censorship (the most often protested book in school libraries and classrooms) and from copyright policing (from studio executives). But young people were taking collective action through online networks to defend their rights to read and write Harry Potter.
A decade plus later, the Harry Potter phenomenon remains a reference point for many in the generation that came of age during its heyday, often evoked when they describe their cultural and political identities. I’ve bumped back across Harry Potter in two recent projects. The first is my new book, By Any Media Necessary: The New Youth Activism, where we describe the Harry Potter Alliance as a new model for what activism might look like.2 My coauthors and I talk about what we call the “civic imagination.” Before you can change the world, you need to be able to imagine what a better alternative might look like, you need to be able to envision a process for change, you need to see yourselves as civic/political agents, and you often need to be able to have empathy for those whose experiences of the world differ from your own. J. K. Rowling herself used the term “imagine better” when speaking at a Harvard graduation some years ago, by which she meant that we should imagine a better world and that we should be doing a better job connecting imagination and reality.3 [End Page 65]
The Harry Potter Alliance deploys various mechanisms of translation to reach young people who are culturally engaged with this fantasy realm and help them find their way into the civic and political spheres. It is about finding and enhancing voice to maximize influence. The HPA has been doing this at a scale we might not have previously imagined—several hundred thousand young people around the world working together on a variety of different human rights campaigns. They’ve raised five cargo planes’ worth of supplies for disaster relief in Haiti; they ran a four-plus-year campaign to educate fellow youth about fair trade issues and eventually got Warner Bros., the studio that owns the rights to Harry Potter, to shift their confection manufacturing to a firm that was certified as not using child labor in the harvesting of cocoa beans. We’ve interviewed thirty or forty young activists in the HPA and mapped their stories, finding that they are not the “usual suspects,” do not come from the kinds of backgrounds that are most apt to inspire political participation, that this group’s practices opened the door for involvement with a wide range of other causes and organizations.
The second strand of work has looked at the phenomenon of “race bending.” The term was first coined to refer to so-called white casting, where Hollywood producers took characters of color in original works aimed at niche audiences and recast them as Caucasian in their...