21 June 2006

getting and sorting, we lay waste our powers

Ever since a certain hat whispered, "Gryffindor," more and more fantasy stories seem to include a scene in which the young protagonist is formally sorted into one group or another. I'm surprised at how this ritual apparently appeals to so many young readers.

The Ranger's Apprentice series, by Australian John Flanagan, starts with a "Choosing Day." As Penguin's web catalogue copy helpfully explains, "at Choosing Day, the day all wards of the castle are told what career path they'll follow into adulthood." (This moment was featured in Unshelved, Bill Barnes and Gene Ambaum's online comic strip by, about, but not just for librarians.)

Rick Riordan's Percy Jackson and the Olympians series includes a "claiming ceremony," when the Greek gods claim children as their own. As Publishers Weekly reported, the great Bookpeople bookstore of Austin, Texas, used this as the basis of a short summer camp for young readers. The legend of Zeus claiming Ganymede as his cupbearer offers some precedent, but not one I thought would carry a lot of weight these days.

Another, non-literary example appears in the Disney movie Sky High, in which the "power placement" ceremony separates teens into superheroes and sidekicks.

Such sorting and choosing is part of a childhood, of course, whether it's picking sides for kickball or finding a seat at lunch or starting the college-application process in eighth grade. But when did formal sorting ceremonies become something kids in our society looked forward to?

It's often said that European education systems have deeper tracks than ours, so it may be no surprise that Britain, home of the O-Levels, produced the
OWLs in Harry Potter. But J. K. Rowling's fantasy world sorts deeper than that. Harry and his schoolmates are wizards from birth. As for the rest of us--well, if you haven't been called to Hogwarts by age eleven, you're a mere muggle. Have a fun life.

Are kids now so used to being tested, categorized, and labeled that they don't wish for an alternative system, simply for a better label? Riordan's website offers "Ten Signs You May Be a Half-Blood," such as being diagnosed with ADHD or dyslexia; his fantasy thus offers one label for another. And the wizard/muggle division seeps into real life in the "indigo child" phenomenon.

In most classic fantasy with one foot in the realistic world, the heroes are ordinary kids, much like the readers. They become extraordinary through luck (often bad to start with) and pluck. Anybody can stumble across a magic ring. Anybody can be a dragon-hatcher. Anybody can find the grail. That's the fantasy part!

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