Harry Potter and the Deadly Microsoft Staircase
Last Saturday, some 300 people packed the auditorium at the Central Library for a debate sponsored by the Seattle Public Library and Team Read, an after-school literacy program. Two teams of three high-school girls were to determine, once and for all, which popular young-adult fantasy series—Harry Potter or Twilight—is the best. (Beforehand, the audience was entertained by an unplanned preshow: people continually falling up the staircase. In 15 minutes, five people in search of seats tripped up the auditorium's irregularly shaped steps.)
The host, Team Read program director Bill Eisele, explained the debate structure: Each team would get two minutes to respond to a question from one of the judges. Both the judges and the audience would vote, and the winning series would be determined for the ages. A middle-aged man in the audience bellowed his concern about the authenticity of the voting. He was assured that there was a zero-tolerance policy for ballot tampering.
The first question: "Which series has the most interesting supporting characters?" Team Twilight fumbled, and Team HP cleaned up, suggesting that Neville Longbottom enhanced and explicated the themes of loyalty in the series. Likewise, Team HP smashed home an argument for why Voldemort is clearly the superior villain of the two series: "You can understand exactly what his motives are." It wasn't just that the HP team was better prepared; when you're forced to defend Twilight's wooden characterization and aimless plotting, you're already on the losing team.
Another question revolved around which series better faced issues of race and prejudice. In Harry Potter, "Prejudices are set aside because there's a greater force that needs conquering." Another debater kept using the made-up-but-should-really-be-a-word word "prejudism."
Teen-services librarian Jennifer Bisson asked the best question, about strong female characters. Team Twilight started out rough, with bare facts: "Bella is one of Twilight's main characters, and she is a woman." Eventually they determined that the mincing romantic lead served as more of an example of "what not to do." Team HP showed no mercy: "Bella has low self-esteem and acts like a stereotypical weak girl, and that isn't what we want our teenagers to be reading." The audience—girls outnumbered boys something like five or six to one—spontaneously burst into raucous applause. Even Team Twilight had to admit "that was really good."
In the end, it was no contest. The judges went for Harry Potter, and the audience tally was decisive: Harry Potter earned 122 votes and Twilight only picked up 40. Kids crowded the main floor to eat "wooly werewolf brownies" and "Harry's crunchy munchies." Somewhere on the internet, vampire fans wept and composed tirades on their blogs, but at the library, the mood was jovial. Plus, nobody fell down the stairs.