This is the fifth in a series of articles that I wrote for a Feature Writing class at Kennesaw State University in the Fall 2002 semester. The link where the article was originally published can be found at the bottom of this entry. Feel free to comment. (Also keep in mind that any links at this point may or may not be accurate.)

The Harry Potter phenomenon

By Brekke Ferguson

Everyday, it seems like something new is coming out in the Harry Potter line. The second movie, “Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets,” came out on November 15 with an $88 million dollar opening weekend. Toys ‘R Us has multiple commercials about the Harry Potter toy section in their stores. Coca-Cola has partnered with Reading is Fundamental to create livethemagic.com where Internet surfers can be sorted into the Hogwarts School houses, among other fun and interesting activities surrounding Harry and Hogwarts.

But who is this Harry Potter and why does everyone seem to know his name?

Harry Potter is a wizard boy created by J.K. Rowling, a British author, who created the world of Hogwarts and the wizarding world that exists behind the Muggle (those with no magic ability) world. The Harry Potter series began with the book Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (Sorcerer’s Stone if one happens to be an American reader), in which we meet young Harry who is miserable at his aunt and uncle’s house near London.

Harry ended up in their care when the evil Lord Voldemort (“He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named” in the books) killed both of Harry’s parents when Harry himself was just an infant. Young Harry, in that same incident, miraculously avoided death, the only mark left on him being a lighting-shaped scar on his forehead.

Initially, however, Harry has never heard of the wizarding world, Hogwarts, or for that matter, Muggles. All he knows is that strange things constantly happen to him, and he is constantly in trouble with his relatives, the Dursley’s.

On Harry’s eleventh birthday, a mysterious letter arrives at the Dursley’s home at 4 Privet Drive with Harry’s name on it. Mr. Dursley intercepts it, and reads the letter that invites Harry to Hogwarts; Mr. Dursley panics, because he and his wife Petunia want nothing to do with the wizarding world. The next day, two letters arrive, and then each day after more and more letters arrive until the house is almost flooded with letters. This prompts the Dursley’s to run, and try to hide from the letters; however, the folks at Hogwarts are not to be outsmarted. Hagrid, Hogwarts’ lovable gamekeeper finds Harry, and the adventure begins.

People who have never read the Harry Potter books often wonder where the popularity and the magic of the books come from. However, those who read the books understand what that magic is after encountering the superb storytelling. However, that does not sufficiently explain why the books are so interesting, and so addicting to readers young and old. The frenzy around the books; however, is enough to turn off any more serious reader.

When I started seeing the hype and frenzy that surrounded the books, I was totally against reading them. All of the talk seemed to be too good to be true. However when the ads for the first Harry Potter movie began to hit the air, and I saw that the venerable Maggie Smith and the hilarious Robbie Coltrain were going to have major roles, I decided to give Mr. Potter a chance.

In deciding to see the movie, I also decided to read at least the first book. However, my motivations for reading weren’t pure. I wanted to read the book so I could, like any good book lover, be prepared to slaughter the movie version of the book.

I read the first book, and I was astonished! The book was amazing. After that, I read them one after the other, and I never wanted to put them down! I was, in short, hooked. I waited, not so patiently, for the fourth book to come out in paperback, and as soon as it did, I had it, and read it just as voraciously as the first three. I, like so many others, had become a convert.

Like most fans, I was left wanting more, and more there currently is not. The fifth book, in a series of seven, now slated for June of 2003 after rumors of no less than three other release dates, seems like it will never appear! Who is this woman who led me – and adult, and skeptic – into a world supposedly for children, and trapped me somewhere between reality and Hogwarts?

J.K Rowling was born on July 31, (which is not only Harry Potter’s birthday, but my own), and she lives in Scotland with her daughter. In a bio clip at www.kidsreads.com, this is the basic information given: “Like that of her own character, Harry Potter, J.K. Rowling’s life has the luster of a fairy tale. Divorced, living on public assistance in a tiny Edinburgh flat with her infant daughter, Rowling wrote Harry Potter and the [Philosopher’s] Stone at a table in a cafe during her daughter’s naps – and it was Harry Potter that rescued her. First, the Scottish Arts Council gave her a grant to finish the book. After its sales to Bloomsbury (UK) and Scholastic Books, the accolades began to pile up, Harry Potter won the British Book Awards Children’s Book of the Year, and the Smarties Prize, and rave reviews on both sides of the Atlantic. Book rights have been sold to England, France, Germany, Italy, Holland, Greece, Finland, Denmark, Spain, and Sweden.”

The thing that amazes me most about J.K. Rowling is that she not only draws older people into her world, but she really does draw children in. I have a friend, whose younger sister, a 12 year old, has read each book no less than 5 times, and she continues to love them. Previously, my friend told me that her sister read only shorter books, such as R.L. Stein’s Goosebumps series. I was impressed by this new eagerness in her sister, because the Harry Potter volumes are as long as, or longer than, some adult novels. Then I started to hear about other children being extremely excited about reading the books.

This was a curious phenomenon, because most kids I knew from working at an elementary school while I was in high school, all wanted to watch T.V. and had no taste for reading. In fact, in my experience, it was like taming wild cattle to get some of these students to read even their class work. So what is so different about Harry Potter? Why would “confirmed” non-readers suddenly become not just readers, but voracious readers because of one book series? I asked some of the parents I know about how they and their children felt about Harry Potter. The answers I got were fascinating.

The first thing that I found to be intriguing was that not only are American children and parents devouring the books, but a mom who is from Mexico, was reading them in Spanish. However, her daughter found them a bit more difficult to read, because the Spanish in the translation is of an older, more formal style.

Allyson, mother of four, said that her two middle children, Steph, 13, and Pete, 9, were on opposite ends of the spectrum as readers. Steph was an avid reader, and she ate the books up, reading them over and over. Pete on the other hand, was not a reader until Harry Potter entered his life. “Pete is where it made a HUGE difference,” said Allyson, “He is 9, and hates to pick up a book, so Steph started to read them to him. He became interested and picked up the books on tape at the library and started to listen to them. Then last summer he checked out Volume 1 and Volume 2 and started to READ them for himself. He is now on Volume IV and reads for about 30 minutes each night, at least. Harry Potter has opened him up to the real act of reading. He still complains about other books being toooooooo long, but he is willing to pick up [Harry Potter] and read it.”

In other words – as claimed – these books really were encouraging kids to read! However, evidence supplied by two children is still not a great number for statistical purposes, but when several other parents to whom I posed the question said the same thing, well, I was definitely impressed.

Now that I knew kids were really reading the Harry Potter books, I was also curious as to why and how J.K. Rowling could get children so involved in her books. My friend Ary said this, “I think that basically kids today have one thing in common – a huge hungry imagination, eagerness for adventures and knowledge and things to relate to, to get excited about. Fairy tales are great, but Disney and other cartoons have made them too well known for kids to enjoy reading them, as they already know what’s going to happen next.”

This I totally understood, because in my own experience, there is not a lot of fun in reading the books that the Disney movies come from. Harry Potter, however, is an entirely new world full of new possibilities.

Even with this wonderful and heartening news from parents, I still needed to go to the “professionals”, so, who better to ask than a librarian? After all, librarians deal with books everyday, so I figured a librarian would definitely have some insight into what I had begun to call the Harry Potter phenomenon.

Clare, a librarian in Massachusetts, works in a middle school library. The first thing I asked her was whether her library carried the books. Instead of giving me a number, she gave me the website to the school’s catalog, and I have to say I was impressed by not only the number of each Harry Potter book they had (no less than two), but also the stock of books on tape and other books that talk about the Harry Potter series and the author herself. It was definitely a great selection.

The next thing I asked was how well circulated the books were. “Harry Potter is very well circulated, but we almost always have at least one copy or another available,” she told me.

When talking about Harry Potter, it is somewhat difficult to get away from the controversy surrounding the books, simply because they are about witches and wizards. While, to my knowledge, there has been no official statement from The Moral Majority or Rev. Jerry Fallwell, there have been protests from the religious community. In my family alone, I’ve heard one of my aunts and my grandmother both say that the books were “evil.” Seems a bit harsh coming from people who have never read the books, but everyone is entitled to his or her own opinion. Curious about the controversy and parents whose opinions may be similar to opinions expressed by my family, I asked Clare, the librarian, about it.

“There have been questions from a few fundamentalist parents, but my take to them is that it is a public school and I provide a wide range of reading materials for a very wide range of readers. If you don’t want your child to take these books out, YOU tell them that, I won’t. I tell students that if they know a book is going to make either of them (the reader or the parent) uncomfortable, please put it back on the shelf and take another of the 5,000 choices.”

In my head, I was thinking, “Way to go, Clare!” However, in trying to be non-biased, I could understand where opponents were coming from. After all, the Bible does warn against witchcraft. Deuteronomy 18:10-11 says, “Let no one be found among you who sacrifices his son or daughter in, or who makes his son or daughter pass through the fire, who practices divination or sorcery, interprets omens, engages in witchcraft or casts spells, or who is a medium or spiritist or who consults the dead.”

However, I do have to agree with Clare. While in one’s own home, the right to dictate what a child reads is definitely one’s right; in libraries, that right is not present. Libraries are there to give multiple options to many different kinds of readers; therefore taking out anything because one group doesn’t agree with it is not fair to those readers who find no evil in the Harry Potter world.

My final question to Clare was similar to those I posed to the other parents, but with a different twist. “Do you feel that Harry Potter has influenced children’s reading habits? For better or worse?”

She gave a very in-depth and insightful answer. “I absolutely see a great connection to the reading habits. Much as I haven’t been as big a fan of the movies as the books, I also see a great connection there. Many times the students will come in to check out the books in the series to refresh or explore the stories. I am also constantly being asked if I know when the next one is coming out — Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, and I don’t know the answer, sadly.

When it does come out, there will be another resurgence in reading.”

She went on to say, “Another thing I like is that if nothing else, it gets kids talking about books, about reading, about stories. The second book and on are tougher reading, but kids are willing to work through it and that’s fabulous. Parents are also very willing to read these books to their kids. I know so many parents and teachers who are as crazy about the books as the rest of us.”

All in all, the results were definitely in line with what I had believed before, and, in fact, the responses I received were even more intriguing than I had anticipated. This magical world of Hogwarts and Harry Potter filled with magic and the game of quidditch, treachery and survival is definitely an imagination twister, giving readers of today a new world similar to Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings.

I first believed the Harry Potter phenomenon to be a popular fad, but now I believe that Harry Potter will not slide into obscurity anytime soon, unlike other children’s books. So long as there are Harry Potter fans that cannot get enough of the Harry Potter books, the wonderful Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry will remain alive.

###

Copyright (c) 2002 by Brekke Ferguson. All rights reserved.

http://www.kennesaw.edu/themagazine/Ferguson5.htm

 

Advertisements