Children who shunned reading before "Harry Potter" can turn to other fantasy literature after final book released

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Beginning at midnight this Friday, July 20, "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows," the seventh and final book in J.K. Rowling's "Harry Potter" series, will go on sale to great fanfare. Publishers announced a record-breaking 12 million copies for the first print run in the U.S. alone.

The series has been widely credited with increasing literacy among children and teenagers. A 2006 survey from the Kids and Family Reading Report and Scholastic found that 51 percent of "Harry Potter" readers ages 5 to 17 said that while they did not read books for fun before they started reading the series, they now did. The study further reported that 65 percent of the children and teens, and 76 percent of their parents, said the children's performance in school had improved since they started reading the series.

An expert in children's literature at the University of North Texas says children have been reading for pleasure for decades before the first "Harry Potter" book, "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone," was published in 1997. She adds, however, that some children who did not previously embrace reading read the series because of peer pressure.

"In doing so, they discovered that reading can be enjoyable, and may look for other books," says Dr. Barbara Stein Martin, the Hazel Harvey Peace Professor at UNT. "The real story behind the ‘Harry Potter' popularity, however, is that a children's book can be treated with such fanfare. It shows that children do read and that reading by children is not at risk."

Martin says the series is appealing because it "brings in so many childhood issues of friendship, belonging and growing up, and it is very well written, generally."

"Why it became such a success is an interesting study. The original publication caught on mostly by word of mouth rather than an orchestrated ad campaign. At some point it created a life of its own, becoming a ‘must read' in the mind of many children," she says. "But this success baffles many adult critics who note that there is little original in the books and they do not rise to the critical level of some other authors who are also well known and well read. Regardless of the reason for the success of this series, most educators are thankful for it."

Rowling, who has admitted that she can "never say never" to writing any more books, according to a Cable News Network story, has revealed that a significant character will die in "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows."

Martin says that even if it is Harry who dies, "there are ways to continue his presence in future books" - which should delight the thousands of "Harry Potter" fans who have signed a petition urging Rowling to keep writing novels about the boy wizard.

"In the world of fantasy, death is not necessarily an end," Martin says.

Dr. Janelle Mathis, associate professor in the UNT College of Education, agrees with Martin that the deftly written "Harry Potter" books have intriguing story lines about the characters' lives and dark secrets that keep people yearning for more.

"A good piece of fantasy should make the reader suspend his disbelief," says Mathis, who teaches undergraduate- and graduate-level courses in literacy at UNT and whose research interests include literacy with a heavy emphasis on children's literature. "The setting, plot and characters are so well orchestrated that for a while you forget that this is fantasy."

She says Rowling "has a command of language that can appeal to readers of all ages," adding that some of her doctoral students are as eager as children to read the next book in the series.

"As an adult you don't feel insulted at all by Rowling because her description is so rich, and as adults, we do need those chances to escape. If we don't have those times to get away, I don't think we're as creative in our daily work," she says.

Adults might go back to their regular reading habits after the last "Harry Potter" book hits shelves. But what will keep the attention of kids who shunned reading until they found Rowling's books?

Mathis says that while waiting for the next J.K. Rowling to be discovered, teachers can point their students toward an already existing genre of well-written fantasy books.

"A good teacher realizes when a child is ready to read Lloyd Alexander, who has written a series of fantasy books. There are many talented writers of fantasy, both established in the field and those newly published," she says.

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