The Power of Potter
Can the teenage wizard turn a generation of halfhearted readers into lifelong bookworms?
This slow but steady retreat from books has not yet taken a toll on reading ability. Scores for the nation's youth have remained constant over the past two decades (with an encouraging upswing among 9-year-olds). But given the strong apparent correlation between pleasure reading and reading skills, this bodes poorly for the future.
That's why many educators are hoping the Harry Potter series can work some magic.
Spellbound. "It's broken the rules," says Cathy Denman, a middle school media specialist in Florida who chairs the young adult booklist for the International Reading Association (IRA), an organization for literacy professionals. "Kids who hadn't picked up a book in years unless they'd been forced to were reading the series and then asking me for more books like it. For the first time for them, a book was as exciting as a video game." Although there have been no comprehensive studies of the effect of the books in the United States, the U.K.-based Federation of Children's Book Groups just released figures showing that 59 percent of U.K. kids think the books have improved their reading skills and 48 percent say the books are why they read more.
Part of the allure is the thrilling story, with well-developed characters and an avalanche of magical moments. That's what ensnared precocious readers like 12-year-old Hannah Bredar of Washington, D.C., who tackled the first book when she was just 5. "I love that Harry lives in two worlds, one with Muggles and one with wizards and witches, and has to go between the two," she analyzes.
More critically, the books enchanted struggling readers as well--kids like 17-year-old Mike Cossairt of Stafford, Va., who credits Harry Potter for his discovery of pleasure reading and its effects. "I had pretty bad English grades, but then I increased my vocabulary and started to do better," says Cossairt, who now enjoys titles like Of Mice and Men . Although the Harry books grow more complex with each installment, the series structure gives kids a basis of knowledge to work from--like what Hogwarts is all about and that Draco Malfoy kind of sucks. That makes it easier to get through a book a reader wouldn't have been able to understand otherwise. It also didn't hurt that grown-ups fell for Harry, too, giving children and parents a book to read together and talk about.
Blastoff. At Denman's Florida middle school, peer pressure even motivated remedial English students, who originally couldn't handle the Potter books. "They were missing out on something, even when they watched the movies," she says. "It became one of those things you needed to know." So, like Buchanan, they slowly slogged through. Buchanan, who wrote a book about his experience, My Year With Harry Potter , recalls, "Reading for me was like being an astronaut. I liked the idea of it, but I couldn't do it. After Harry Potter, I could." It was the same at countless other schools. According to the NPD Group, in May 2001, nearly 3 out of 4 kids ages 11 to 13 had read at least one Harry Potter volume.