The Power of Potter
Can the teenage wizard turn a generation of halfhearted readers into lifelong bookworms?
In fact, Harry Potter may be the first (and only) literary status symbol for the young. University of Nevada-Reno Prof. Diane Barone has just completed a seven-year study following the reading habits of 16 low-income kids from kindergarten to sixth grade. Her timing coincided with the release of the Harry Potter books, and their stamp on these children's lives was unmistakable. "In second or third grade, they all started carrying around the books even though they couldn't read them," she explains. "By fifth and sixth grade, they'd all read them. It was a status thing. They wanted to be part of the club."
Joining the Potter club was a smart move. The students in Barone's study gained stronger reading skills than she originally thought they would. Of her group, 14 achieved or surpassed the benchmarks for reading at grade level. Although hardworking teachers receive most of the credit, Barone gives Harry Potter his due. She noted a sense of accomplishment in the children once they had read the Potter books and watched them take on more challenging titles.
That's not to say every child jumped on the bandwagon. The antibook bias remains strong among middle schoolers. Chelsea Guy, a 13-year-old from Knoxville, Tenn., is a member of Amazon.com's panel of Harry Potter fans recruited to predict what happens in the new book; her friends were reluctant at first to try the series. "A lot of kids won't touch a book, but I bargained with a few of them and convinced them to read Harry Potter," she says. "They don't want to let people know they're reading because they're worried the popular kids will make fun of them."
Reversing peer pressure is remarkable, but some people believe it wasn't simply Rowling's writing that turned the tide. "It's appealing, it's cute, it's witty, but it's very conventional," says Jack Zipes, a professor at the University of Minnesota and author of Sticks and Stones: The Troublesome Success of Children's Literature From Slovenly Peter to Harry Potter . "It's popular because of marketing." Richard Allington, president of the IRA, agrees that movies, fast-food tie-ins, and toys give a book extra kid cred. "When you commercialize a book, the audience expands," he says. "I can't say that's a bad thing."
Why don't other books get the same push? asks Kevin Smokler, editor of Bookmark Now , an anthology of late-teenage-to-30ish writers discussing the future of literature. The Potter promotion has "made reading an event with the glitz of a movie premiere," he says. "It's an amazing experiment of how we'll deal with books in the 21st century." For children, dressing up and dragging their parents to a bookstore at midnight is a memorable experience. More book events could get people excited about reading again. "If there's a memoir about a firefighter, I want to see a Dalmatian and a hose at the bookstore," he says. Incorporating books into pop culture, rather than separating them into something refined and rarefied, can make literature more accessible--the way Harry Potter is.