The Power of Potter
Can the teenage wizard turn a generation of halfhearted readers into lifelong bookworms?
Unfortunately, poor kids aren't always part of the Potter universe. Although the children in Barone's study managed to snag copies of the books, that's not often the case. It's what Allington calls the "good reader" effect. Kids who are already proficient readers or who have parents with enough time and energy to help them with problem spots are enjoying the Harry Potter books, but other kids don't get the opportunity. (And they arguably need the books the most--kids from lower socioeconomic strata tend to have the lowest reading scores.) "My fear is that this is another case of the rich get richer because they're the ones most likely to experience it," Allington says. Rebecca Constantino, founder of Access Books, a nonprofit based in Los Angeles that stocks school libraries, echoes his concerns. "I don't know many inner-city kids who are excited about the sixth book coming out," she says. "It's months to wait for it at the library, and then they'll forget about it. They're going to give up."
Yet if these underprivileged kids can get hold of the Potter books, they're likely to be hooked. Gillian Williams was principal of PS 63, an elementary school in the South Bronx, N.Y., catering to poor children, when she discovered the first book in 1998 and sent it home with a student. "Next thing I knew, he was loan-sharking this book out, and it went through the fifth grade like wildfire," she says. Before long, students had formed a Harry Potter fan club and had persuaded teachers to throw a Harry Potter day, during which they played math-based quidditch. In the summer of 2000, when the fourth book came out, she drove the club to a Barnes & Noble on the Upper West Side because there was no bookstore in their neighborhood.
The experience was transformative for Williams, who can't help but gush about Harry Potter. "I go from being professional to going berserk," she apologizes. She has since left PS 63 to found School Turnaround, a nonprofit that helps struggling schools get back on track, and as she works with their teachers, she tries to pass on the lesson she learned from Harry Potter: "Unless kids want to read, you can't make them do it." But once a book captures their attention, she adds, teachers can use elements of the story to excite students about their classes.
Confused by suffused. As much as educators like Williams adore Harry Potter, the feeling is far from universal. Some teachers say less-advanced readers are scared off by the heft of the tomes, along with their advanced vocabulary (quick, get your 10-year-old to define "contemptuous" or "suffused") and potentially confusing fantasy elements (um, hippogriffs?). "If a teacher can get children to read more by using Harry Potter, I'm all for it," says Zipes, who also runs a children's literacy program in Minneapolis. "I can only tell you that the kids I work with aren't reading them." For those children, the crucial trick is selecting titles that will turn them on--like Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events, which Allington prefers for readers who find Harry too foreboding because of length and plot structure. The more kids read, the more comfortable they are with books, and the better they are at it. "It's hard to find a good reader who doesn't like to read," says Barbara Kapinus of the National Education Association.