Pitter-Potter of Young Readers

Sales of Harry Potter's latest adventures have beaten the estimated box office take of the weekend's top two movies: "Charlie and The Chocolate Factory" and "The Wedding Crashers" - combined.

A book release trumping cinema blockbusters? Who'd a thought?

There's something deeply satisfying about watching conventional wisdom crack and crumble into a million pieces, especially when it involves reading and young people.

The work of Harry's marketers, of course, has a lot to do with the weekend's rush to read. The 5,000 bookstore Potter parties and Internet sales have helped US publisher Scholastic Inc. boost initial printings from only 500,000 six years ago to today's 13.5 million.

But marketing alone can't account for kids' (and not a few adults') eagerness to buddy up with a 600-plus page tome. If there's no "there" there - no compelling plot, characters, or message - there will be no buyers.

Author J.K. Rowling is helping millions of young people turn books into friends. In a much broader context, so are teachers, school administrators, lawmakers, and parents.

Their focus on early reading is producing a payoff. The nation's annual "report card" handed out last week by the National Assessment of Educational Progress, shows white, black, and Hispanic 9-year-olds significantly improving their reading over the last five years. And the performance race gap has narrowed as well. This "puts to rest the notion that achievement gaps are inevitable," said Kati Haycock, director of the Education Trust, which helps poor schools.

It's encouraging to see negative conventions about reading bite the dust. But it doesn't happen magically. Whether done by an effective author or by a teacher, it takes real work.

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