Harry Potter and the magic of reading

With the final book due in July, teachers assess the impact the popular series has had on children's learning.

By , Contributor to The Christian Science Monitor

Sitting at a table in the library of Lehman Alternative Community School in Ithaca, N.Y., sixth-grader Marcus Weathersby makes a confession.

"As soon as I get the next Harry Potter book, I'm going to read the last page," he says. "I can't wait. I just cannot wait."

The seventh and last Harry Potter book will be released in July. Millions of Potter fans won't have another book to look forward to after that. But Harry's effect on many young people – and their love of reading – may be magical enough to last a lifetime.

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A 2006 study by Scholastic and Yankelovich found that the Harry Potter books have had a positive impact not only on kids' attitudes toward reading, but also on the quality of their schoolwork. The Kids and Family Reading Report surveyed 500 children ages 5 to 17 and their parents or guardians. More than half of Harry Potter readers said they hadn't read books for fun before the series, and 65 percent said they have done better in school since reading the books. The study also found that the reading habits of boys – who consistently have lower literacy test scores than girls – changed the most as a result of reading the books.

Back in the Ithaca library, Marcus's friend, seventh-grader Daniel Carroll, says that he's going to read the end first, too. The boys belong to a group of students who compile book reviews for a blog on the school's website. Their teacher, library media specialist Claire Michelle Viola, doesn't quite seem to understand their strategy.

"That doesn't ruin it for you?" she asks.

"No," says Daniel, smiling. "I always forget [the end] by the time I get there."

The boys are eager to know the answers to many looming questions, including Will Harry survive? But they will have to wait until July 21 – a day that will mark the end of an era. At midnight, a record-breaking 12 million copies of "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows" will be released in bookstores across the country. Fans of all ages will stand in line to pick up the 784-page final installment of J.K. Rowling's popular series.

As in past years, kids will sport black-rimmed glasses and colorful capes. Release parties will offer prizes, food, and fortune-telling through the early morning hours. But this July will be different. Amid the celebration and excitement will be the realization that the young wizard's journey is nearing the end.

Nancy Kellner, library media specialist of the Peaslee Elementary School in Northboro, Mass., has been a fan of the series since it began in 1997. The books will become classics, she says, but some of the excitement will be lost after the seventh one is released.

"I can't imagine the original magic of Harry Potter will remain," she says. "The magic is waiting for the next book."

Marcus credits the series for getting him interested in reading. He says his grandfather read him the first five books, but he wanted to read the sixth one himself. Since then, he loves to read medieval, fantasy, and science-fiction books, he says. He also now likes the many books he reads for school – even though the majority aren't his favorite genres, he says.

"I whip through 50 books a year," says Marcus matter-of-factly.

Finding a book that can engage a reluctant reader is not easy, says Jennifer Groff, the library media specialist at Belle Sherman Elementary School in Ithaca, N.Y. Children can feel defeated if by age 9 or 10 they haven't found a book they can connect with. Ms. Groff, who reads Harry Potter aloud to fourth- and fifth-graders at lunch three days a week, says there is something about the way the story is told that captivates kids.

Ms. Kellner points out that Harry Potter is not written in advanced language, as are books by fantasy author J.R.R. Tolkien. But neither are they "dumbed down," she adds. Kids like it when authors take them seriously, she says, and Ms. Rowling does that while still making the books graspable.

According to Alice Ball, library media specialist at South Hill Elementary School in Ithaca, the Harry Potter books hit on some major themes that kids commonly like in fiction books. These include being special, going from poor to rich, and knowing more than adults.

Daniel, the Ithaca seventh-grader, says he definitely feels an emotional connection with the characters. "I started reading them when I was younger, so I sort of thought, 'Oh, this is how every book is,' " he says. "So when I read other books, I would put them down after like 50 pages because they weren't as exciting."

Daniel picked up Harry Potter at an early age.

"When I was in kindergarten," he says, "I saw a bunch of people reading them, so I pretended to read them even though I couldn't read."

Such peer pressure is not uncommon among Harry Potter readers. The Kids and Family Reading Report showed that 63 percent of boys and 44 percent of girls say that it was important to read Harry Potter to feel "in" with their friends.Reluctant readers are more willing to make an effort with a book when they see their friends reading it, Groff says, as opposed to a teacher handing out books.

While most teachers have not rushed to make the popular series a part of their curricula, many have found ways to incorporate the books in their classrooms. Eileen Bach, an English teacher at Ithaca High School and a Harry Potter fan herself, says she doesn't teach the books to her students, many of whom are familiar with the series.

"I try to teach literature to students that they wouldn't pick up on their own," she says. Instead, she might use a passage from one of the books in extra practice lessons on identifying parts of speech. Ms. Bach says that high school students are definitely still interested in the books, and while some "don't dare show too much enthusiasm" about the series, she thought using it would encourage students to do the extra work.

Kellner says it would be hard to make a thorough study of Harry Potter – the sixth book was 672 pages – when she sees her students for only 40 minutes at a time. But she references the books, especially when she teaches mythology and fantasy genres. The books have great vocabulary, and all the major elements of a fantasy book – such as time travel and good versus evil – can be found in Harry Potter.

On the whole, parents enjoy Potter, too. The books are often challenged by those who say they promote witchcraft and anti-Christian values. The series topped the list of the American Library Association's most challenged books from 2000-2005. Half the parents surveyed in the Kids and Family Reading Report are Harry Potter readers themselves. They also see how the books have benefited their children – 89 percent of parents say that reading Harry Potter has helped their child enjoy reading more, and 76 percent say that reading the books has helped their child do better in school. In England, publishers offer a children's and an adult's edition of the Harry Potter books, each with different cover art.

Harry Potter by the numbers

Some 325 million copies of the books (hardback, paperback, and in translation) have been sold worldwide, with 121.5 million copies in print in the United States alone. The books are available in 65 languages and sold in 200 territories. For a decade, they have been enthralling readers of all ages with wizardry, endearing characters, suspense, and countless quirky facts and oddities that fans relish discussing.

1. HARRY POTTER AND THE PHILOSOPHER'S STONE – June 1997, UK. (It was retitled HARRY POTTER AND THE SORCERER'S STONE for the US version published September 1998, 309 pages.) The tale that Joanne Rowling wrote in Edinburgh cafes to keep her newborn daughter warm and escape a chilly and dank apartment was typed on a typewriter. Readers are delighted by the story of the boy wizard-in-training, lessons in potions, Quidditch, and The Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. It sells 100,000 copies in its first year in Britain and is acquired by US-based publisher Scholastic for $100,000 – the highest advance ever for a first-time author's book for children. Film rights to the seven books planned are secured by Warner Brothers by the end of 1998.

2. HARRY POTTER AND THE CHAMBER OF SECRETS – July 1998, UK; June 1999, US, 341 pages.

Harry and school friends, bullies, and ghosts reappear in the second title, also written in cafes around Edinburgh. It becomes a bestseller in the UK, a feat achieved by only a few other children's books by authors such as Roald Dahl and C.S. Lewis.

3. HARRY POTTER AND THE PRISONER OF AZKABAN – July 1999, UK; September 1999 US, 431 pages. The third title makes its debut as the fastest-selling book in British history.

4. HARRY POTTER AND THE GOBLET OF FIRE – July 2000, 734 pages. Many bookstores plan elaborate events for the fourth book's release, hosting 'Harry Potter' parties for costumed fans at midnight in Britain and the United States. This is the first title to be published simultaneously on both continents.

5. HARRY POTTER AND THE ORDER OF THE ­PHOENIX – June 2003, 870 pages. Despite the epic-sized tome, the maturing Harry continues to draw. The book sells 11 million copies in 12 weeks, 5 million the first day alone.

6. HARRY POTTER AND THE HALF-BLOOD PRINCE – July 2005. 652 pages. A book with darker themes, suspense, and death, its publication ends weeks of wondering, selling 9 million copies in Britain and the US in the first day of release. The sixth book is the first to be shorter than the previous volume.

7. HARRY POTTER AND THE DEATHLY HALLOWS, to be published July 21 in English-speaking countries worldwide, 784 pages. First printing: 12 million. High security reportedly surrounds the book's distribution, which will take place the day before. Precautions include security guards at printing plants, warehouses in undisclosed locations, and steel chains wrapped around shipments.

Compiled by Leigh Montgomery

Sources: Bloomsbury.com; Christopher Little Literary Agency; Infoplease.com; Mugglenet.com; News Reports; Nielsen BookScan; J.K. Rowling official site; Scholastic.

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