Harry made reading adventure and fantasy books hip.By Sonja Bolle | from the LA Times Book Review of July 29, 2007
For everyone in the business of getting kids into books, Harry Potter remains a phenomenon. It was a revelation that fourth- through seventh-graders would read 600- and 800-page books, let alone re-read them. That they would stand in line in the middle of the night -- in costume! -- to buy a book. That they would endlessly trade details of the lives of fictional characters, as if they were popular classmates or sports stars. The enormous excitement whipped up by the series has made publishers see a generation of kids who, even if they are identified as reluctant readers addicted to other forms of entertainment, can be reached with a thrilling enough story.
Since J.K. Rowling's first book, "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone," was published in the United States in September 1998, the series has "persuaded a lot of kids that reading can be fun -- an entertainment, a captivating experience," says Michael Cart, a children's book author, editor and critic. Despite statistics showing that reading drops off in adolescence, particularly among boys, Cart adds: "It may be true that after Volume 7, some may never pick up another book, but they have discovered something that might have remained foreign to them all their lives." And who knows what effect that one intense reading experience will have?
Perhaps there will emerge a group -- known as Dumbledore's Army, surely -- that, like the Baker Street Irregulars, the club for experts on all things Sherlock Holmes, will give a sense of community to Potter fans who have shared a rich universe seen only in the mind's eye. This ability to imagine is an essential ingredient in pursuing success. The Baker Street Irregulars boast two U.S. presidents as members. Surely some of the kids who aced trivia contests at the Potter release parties are well on their way to something great.
Harry Potter is certainly not the first series to captivate kids. Brian Jacques' thick "Redwall" books were popular enough to land on bestseller lists in the early 1990s, before children's books got their own list (thanks to Harry Potter). But there's definitely a new thirst for the epic series. At Children's Book World in West L.A., bookseller Luke Robertson observes that "kids really know what they're looking for. They'll come in and say, 'I want a long series I can really get into.' "
For Diane Roback, children's book editor at Publishers Weekly, an important effect of Harry Potter has been "making reading cool for boys." There's a competitive-sport quality to reading you didn't see before. Eva Mitnick, manager of the Robertson branch of the L.A. Public Library, says she'll hear boys one-up each other: "I've read that five times!" "I've read it seven!"
The young wizard has also made fantasy cool again. Although the "Lord of the Rings" movies share some credit here, Rowling definitely brought it to an audience too young to be watching Peter Jackson's films. The geek factor of fantasy is gone. Indeed, "there was a stigma for kids who had not read Harry Potter," says Idalee Alderson, librarian at Westland School in West L.A.
I ask you, when was the last time you felt uncool for not being a fan of a book?
That hipness factor has made young readers more aware of the publishing process too, leading them to hotly anticipate new releases from other fantasy writers, Mitnick says. "We've got kids who have never talked to a librarian slinking up to the desk to ask if the new Christopher Paolini is out yet!"
If children are taking note of the publishing process, the publishing world, in turn, is paying more attention to them. Suddenly, there was "media coverage, review notice, shelf space," says Doug Whiteman, president of the Penguin Young Readers Group. Before Harry Potter, the bulk of the children's business -- 70% of it at Penguin -- was in baby books and picture books. "Now that everyone has seen the kind of [sales] volume a wonderful novel or series can do," he says, books for older kids account for more than half his division's list.
The increased visibility of children's books also has drawn in reluctant readers in what Whiteman calls "a self-fulfilling prophecy." The way boys took to Harry Potter gave these readers a new cachet. "When we first published the Alex Rider series" -- Anthony Horowitz's James Bond-influenced action-adventure books beginning with the U.S. publication of "Stormbreaker" in 2001 -- "there was a wait-and-see attitude," Whiteman says. But by the third Rider book, "Skeleton Key" two years later, the series had gained traction with reviewers -- and took off in sales.
"Publishers are looking for swift-paced series now," Cart says, "because they think boys will read them." Even if few of these series land permanent places on his store shelves, Robertson rejoices at the new effort being made to "grab kids on the first page."
The expanded market for children's books has also attracted new writers, including such established stars from the adult publishing world as Nick Hornby and Carl Hiassen. "Harry Potter has made writing for young readers a more noble enterprise, letting writers flex creative muscles in ways that they might not have before," Cart says. Roback of Publishers Weekly emphasizes that "it's not as if we [in children's books] are saying, 'Thank God Alice Hoffman came along!' These newcomers have joined a large and talented pantheon
It's acknowledged now that some of the most exciting novelists today are writing for kids."
Harry Potter has expanded all sorts of boundaries in children's books, muddying the waters along the way on what is age-appropriate. As the series went on, the characters got older and the books got scarier. "Even if a child is a gifted reader at age 8, the later books are too dark for them," says Sharon Hearn, owner of Children's Book World. For the many kids now under age 10 who have read the entire series, it's not only the casualties building up in the fight against Voldemort that are too much for them. They're also probably missing a lot of the teen complexity that Rowling portrays so brilliantly. "If you have characters develop too quickly over a series, like the 'Alice' books by Phyllis Naylor," says school librarian Alderson, "suddenly, 9-year-olds are thrust into questions like: Should Alice let her boyfriend kiss her? And they're disgusted."
Valerie Lewis of Hicklebee's children's bookstore in San Jose warns against the trend in darker, scarier books now aimed at younger readers. When R.L. Stine's "Goosebumps" horror books for young readers became a phenomenon in the early 1990s, Lewis says, "Third-grade boys were asking for them, so they could carry them around in their backpacks. I don't even know if they were reading them." The reaction in the industry was immediate: "All the publishers came out with horror books for that age group, and it didn't work."
It's another sign, observes Alderson, that "we are pushing more adult sensibilities dramatically down into younger kids." And not just with books. In every area -- clothing, music, television and movies -- younger children are being prodded to take on the tastes and mannerisms of older people. In television shows aimed at fourth-graders, characters routinely act like teenagers. The 8-year-old reading Harry Potter is just another example of everything in our children's lives speeding up.
"It used to be the older boys who would come in for the fantasy books," says Candace Moreno of San Marino Toy and Book Shoppe. "Now, fantasy has been brought to the 9- to 12-year-old." Except in the few children's fantasy classics, she notes, "fantasy characters used to be more adult -- hobbits were clearly not children. But now it's about kids like Harry."
As the fantasy heroes have grown younger, Robertson observes, their outlook on the world has become more like that of teenagers. "If you look at the classics of children's fantasy, like Edward Eager or E. Nesbit, you have normal, everyday kids being swept away into a fantastical world. Now, it's fantastical children trying to find their place. Even in a magical world, they don't fit in." Harry Potter is not an average kid who accidentally stumbles into magic; he has special abilities and a special destiny. Part of Harry's sense of being misunderstood, not entrusted with the knowledge he wants, is natural for a boy becoming a teenager in the later books -- and an adult wizard in the final book, "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows."
This teen sensibility is turning up in books for ever younger readers. Robertson cites the "Maximum Ride" series by James Patterson (another bestselling adult writer who has tried his hand at children's books), about kids who are genetically engineered to have wings and superpowers and are trying to discover the purpose for which they were built. In short, they suffer the stereotypical teen feeling of being unique, awkward, misunderstood. This "teening" of kids books, according to children's author Cart, may stem from the influence of the X-Men comics series as well as Harry Potter -- a "pop culture symbiosis."
The irony is that the thirst for more danger in stories comes at a time when, as Alderson puts it, "this generation of children is kept so safe." But fairy tales have traditionally given kids a way to see themselves as capable of coping with fear, danger and horrors, notes Lewis of the San Jose bookstore. "What makes kids weak is surrounding them with the milk cartons that say, 'Have you seen this child?' and not letting strangers pat them in the supermarket," she says.
The scarier our world, the more our kids need stories in which really bad characters are defeated.
And maybe that's the secret of the popularity and the influence of Harry Potter: We, like the beleaguered citizens of a wizarding world in thrall to Voldemort, want to think there's someone out there whose destiny it is to save us. •
Sonja Bolle is a freelance book editor and children's book reviewer. Her "Word Play" column appears monthly at www.latimes.com/books.