Debunking Harry Potter

Kids are reading again and it is all down to Harry Potter, we hear. Even boys have been lured away from their Game Boys and personal television sets to read books up to 800 pages long about wizards and boarding school adventures. This is magic indeed.

It came as a surprise, therefore, when a young relative visiting my home last weekend revealed that he had not read the final instalment of HP. A whole two weeks post-publication and he was calmly waiting for a friend to finish his copy so he could borrow it. Furthermore, faced with an afternoon of adult chatter, he preferred to retire with some old jigsaw puzzles than to bury his nose in a book.

Admittedly this youngster and his friends are only 10 and 11 years old, and Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, by all accounts, is pitched to an older group -- not a few of them 20 and upwards. But Sydney teacher James Burfitt is not sure that Rowling's blockbuster series has made his slightly older Year 8 boys more book-friendly. Most were readers already.

"I don't think there are many who have taken on reading by starting on Harry Potter. A good number don't like the books, and some boys are from families who, for one reason or another, don't want them reading it." Burfitt, himself a fan of the series, finds this frustrating and difficult to understand.

Even so, and without his urging, more than half his class have read at least one of Potter books and about a quarter have read them all. "It is remarkable that so many kids have read an HP title. I could not say that for any other young adult fiction title. Despite there being so many great books out there, none come close to Harry Potter in exposure to kids. Given that they are well written, have riveting plots and good character development, it has to be said that the series has been a boon to educators."

A dismal trend

There is some hard evidence that Harry has made a difference to kids' reading habits. A report due out in the United States from the National Endowment for the Arts shows that reading scores and rates are going up in the 7 to 11 age range, NEA chairman Dana Gioia told the Boston Globe recently. 

The bad news is that there is an enormous fall-off once kids hit high school and social pressure keeps them hanging out at the shopping mall or glued to their MySpace pages and iPods.

"A quarter of all kids read for pleasure," says Gioia. "Most of the others don't. Because kids read less, they read less well. Because they read less well, they have lower levels of academic achievement. God bless Harry Potter, and please send us many more. But one book or series of books is not strong enough to counterbalance the trends."

And the trend is dismal. The last NEA report found a dramatic decline in literary reading (novels, short stories, poetry or plays) between 1982 and 2002 amongst American adults, with the greatest drop among 18- to 24-year-olds -- 28 per cent compared with 10 per cent overall. The figures represent the loss of 20 million potential readers. (Oddly enough, the number of people doing creative writing had increased by 30 per cent, to more than 14 million, although fewer people had taken a creative writing class. Semi-literate but ambitious writers apparently abound.)

Why does reading books (not just flicking through gossip or hobby magazines) matter so much?

According to arts chief Gioia, reading for pleasure is critical not only to a literate workforce but to a civic minded population. This is because:

* Reading exposes people to larger worlds than their own. It sparks imagination.

* It allows people to feel what it's like to live someone else's life. It creates compassion and understanding that we're all in this together.

* It requires, focused, linear attention, the ability not to be distracted. It teaches information, syntax, vocabulary. It nourishes curiosity and rewards intellect.

Potter sceptics

Will Harry Potter help reverse the trend? Or will the reading spell he has cast over millions be broken by the competing charms of films, videogames and theme parks?

Washington Post senior books editor Ron Charles is sceptical. As he wrote prior to the release of Deathly Hallows: "Through a marvel of modern publishing, advertising and distribution, millions of people will receive or buy [the book] on a single day. There's something thrilling about that sort of unity, except that it has almost nothing to do with the unique pleasures of reading a novel: that increasingly rare opportunity to step out of sync with the world, to experience something intimate and private, the sense that you and an author are conspiring for a few hours to experience a place by yourselves -- without a movie version or a set of action figures. Through no fault of Rowling's, Potter mania nonetheless trains children and adults to expect the roar of the coliseum, a mass media experience that no other novel can possibly provide." 

In a similar vein a printisdead blogger argues that what kids have gravitated to in the Potter books has been not only exciting content but an immersive experience that is increasingly offered by interactive media, so that publishing will still have to work hard to compete and keep any readers it has gained. 

Motivation, post Potter

Charles' misgivings about synchronicity -- if not mass hysteria -- in the HP phenomenon are not shared by Linda Gambrell, president of the International Reading Association and leading researcher in the field of reading motivation.

"One thing we can learn from the Harry Potter series is that motivation is increased when children read the same book and engage in discussions about it," she told MercatorNet in an email interview. "Many adults read and enjoy these books and they talk to their children about them. Children read the books together and discuss them with their friends and schoolmates."

Harry Potter movies have certainly played a part in motivating children to read the books, she says, just as they have with adults turning, perhaps for the first time, to Tolkien or Jane Austen after seeing movie versions of their works. This is all to the good, especially if "we engage children in a critical analysis of the book versus media versions. This is an excellent way to develop critical thinking."

Regardless of changes in technology, reading will always be a critical skill, says Gambrell, not only for practical purposes ("One must read fairly well to navigate the Web") but because "There is nothing better than reading a good book."

So what can parents do, post Potter, to encourage reluctant readers among their offspring?
"Reading together is a powerful motivator. Reading to and with your child is crucial to helping your child develop intrinsic motivation to read. Parents should also take advantage of opportunities to tell their children about good books they are reading as well -- I even read aloud from books that I was reading when my son was young. I'd read him funny parts, interesting sentences, or talk with him about what I was learning from my reading."

Gambrell adds that she reads all her research articles on the computer, "but I still curl up in bed with a book almost every night, and I always have a book to read on an airplane or in a dentist's office."

What is on at the movies or what everyone else is reading will likely decide what youngsters choose to read, but what they see their parents doing may well decide whether they read at all.

Carolyn Moynihan is Deputy Editor of MercatorNet.


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