As the media phenomenon du jour, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows has put pressure on the commentariat to provide Potter-related context or controversy – anything to get readers to spend a few minutes with us, rather than J.K. Rowling! And herein lies a danger: in our zeal to ride Harry’s coattails (broomstick?) to glory, we Muggles are tempted to wave a wand over our own preconceptions and imagine them transfigured into news. In that vein, an article in last week’s Washington Post provoked our interest here at The Millions, while contradicting my own sense of how the Potter books function within the enchanted kingdom of childhood. I specifically remembered Cynthia Oakes, a middle-school librarian at the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools, telling me some years ago about a book her students had gone wild for, and recommending I check out Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. Hoping to get some ground-level perspective on Pottermania, I got in touch with her (which wasn’t hard; she’s my mother-in-law) and asked if she’d mind revisiting the Potter books in a bit more depth. I had misplaced my Quick-Quotes Quills, but she graciously consented to be interviewed through the magic of email. [Editor's note: Scroll down to view Oakes' post-Hogwarts syllabus.]
Opening the Chamber of Secrets
“There is a wonderful bookstore in Hyde Park,” Oakes told me, “57th Street Books, where my colleagues and I often go to buy the latest children’s and young-adult titles. The children’s buyer at the time, author Franny Billingsley (The Folk Keeper), told us that there was a new British fantasy novel out, and the word in England was that it was wildly popular. We bought a copy, read it, liked it, recommended it to a couple of kids, and put it on our summer reading list. By the end of the summer, the idea of our introducing anyone to Harry Potter was beyond laughable. That’s how quickly it became a phenomenon. Kids told kids, who told other kids, who told still more kids – and that was that.
“Initially, adults were out of the loop – which was great! It was remarkable, from my point of view, to see any book capture these kids’ imaginations and hearts so completely.” Oakes offered some further context: “This was right around time that the term ‘digital natives’ was being coined. As school librarians we were being led to believe that the future, and especially our future, lay in the Internet – that students were no longer interested in print. Then the iPod came out; once again, we were told that the future lay in digital whatever… and suddenly our middle school library alone had to buy seven copies of Sorcerer’s Stone. All copies were instantly checked out and the hold list was huge.
“Then kids learned that the sequel was out in England. It was unprecedented to have them beg their parents to plan summer vacations to the UK around the publication of a book. One family, who actually did vacation in the UK that summer, brought back a copy of Chamber of Secrets. We ended up buying four copies of the next two installments. After that, kids were buying the books for themselves so we didn’t need to invest quite so heavily in order to provide access. We now have two shelves of the library devoted to six titles. I’m not sure if we’ll need to buy more than one copy of the latest book, since the sales of this title have been astronomical. I can assure you that no other series even come close to it in popularity.”
Apropos of families vacationing across the pond, Oakes said she couldn’t generalize about any connections between the books’ success and social class. But as Chicago’s Lab School is a well-regarded private school, she could attest to the books’ strong appeal to upper-middle class, affluent kids. That appeal, she noted, “doesn’t seem to be contingent upon gender or race.”
A Hogwarts of the Mind
“I think what makes these books so seductive,” Oakes told me, “is that the world Rowling has created is a world kids really, really, really want to live in. Actually live in, not just imagine living in. They want to eat the candy, ride the train, wear the uniforms, own the brooms, play the games, study the magic, get mail from the owls, look at the maps, and spy from the folds of an invisible cape. Who wouldn’t want to be a member of the Weasley family? And who wouldn’t want Ron, Hermione, or Harry for a friend? Or Hagrid for a teacher? I am always amazed at how even a 14-year-old will still harbor the secret hope that Hogwarts is real.” Oakes remembers “being quite surprised when a fifth-grader confided in me that he was not able to get the spells to work. He wondered what he was doing wrong and he looked so forlorn while furtively whispering all this to me.
“From a literary point of view, I’m not the first person to observe that these books are unique in combining the most popular of children’s literary genres into one rollicking story: horror, sports, adventure, school story, fantasy, romance, animal fantasy, family problems, etc. That gives them appeal among a broad array of readers. In addition, they are page-turners for kids who love plot-driven books and have satisfying characters for kids who prefer character-driven novels. It doesn’t hurt that the central character is a misfit without parents… a key ingredient to most successful children’s lit. What child, tethered to family and home, wouldn’t love to step through a magic portal where she instantly becomes the hero of the universe?
“One must also remark on their unusual length. A 900-page kids book? Unheard of. And equally rare is a sequel that doesn’t have an ‘our-story-so-far’ component. Rowling rightly acknowledges the depth of her fans’ understanding of all the previous books by jumping right into the thick of the story. It is very difficult to read Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban without having read Sorcerer’s Stone and Chamber of Secrets. And if you are starting with Book Seven, forget it!”
“My experience has taught me that kids will rarely choose to read a book that isn’t entertaining and will avoid an instructive book as if it had spattergroit,” Oakes continued. “This isn’t to say that they avoid books with ideas. I harbor the belief that they prefer them. The Potter books are entertaining, but darkly so. They deal with real evil – Voldemort is crueler than the cruelest classmate. Harry has to wrestle with whatever part he may have played in his own parents’ death. Thoughtless actions in these books have far-reaching and horrific consequences.
“This is also more psychologically nuanced fantasy world than many contemporary books offer, with every character suffering from his own particular character flaw. Yet a truly noble and ethical solution to every problem is always apparent. I believe that our kids long for that sort of clearly delineated ethical world.They are discovering that the adults around them, much like Dumbledore, are not perfect. They want their friends, just like Ron, always to return to them. And they want Harry to make the right choices (perhaps because if he does, then they will). The books instruct, then, in the way the best books do: by allowing the characters to fail. Whether or not the Potter books are helping to define anyone’s moral universe, I can’t tell. But contrary to the opinions of some commentators, they surely aren’t destroying anyone’s moral universe…”
She ventured a critique: “I know the books are flawed, and most of the books – certainly Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, could have used a seriously talented editor. Or just an editor.” Still, she said, “They are remarkable. It’s not popular to admit it, but when I read the first book I had to get up at three a.m. to finish it. As an unreconstructed bibliophile, of course I love these books… I am a fan.”
Fresh out of veritaserum, I tested the truth of this last assertion by asking Oakes some targeted questions. Her favorite character? “As a woman and an educator, I have to love Professor McGonagall.” Favorite villain(s)? “The dementors. I’ve certainly run across my share of soul-suckers and they scare me to death.” Favorite setting? “I love Hogwarts and wish that I worked there. It has an amazing library and I would love to recommend books to Hermione. And have her recommend a few to me! Not to mention the fact that I’d get to hide from and/or fight trolls, death-eaters, and so on.”
Ordinary Wizarding Levels (O.W.L.s)
“Most assuredly there is a social aspect to the Harry Potter phenomenon,” Oakes said. “Kids sit around for HOURS discussing all the ins and outs of the books. They join online discussion groups, download podcasts, and know every website devoted to Harry. They create group Halloween costumes. In fact, fans were so enthralled by the books that they rushed into the library (en masse) the second, the very second, the cover art for Book Seven had been revealed. We had to display it at the circulation desk. (I mean, our credibility would have taken a serious nose dive if we hadn’t.) Then, they congregated around the printout of the cover and discussed THAT for hours.”
I asked her if kids outgrow Harry. “Some students lose interest (or say they do), but a remarkable number do not. I overheard many conversations in the high school hallway prior to Book Seven that centered around horcruxes, Harry, and death. Our high-school librarians have all the Potter books on the shelves. The fifth grade to whom we recommended the first book graduated last year. So most of these kids grew up reading Harry Potter. I’ve watched high-school students sneak back into the middle school library to keep up on their favorite series books and their favorite authors. And I say, good for them!” No Argus Filch, my mother-in-law.
“As for the hoopla,” she said, “the books have been very good for children and for young-adult publishing… Their sheer popularity forced The New York Times to create a children’s literature bestseller list. (Ha!) These days our kids are reading just as much as – if not more than – they did before.”As we’d discussed, “J.K. Rowling came at a crucial moment… However, I do wish the publishers would realize there isn’t going to be another Harry Potter and ease up on all the fantasy that’s coming down the pike. I worry that really good young-adult novels are getting overlooked. The hoopla has also turned off many new young readers. Whereas the initial impetus to read the books came from kids, there’s now a huge media machine cramming those same books down our collective throat.”
Flourish and Blotts
I asked Oakes if she could elaborate on “the good stuff” by furnishing Millions readers with some recommendations for post-Hogwarts reading. “Middle schoolers love serial storytelling,” she said. “That is part of the success of the Harry Potter books. I can think of many recent series that have met with remarkable success: the Alex Rider series, the Warriors series, the Princess Diary series, the Eragon series, the Spiderwick Chronicles – to name a few off the top of my head. Students will request the next book in the series sometimes months in advance. Because of Amazon.com, they know approximately when the book will be published. We librarians are forced, more than ever, to stay on top of things. However, I can think of no other book or series that would compel students and parents to attend a midnight party in order to obtain the sequel. That is purely a Harry Potter thing. We’ve had kids counting down the days to publication since December.
“I would love for kids to love J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, because they are such elegant writers. Certainly there are kids who read Tolkien and Lewis, and often prefer it, but it doesn’t follow that a Potter fan is automatically a Bilbo Baggins fan. Tolkien is much harder to read, for one thing, and the works of C.S. Lewis don’t feel as contemporary as Rowling’s do. The latest, coolest reading trend amongst my students is graphic novels.”
When recommending a book to Potter enthusiasts, Oakes always asks, “What part of Harry Potter is your favorite part? The school, the family problems, the sports, horror, the magic…?” Then, she says, “I come up with some titles based on the answer. It’s surprising to me how often students want to read about boarding schools and about all things English… and I can’t resist recommending the great contemporary English author Hilary McKay. Read The Exiles and see if you can stop reading the rest of her work. It’s not fantasy, but it is quintessentially English.”
She went on to offer a post-Hogwarts syllabus of fantasy books:
Young Adult/Older Readers
- Ursula K.Leguin. The Earthsea Cycle. (A quest series with wizards and dragons.)
- Patricia McKillup. The Riddle-Master of Hed. (A quest series with wizards and mysteries.)
- Garth Nix. The Abhorsen Trilogy. (A dark fantasy that features necromancy and romance.)
- Philip Pullman. His Dark Materials. (Parallel worlds that collide in Oxford. As much science-fiction as fantasy.)
- Lloyd Alexander. The Chronicles of Prydain. (A quest series with an oracular pig; highly recommended byThe Millions.)
- Eoin Colfer. Artemis Fowl. (Contemporary magic which relies on technology. Spies!)
- Diana Wynne Jones. The Chronicles of Chrestomanci. (Parallel worlds; magic; families in all their dysfunction and glory.)
- Jenny Nimmo. Children of the Red King. (Wizards go to a school quite different from Hogwarts!)
“Many kids don’t want to be perceived as Potter groupies,” Oakes noted. “It’s interesting, though, how many will reluctantly pick one of the books up, then get sucked right in to the world Rowling has created. It is almost impossible to resist the spell of the Potter books. Having said that, I’ll be very curious to see how they age.”