New York: Of all the magical powers wielded by Harry Potter, perhaps none has cast a stronger spell than his supposed ability to transform the reading habits of young people. In what has become near mythology about the wildly popular series by J.K. Rowling, many parents, teachers, librarians and booksellers have credited it with inspiring a generation of kids to read for pleasure in a world dominated by instant messaging and music downloads.
And so it has, for many children. But in keeping with the intricately plotted novels themselves, the truth about Harry Potter and reading is not quite so straightforward a success story. Indeed, as the series draws to a much-lamented close, US statistics show that the percentage of youngsters who read for fun continues to drop significantly as children get older, at almost exactly the same rate as before Harry Potter came along.
There is no doubt that the books have been a publishing sensation. In the 10 years since the first one, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone outside the US), was published, the series has sold 325 million copies worldwide, with 121.5 million in print in the US alone. Before Harry Potter, it was virtually unheard of for kids to queue up for a mere book. Children who had previously read short chapter books were suddenly ploughing through more than 700 pages in a matter of days. Scholastic, the series’ US publisher, plans a record-setting print run of 12 million copies for Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, the eagerly awaited seventh and final instalment due out at 12:01am on 21 July.
But some researchers and educators say the series, in the end, has not permanently tempted children to put down their Game Boys and curl up with a book instead. Some kids have found themselves daunted by the growing size of the books (Sorcerer’s/Philosopher’s Stone was 309 pages; Deathly Hallows will be 784). Others say Harry Potter does not have as much resonance as titles that more realistically reflect their daily lives. “The Harry Potter craze was a very positive thing for kids,” said Dana Gioia, chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, who has reviewed statistics from the US and private sources that consistently show that children read less as they age. “It got millions of kids to read a long and reasonably complex series of books. The trouble is that one Harry Potter novel every few years is not enough to reverse the decline in reading.”
Educators agree the series can’t get the job done alone. “Unless there are scaffolds in place for kids—an enthusiastic adult saying, ‘Here’s the next one’—it’s not going to happen,” said Nancie Atwell, author of The Reading Zone: How to Help Kids Become Skilled, Passionate, Habitual, Critical Readers and a teacher. “And in way too many American classrooms, it’s not happening.”
Young people are less inclined to read for pleasure as they move into their teenage years for a variety of reasons, educators say. Some of these are trends of long standing (older children inevitably become more socially active, spend more time on reading-for-school or simply find other sources of entertainment other than books), and some are of more recent vintage (the multiplying menagerie of high-tech gizmos that compete for their attention, from iPods to Wii consoles). What parents and others hoped was that the phenomenal success of the Potter books would blunt these trends, perhaps even creating a generation of lifelong readers in their wake.
“Anyone who has children or grandchildren sees the competition for children’s time increasing as they enter adolescence, and the difficulty that reading seems to have to compete effectively,” Gioia said.
Many thousands of children have, indeed, gone from the Potter books to other pleasure reading. But others have dropped away.
Starting when Avram Leierwood was seven, he would read the books aloud with his mother, Mina. “We’d sit in the treehouse in our backyard and take turns,” recalled Mina. But while Mina has remained an avid fan, Avram, now 15, is indifferent. When Deathly Hallows comes out, he will be on a canoe trip. As for reading, he said: “I don’t really have much time any more. I like to hang out with my friends, talk, go watch movies and stuff, go to the park and play ultimate Frisbee.”
According to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a series of US tests administered every few years to a sample of students in grades 4, 8 and 12, the percentage of kids who said they read for fun almost every day dropped from 43% in fourth grade to 19% in eighth grade in 1998, the year Sorcerer’s Stone was published in the US. In 2005, when Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, the sixth book, was published, the results were identical.
Many parents, educators and librarians say despite such statistics, they have seen enough evidence to convince them that Harry Potter is a bona fide hero. “Parents will say, ‘You know, my son never spent time reading, and now my son is staying up late reading, keeping the light on because he can’t put that book down,’ ” said Linda Gambrell, president of the International Reading Association, a professional body for teachers.
In a study commissioned last year by Scholastic, Yankelovich, a market research firm, reported that 51% of the 500 kids aged 5-17 polled said they did not read books for fun before they started reading the series.
A little over three-quarters of them said Harry Potter had made them interested in reading other books.
Before she discovered Harry Potter, Kara Havranek, 13, spent most of her time romping outside or playing video games like Crash Bandicoot.
But four years after struggling through Sorcerer’s Stone, Kara has read and reread all six books, decorated her bedroom with Potter memorabilia and said she could hardly wait for Deathly Hallows. But although Kara said she has enjoyed other books, she was not sure what lasting influence the series would have. “I probably won’t read as much when Harry Potter is over,” she said.
In a way that was previously rare for books, Harry Potter entered the pop-culture consciousness. The movies (the film version of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, the fifth in the series, will open tomorrow) heightened the fervour, spawning video games and collectible figurines. That made it easier for kids who thought reading was for geeks to pick up a book. “Until Harry Potter, I don’t think kids were reading proudly,” said Connie Williams, the school librarian at Kenilworth Junior High School in Petaluma, California. “Now it’s more normalized. It’s like, ‘Gosh we can read now, it’s OK’.”
But creating a habit of reading is a continuous battle with kids saturated with other options. During a recent sixth-grade English class at the John W. McCormack Middle School in Boston, Aaron Forde, a cherubic 12-year-old, said he loved playing soccer, basketball and football. On top of that, he spends four hours a day chatting with friends on MySpace.com, the social networking site.
He had read the first three Harry Potter books, but said he had no particular interest in reading more. “I don’t like to read that much. I think there are better things to do.”
Neema Avashia, Aaron’s English teacher, said it was rare for the Harry Potter series to draw reluctant readers to books. “I try to have a lot of books in my library that reflect where kids are coming from,” Avashia said. “And Harry Potter isn’t really where my kids are coming from.” She noted that her class is 85% non-white, and Harry Potter has few characters that belong to a racial minority group.
Some reading experts say urging kids to read fiction in general might be a misplaced goal. “If you look at what most people need to read for their occupation, it’s zero narrative,” said Michael Kamil, a professor of education at Stanford University. “I don’t want to deny that you should be reading stories and literature. But we’ve overemphasized it.”
Still, there is something about seeing the passion that a novel can inspire that excites those who want to perpetuate a culture of reading.
On a recent afternoon at Public School 54 on Staten Island, New York, a group of fifth grade boys shouted with enthusiasm for the Cirque du Freak series by Darren Shan, about a boy who becomes entangled with a vampire. “I like the books so much that even when the teacher is teaching a lesson, I still want to read the books,” said Vincent Eng, a wiry 11-year-old. “While I was reading them,” Eng’s classmate Thejas Alex said, referring to the Cirque books, “I was, like, addicted.”