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The Bulletin
of the Center for Children's Books:

Focus On ...
Each month we offer a focus on a particular author or artist. Sometimes we use this space to discuss a rising new talent or an established star, but we also like to celebrate those who now live on only in the rich legacy of their books.. See the archive for focus pieces from previous months.

Wild About Harry (Potter): Sour Grapes, Gushing Praise, and Tempestuous Teapots

August means we get to write about whatever we want for The Bulletin homepage focus piece and lo, here I am, writing about that sterling hero/dastardly villain, Harry Potter. I just can't help myself. Everyone and his/her brother/mother is writing about Harry and his creator, and I just have to add my two cents- or galleons, as the case may be.

First, a brief summation of the four Harry Potter books thus far: they are engagingly written; they are well-paced; they make enjoyable read-alouds, either at home or in the classroom. Rowling, like many other extremely popular-with-the-reading-public authors (Stephen King leaps to mind) creates characters that the reader both identifies with and cares about, characters that the aforementioned reader is willing to follow wherever they lead, even through 300-700 (give or take a few hundred) pages of dense text. Considering Rowling's primary core audience (middle-grade readers) that, in and of itself, is quite a feat.

Undeniably, Rowling's series plucked an imaginative chord, and children vibrated with enthusiasm in response. Those vibrations rocked the adult best-seller lists and got the attention of the media, which proceeded to howl at the moon about these wonderful/terrible books and their wonderful/terrible impact on youthful readers.

The books themselves are relatively innocuous as fantasy fiction goes, and the source of or reason for their tremendous appeal is difficult to pin down. Rowling has taken several genres popular with young readers (fantasies, boarding school stories, mysteries, orphan stories, ghost tales) and combined them into one big carnival ride of flashily converging plot lines. The books have been criticized for being derivative and clichéd, but fantasy as a genre has numerous conventions and clichés stuffed in its carry-on baggage, and those conventions and clichés are an integral part of the series' comfort level. The books are undoubtedly popular fiction (perhaps the most popular ever?), the very existence of which seems to make some people break out in a rash. (Popular fiction appears to be the literary equivalent of that nose-in-the-air term, trailer trash: low class, uneducated, brassy, and crude enough to make money.)

Harry Potter has engendered a remarkable response, not only from child-readers of children's literature but from adults who comment on that literature, whether they have expertise or background in the subject or not. At one end of the pendulum arc we have statements such as "I read children's literature, when I can find some of any value..." (Harold Bloom, Wall Street Journal, July 11, 2000), a statement which reveals not only the writer's bias but a lack of knowledge regarding the history, canon, and current state of children's literature. On the other end of the arc there's the by now apocryphal statement that "Harry Potter is a marvelous addition to children's literature, because the books get kids reading and talking about books," a statement which confuses popularity with literary worth, and also evidences a lack of knowledge of the broad spectrum of children's literature. Somewhere in between these two extremes are the marketing mavens, who are fond of the statement "the Harry Potter phenomenon is a simple triumph of slick marketing." I hate to pop that particular bubble, but here in the Heartland (okay, central Illinois) Harry Potter was being read aloud in schools and passed around from kid to kid before it got anywhere near the best seller list.

Rowling's Harry Potter series may not be a masterpiece of juvenile fiction destined for top spot in the academic canon of classic children's books, but the series is a solid, better than average ride, and it is quite likely the books will become "popular classics." That is, the Harry books will stay in print for a long time, not only because of their popular appeal and record-breaking sales, but because of the huge number of readers that, when they grow up, will insist on reading the books they remember so fondly aloud to their children, and their children's children. (I predict Harry will be around until the next millennium, Rowling will send her daughter to a posh boarding school, much tonier than Hogwart's, and then the author will retire young and buy an island of her very own where she doesn't have to read about how awful it is that she can afford to buy an island of her very own ...)

Despite the nostalgic desire to hold onto the idea of the good old days of children's literature when all books were elegantly written, wholesome classics (when was that?) a small reality check is in order: there have always been well-written books and poorly-written books, critically acclaimed titles as well as popular fluff; some of them (guess which?) have even won awards. On the plus side, HP may open publishing doors to more well-written fantasy titles for youth that might not have seen the light of day otherwise; on the minus side, HP may open publishing doors to more mediocre fantasy that should never see the light of day at all, simply because authors and publishers need to make money to stay in business, and Harry drives the latest bandwagon.

If nothing else, perhaps Harry has put the truth to the lie regarding what children want in their books. Despite conventional wisdom to the contrary, the success of HP suggests that kids want complex plots, characters to care about, a few laughs, a few tears, and more than a few hundred pages. Perhaps "give 'em what (we think) they want" is a tired, poorly thought-out philosophy that has run its already too long course. Perhaps grown-ups need to read more, more children's books and more about children's books, so we can knowledgeably and with honest enthusiasm recommend good books to the kids who are out there waiting for them. The right book for the right child at the right time. Now where did I hear that?

--Janice M. Del Negro, Editor

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This page was last updated on August 1, 2000.