Thursday, July 19, 2007

Thoughts before H-Day

With Harry Potter Day almost upon us, I’m looking forward to finding out how the series ends as much as anyone else. I won’t be standing in line at midnight, but I’ll get the book on Saturday and start reading immediately. I confess, the first three books are still my favorites – well, the first and the third, to be precise. After Prisoner, the books got so long that for me, they started to feel bloated. I know Rowling could write a 5,000-page book and people would still happily eat it up, but sometimes more is not necessarily better. I had no desire to read the later volumes multiple times, like I did with the first book. This is all quibbling, of course. The series is still wonderful and I will be sad to see Harry go. On the other hand, I hope Rowling sticks to her guns and ends the series at seven. Nothing should go on forever. Even the best series must have a solid, strong ending. Again, I know many would argue with this. There are readers who would happily buy Harry Potter #28 years from now, but I think seven is plenty.

The last few weeks, I’ve been struck by the recent media blitz speculating on “the next Harry Potter.” Percy Jackson is frequently mentioned as a contender. Well . . . that’s very flattering, of course, but Harry Potter is Harry Potter. There won’t be a next one. Nothing will take its place. It is a cultural phenomenon unto itself, without rival or comparison in the history of children’s literature. I’m very glad kids are so passionate about the Percy Jackson series that it warrants comparison, and I am certainly grateful for the extra publicity, but I’ll just be happy if kids continue to enjoy my books! I don’t aspire to replace or stand in for Potter. Happily, there’s no need. There’s room in the market for many, many good fantasy series. It doesn’t have to be an ‘either-or.’ And Percy is doing quite well, thanks to the enthusiastic grassroots support of young readers, librarians, teachers, parents, and booksellers. It’s now in its eleventh week on the New York Times children’s series bestseller list, number two behind you-know-who, and I can’t possibly complain about that!

I’ve often credited the Potter series with turning kids into readers and opening publishers’ doors for other fantasy writers. I read the recent story in the New York Times disputing whether or not Potter really did have a lasting impact on youth literacy, but I still have to say I’d never seen anything like it as a classroom teacher. The Potter series energized my students to read unlike any other book. So if kids don’t pick up other books after Potter, why not? As recently as ten years ago, I would’ve blamed a dearth of good young adult fantasies and adventures. I used to have a terrible time populating an exciting reading list for my classes. Now, that is not the case. We are in the middle of a children’s literature Renaissance, ushered in largely by Potter. The publishing industry has realized that there is money to be made publishing books that kids want to read. I do think kids will read, if they are given books they enjoy. I do think Harry Potter has helped make reading cool for many kids. It’s provided a wedge that astute librarians and booksellers have been using – very effectively – to get kids interested in other books. So I’m more optimistic than the New York Times about the long-term “Potter effect.”

Is it a panacea for all non-readers? Of course not. No book, even the Potter books, is universally loved. They’re not right for every child. We need a variety of books – not just fantasy. The success of Mike Lupica’s sports stories, for instance, has shown that there are still many unfilled or under-filled niches in children’s literature. In particular, I’m concerned about getting more books for boys into the classroom. Yes, as the father of two boys, I’m biased, but when I look at the books we’re teaching and requiring, it’s no wonder to me that boys aren’t readers. Why should they be, when we’re asking them to read books that – I’m sorry – simply don’t have plots. Character development is awesome, but please, can we have a book where something actually happens, too?

Interestingly, my own two boys – though they love the Percy books and are very involved in helping me with them – have no interest in Harry Potter. They won’t be fighting me for the Deathly Hallows when it arrives. That’s okay with me, as long as they read something. And even if they never like Harry Potter, I’ll still be thanking Ms. Rowling, because many of the books my sons do enjoy might never have been published if not for the seismic changes she made in the publishing industry.

So for all of you who will be digging into the last Potter this weekend, happy reading! I’ll see you on the other side.