Was the Boy Wizard the Charm That Made Children's Books Fly?

By Bob Thompson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 19, 2007

Did Harry Potter really change the world?

It seems an absurd question to ask about a series of children's books. But when that series sells 325 million copies worldwide, with tens of millions to be added this weekend when the final installment of J.K. Rowling's wizardly fantasy goes on sale, it gets a little less so.

Plenty of claims have been made. Among them: Harry got kids to read, especially boys, and he revitalized the sleepy universe of children's publishing. Talk to informed observers of that universe, however, and you'll find that nearly every claim made for Harry is open to interpretation, if not dispute.

The Potter phenomenon has been "so overwhelming that it's blurred reality," says literary agent Simon Lipskar.

Take the cherished notion that Rowling's series has revived the love of books and reading in a youth culture dominated by mindless mass entertainment and video screens. It's been undermined of late by a burst of stories with headlines like the Boston Globe's "In End, Potter Magic Extends Only So Far: Decline Still Seen in Adolescent Reading."

The chief spokesman for this gloomy view is National Endowment for the Arts Chairman Dana Gioia. "This one series of popular novels has not been enough in itself to reverse the overall decline in reading," Gioia says, citing an NEA analysis of government and private studies his agency will release this fall. The problem isn't that kids aren't learning to read. It's that "everything in their society" conspires to make them read less as they become teenagers.

Publishing executives express annoyance with what they see as an anti-Potter spin.

"It's almost like Harry is being held to the standard of the Holy Grail," says Lisa Holton, president of the trade division of Scholastic, Rowling's American publisher. "Has Harry made every single child a reader? And if he hasn't, he's failed." A 2006 study by Yankelovich Inc., Holton points out, found that 51 percent of Potter readers said they "didn't read books for fun" before encountering the boy wizard.

"Harry Potter was a rising tide that lifted all boats," says Rick Richter, who heads the children's publishing division at Scholastic rival Simon & Schuster. His company's middle-grade and teen publishing programs, Richter says, have seen "double-digit growth in each of the last several years."

But closer observation suggests that the views of Gioia and the publishers may not truly conflict.

"What scares me is what would have happened without Harry Potter," says Gioia, who read the first four books aloud to his younger son and credits them with creating "positive social pressure" for kids to read. And while Holton believes publishers are doing a better job of cultivating and serving "voracious readers," she agrees that overall teen readership could nonetheless be in decline. As children grow up, she says, "they're harder to reach."

What about the widely accepted argument that Harry Potter attracted boys who would not otherwise have touched a book? Here again, Holt and Gioia find common ground. That 51 percent number about kids not reading for fun, Holt says, breaks down to 61 percent boys and 41 percent girls. "Boys in every measure are falling off more rapidly than girls," Gioia says.

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