The Washington Post

Is Harry Potter classic children’s literature?

The Potter crew, fending off Death Eaters and comparative literature majors. (Warner Bros.)

The first post is compiled and edited by Ernie Bond, co-chair of the Teacher Education department at Salisbury University. Bond spent some time this week reviewing comments on an Internet scholarly discussion group devoted to children’s literature.

Put 10 critics in a room with one book and they are bound to come up with 15 differing opinions. When discussing the most popular series in the history of literature, the range of opinions increases exponentially. The members of the child-lit discussion group are scholars, students, librarians, readers and writers dedicated to the research, sharing, analysis and teaching of children’s literature, so as an online forum, we frequently talk about these books. One recurring question concerns whether the Harry Potter books are quality literature, popular fad or a bit of both. There is certainly no consensus on what even constitutes “quality literature,” but there is lively dialogue.

One thing that is clear is that Harry Potter has impacted young readers and the publishing industry in profound ways. Hillary Crew suggests that the series has been “magic” for many young people who have, over a number of years, whittled their own wands, dressed up in “invisible capes” and acted out their own versions while going on to read a great deal more of everything. Kids are not the only ones who have read and reread these books with passion. GraceAnne DeCandido from Rutgers, for example, fell in love with Harry Potter while reading the review copy of the first book long before hype or movies and has read all seven books multiple times. Tara Whitworth remembers her daughter gripping her hand through the intense parts of the early booksthe same daughter who is now an active reader, who can drive herself to the midnight movie.

Some group members spoke of life-changing experiences. Ebony Elizabeth Thomas rediscovered her love for children’s and young adult literature because of Harry Potter fandom, and her career has unfolded differently as a result. Similarly, Mary Catherine Russell asserts that if it weren’t for Harry, she would not be studying children’s literature at UNC Charlotte.

“I loved Dahl and Lewis when I was young, but Rowling kept me in the realm of children’s/young adult literature throughout my adolescence and into adulthood,” she writes.

To some extent, it matters little whether scholars label the series high-quality literature; millions of people around the globe consider the book to be a good read. And as doctoral student Todd Ide suggests, one need only look at the amount of scholarly work in the form of presentations, articles, chapters and books with a Harry Potter focus to see the impact of the series on literary scholarship.

But can we equate popularity and passion with quality? Phil Nel voices the sentiment of many when he asserts, “Rowling is gifted at inventing a carefully imagined parallel universe, great at creating character, and a skilled crafter of plots.” On the other hand, Jeffrey Canton compares the series to other works of fantasy and finds it lacking in craft.

“Every time I read Alice in Wonderland, I am astounded by Carroll’s text — that’s what I don’t find in Rowling — some fabulous moments but overall — it’s a great son et lumiere show but that’s all it is.”

His voice is echoed by others who find the book to be entertaining but not especially compelling. According to Richard Flynn, the quality of the prose falls off precipitously after book one. Melynda Huskey suggests that as Rowling moves into young-adult territory she over-reaches, and the operatic, grandiose scale she is aiming for in the later books just falls flat. Some point out distractingly bad patches of writing. Stylistic elements such as “all those adverbial dialogue tags” and the overuse of capitals and exclamation points to express emotion detract from the reading pleasure of some. But the most commonly cited flaw was the tedious length of the later books, some of which could have easily been 100 pages shorter.

Some found the series, especially the first two novels, to be extremely derivative. They can see where many of Rowling’s elements have come from and do not consider her story to be terribly original. Often, for those who are not totally enamored with Rowling’s craft, it was in comparison with other books. Philip Pullman and Diana Wynne Jones, for example, are cited as authors of novels that hit deeper in the heart, soul and intellect.

Though there is disagreement as to whether Rowling is a good word crafter, most tend to agree that she is a top-notch storyteller. By and large, the books are page-turners, and as Chris Doyle suggests, Rowling has a real talent for plotting (when it’s not plodding!). Mike Cadden asserts that Rowling displays genius as a weaver of plots: “I really want to turn the next page. That’s no small literary feat.” At its best, the narrative is riveting, and as Tim Regan says, she turns “the reader’s view of the events on their head over and over again.”

Interestingly, quite a few commenters felt that the book in the series that displays the best combination of editing, writer’s craft and plotting is “Prisoner of Azkaban.” Uma Krishnaswami suggests that though “every book after Azkaban could have used pruning, the page-turn quality is indisputable. To be able to sustain that through so many books is no small feat.” In fact, despite any technical criticisms, a majority of voices in the child-lit discussion group derived a great deal of pleasure from reading the Harry Potter books.

So what is it that adult literary professionals like about these books?

• Humor blended with the fantasy (Deborah Brothers)

• Insight into the human condition (Oona Eisenstadt)

• Inventive world-building (Mary Baron)

• The plots grow in complexity as the series continues, particularly as Rowling draws in the back stories about Harry Potter’s parents and their relationships with other professors, wizards, etc. (Sarah Park)

• As Rowling grows as a writer, Harry grows as a character, and young adults grow as readers. (Mary Catherine Russell)

• The sense of nostalgia that ties us to the characters and the books (Kerry, PhD candidate, University of Pittsburgh)

• Particular well-developed characters — Lupin, for example: “there’s a dark but melancholy quality about him that stays with me” (Chris Doyle) or Dolores Umbridge, who is one of the most satisfyingly chilling characters Rowling created, far more sinister than Voldemort! (Jeffrey Canton)

• A good representation of surly adolescence

• Particular scenes, such as in the graveyard, when those Voldemort has killed come out of his wand

• Emotional connections to characters — Harry trying to understand his parents without having known them at all (Sharon Levin)

• The fan-base connections to a community with shared experiences

• Elegantly recurring threads (characters, history, themes) from the early books that find their knots and conclusions in the later ones.

One of the most interesting discussions centers on the community of readers. Some have suggested that though reading is often a solitary experience, many of us read Harry Potter as part of a community, discussing, interacting, writing fan fiction. Rowling has seemed acutely aware of her audience and has interacted with that community of readers increasingly through the text as the series went on. (Ebony Elizabeth Thomas)

In fact, with Harry set to move onto the recently announced Pottermore, the series will soon be at the forefront of digital social media.


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