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Published in Print: October 20, 1999, as J.K. Rowling Visit Spins Magic With Devoted Readers

J.K. Rowling Visit Spins Magic With Devoted Readers

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More than a hundred 2nd and 3rd graders with lightning bolts temporarily tattooed on their foreheads gathered in front of the Montclair Kimberley Academy here last week, chanting, "Harry Potter rules."

A maroon station wagon pulled up, and amid whispers of "Is that her?" a thin blonde woman emerged and stood looking at the newly constructed model of a magical train platform from her series of children's fantasy books that feature a young wizard-in-training.

Applause broke out once the crowd realized that J.K. Rowling, the Scottish author of the wildly popular novels that last week held the top three spots on The New York Times' list of best-selling fiction, had just arrived.

The students had reason to be thrilled. Montclair Kimberley, a private school serving 1,000 students in prekindergarten through grade 12, is the only school included on Ms. Rowling's U.S. book tour.

The three books--The Sorcerer's Stone, The Chamber of Secrets, and The Prisoner of Azkaban--had sold 5 million copies in hardcover as of last week, according to Judy Corman, senior vice president of corporate communications for Scholastic Inc., the books' American publisher. The first in the series came out in paperback last month and has already sold more than three million copies. Four additional books are planned to complete the series, which began in 1998 with The Sorcerer's Stone.

"The kids are all so excited," said Peter Greer, the headmaster at Montclair Kimberley. "People who write books are almost superhuman because they create these worlds, and [children] almost never get to meet them."

Fourth grader Matthew Johnson, who read the first book and is currently reading The Hobbit, by J.R.R. Tolkien, couldn't wait to attend the assembly with Ms. Rowling. "I like her books because they have, like, magic and adventure, and you just can't stop reading them. I read for 70 pages one time--that was my record," he said.

Wary of the Dark Side

But the magic that enthralls Matthew is raising eyebrows in some school districts around the country. Newspaper reports from California, Georgia, and Minnesota suggest there are parents who don't want their children reading the books because they do address dark topics.

During the public-comment section of the South Carolina state school board's meeting earlier this month, a handful of parents spoke out against the selection of Harry Potter titles as recreational reading material in some of the state's 86 districts.

"They [think] the Harry Potter books are dangerous because they involve children and the occult," said Jim Foster, the spokesman for the South Carolina Department of Education. The state board told the parents that such decisions are up to local districts.

The stuff of which nightmares are made abounds in the Potter books. At the beginning of The Sorcerer's Stone, for example, readers learn that Harry's parents were killed by the evil Lord Voldemort. Somehow, Voldemort was unable to kill Harry, leaving him instead with a lightning-bolt-shaped scar on his forehead, and the dark lord's powers were extinguished as a result.

Harry is sent to live with his "Muggle," or nonmagic human, aunt and uncle, who detest magic and treat Harry with unfairness that borders on slapstick. His real adventure begins when he turns 10 and is fetched by a giant to study sorcery at a school where students ride broomsticks, take lessons in potions and charms, and learn defense against the dark arts.

"We always hear complaints from parents about what children are reading. We hear more about the Harry Potter books because more people are reading them," said Betty Carte, a professor of library science at Texas Woman's University in Denton, Texas. That the books are plot-driven, constitute a series, and appeal to both boys and girls are among the reasons Ms. Rowling's novels are so popular, she said.

Themes that children strongly relate to figure in the books. "They address the questions: 'How do I work within a group and as an individual?'" Ms. Carte said. "I think it's the whole 'Who am I and where do I fit in this world?' question, and I think kids are asking the same thing."

Reading Together

"Kids are willing to engage in the solitary act of reading as long as there is a social component," Ms. Carte said. And the books' popularity has broadened that social aspect to include adults.

Many families read the Harry Potter books together, which is crucial to promoting avid readers, Ms. Carte argued.

"Often we tell children that reading is important, but we don't show them," she said. " There is lots and lots of really great children's literature out there that families could be reading together."

Christine Lagatta, Matthew Johnson's teacher at the Montclair Kimberley Academy, said her class is wild about Harry and chose to read The Sorcerer's Stone, which is 309 pages long, over the course of three weeks.

Referring to sections of the book in which Harry is mistreated by his aunt and uncle, Ms. Lagatta said, "It discusses issues of fairness and justice."

She said she is using the book both in her class's reading circle and to teach writing skills. "We are looking at her as an author, and trying to write like her," she said of Ms. Rowling.

The class has learned about description, alliteration, and foreshadowing from Harry Potter, Ms. Lagatta said. "He's the 17th student in our class."

And Ms. Rowling, Harry's 33-year-old creator, did not disappoint the assembly of more than 500 students. They sat quietly during the presentation, hanging on her every word.

A former English/language arts teacher, Ms. Rowling was candid with her fans, relaying stories from her youth and encouraging the students to read more. "When you're reading the Harry books you have to work with me," she said. "To make it work inside your head, you have to meet me halfway. That's the magical thing about reading."

Vol. 19, Issue 8, Page 7

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Correction: 
This article incorrectly spelled the name of Betty Carter, professor of library science at Texas Women's University in Denton, Texas.

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