Magical Mystery Tour

November 01, 1999 4 min read

One fine day in October, more than a hundred 2nd and 3rd graders with lightening bolts temporarily tattooed on their foreheads gathered in front of the Montclair Kimberley Academy in Montclair, New Jersey. Soon the students were chanting, “Harry Potter rules.” A maroon station wagon pulled up. Amid whispers of “Is that her?” a thin, blond woman emerged, and the crowd erupted in applause: J.K. Rowling, the Scottish author of the wildly popular children’s novels about a young wizard-in-training named Harry Potter, had arrived.

The students had reason to be thrilled. Montclair Kimberley, a private preK-12 school for 1,000 students, was one of the few schools included on Rowling’s recent U.S. book tour. Headmaster Peter Greer explained the excitement: “People who write books are almost superhuman because they create these worlds, and [children] almost never get to meet them.”

Fourth grader Matthew John son, for one, couldn’t wait for the assembly with Rowling. “I like her books because they have, like, magic and adventure, and you just can’t stop reading them. I read 70 pages at one time-that was my record,” he said.

The 33-year-old Rowling did not disappoint. The students sat quietly during her talk, hanging on every word. A former English and language arts teacher, Rowling charmed her fans, relaying stories from her youth and encouraging 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.”

Rowling’s three fantasy books about Harry-The Sorcerer’s Stone, The Chamber of Secrets, and The Prisoner of Azkaban-have cast such a spell on American readers, young and old alike, that they have outsold grown-up books this fall, often occupying the top three spots on the New York Times best-seller list. The books are popular, reckons Betty Carter, a professor of library science at Texas Woman’s University in Denton, Texas, because they are plot-driven, appeal to both boys and girls, and constitute a series. Four additional books are planned to complete the series, which began in 1998 with The Sorcerer’s Stone.

As is often the case, however, where there’s celebrity, there’s controversy. The magic that enthralls readers like Matthew Johnson is raising eyebrows in some school districts around the country. Newspaper reports from California, Georgia, and Minnesota suggest some adults think Harry Potter books are too dark for children. During the South Carolina state school board’s meeting in October, a handful of parents spoke out against Harry’s selection as recreational reading in some schools.

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

True, the stuff of which nightmares are made abounds in the books. At the beginning of The Sorcerer’s Stone, readers learn that Harry’s parents were killed by the evil Lord Voldemort. Somehow, Voldemort was unable to slay Harry, leaving him instead with a lightening-bolt-shaped scar on his forehead. Sent to live with his “Muggle,” or nonmagic, aunt and uncle, the boy is treated 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.

Despite the series’ sometimes ominous overtones, many educators claim its themes resonate with children. “They address the questions: ‘How do I work within a group and as an individual?’” Carter observes. “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.” Many families read the Harry Potter books together, a critical step in transforming kids into avid readers, Carter notes.

Christine Lagatta, a Kimberley Academy 4th grade teacher, says her students are wild about Harry; she read The Sorcerer’s Stone, which is 309 pages, to them every day for three weeks. The teacher says Harry’s mistreatment by his aunt and uncle is good grist for a discussion about issues of fairness and justice. She is also using the book to teach writing skills, asking her class to mimic Rowling’s style in their own work. Harry, Lagatta says, has taught her kids about description, alliteration, and foreshadowing. “He’s the 17th student in our class.”

Given such good reports from the classroom, the controversy over Harry may be overblown, Carter says. “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.”

--Michelle Galley