Twenty years on from the first book, Harry Potter continues to cast a spell on readers

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The boy who lived lives on.

Eleanor Spencer-Regan, Durham University

A couple of weeks ago while at Durham’s Pride Parade, my attention was caught by a teenager carrying a placard which read:

If Harry Potter taught us anything it’s that no one deserves to live in a closet.

A quick Google search revealed that this powerful adage – originally a poster created by The Youth Project, an LGBT charity in Nova Scotia, Canada, and later retweeted by JK Rowling – has been doing the rounds online for a number of years.

And it’s not the only Harry Potter-related slogan to make an appearance at recent marches or protest events. At the worldwide Women’s Marches, which took place in January, there were numerous “Dumbledore’s Army” and “Hermione wouldn’t stand for this!” placards on show.

What these placards remind us of is that two decades on from the publication of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, JK Rowling’s novels are about so much more than just witchcraft and wizardry. For many young people, Harry Potter is a familiar, even comforting, frame of reference that can help them to process and understand their experiences. And this is particularly the case in the current context of increasing division and inequality in both the US and Britain.

Revisiting first impressions

Though Hogwarts is clearly a fantastic and fictional setting, the characters experience real life trials and traumas – bereavement, loneliness, persecution, jealousy, unrequited love, guilt, and bullying, to name but a few.

There are also the “stock” characters common to everyone’s school days – the class bully and his goons, the “insufferable know-it-all”, the school jokers, and the sadistic teacher.

Part of the appeal and achievement of the series, though, is the way these characters develop in complexity as Rowling’s readers grow and mature. So that assumptions made about characters upon first reading are challenged and tested by the events and revelations of the later books.

All aboard!

In the first novel, for example, Dumbledore and Snape form the pairing of “good teacher vs bad teacher”. Both are essentially unknowable to the characters and to the reader, who cannot yet see beyond Dumbledore as the all-knowing, twinkly-eyed, grandfatherly character and Snape as the black-eyed, evil-tempered “malevolent bat”.

But as the series progresses, these two characters move through mirror image character arcs. The “good” or even “perfect” Dumbledore is humanised and made relatable as we discover he is racked with guilt and self-blame about his early association with the fearsome dark wizard, Grindelwald and his part in the death of his sister, Ariana.

“Bad” Snape, on the other hand, is rehabilitated and made sympathetic through the back story of his unrequited love for Lily Potter – Harry’s mother – his anguish at her death, and his lifelong mission to atone for the sins of his youth. They are no longer stock heroes or villains but believable characters with complex motivations.

In this way, there is something powerful about literature that compels us to examine and revise our first impressions, assumptions, and opinions. It teaches us to be willing and able to do this in real life, too.

Life lessons from Hogwarts

Before the likes of Harry Potter, 18th and 19th-century children’s literature was intended as instruction: the “good” were rewarded and the “bad” were punished – with “bad” behaviour linked to “bad” character and vice versa.

In contrast, a series like Harry Potter helps today’s young readers to appreciate that the world, and the people in it, are not easy to understand or “sort” in the Hogwartian sense. Gryffindors may be cowardly – think Peter Pettigrew – and Slytherins may be motivated by love rather than by ambition, for example when Narcissa Malfoy chooses to lie to Lord Voldemort about Harry being dead in the seventh novel.

True magic never dies.

A recent study from the University of Cambridge supports the idea that reading and literature can help children to learn about the world and the people around them. It found that:

Reading fiction provides an excellent training for young people in developing and practising empathy and theory of mind. That is, [an] understanding of how other people feel and think.

Or as Hermione would put it, reading fiction helps you not to have “the emotional range of a teaspoon”. And it is this emotional range and empathy, found in books such as Harry Potter, which can help children to navigate the complex and magical world we all share.

An inexhaustible source of magic

But of course, though the world of Hogwarts and Diagon Alley may offer us an escape from our “muggle” existence, theirs is a world as marred by inequality, oppression, and danger as our own.

And in this way, the books create a space where both children and adults can explore and process pressing questions of morality, responsibility, conflict, and trauma at a safe distance.

The ConversationJK Rowling has said that while she doesn’t believe in the “magic of waving a wand and making things happen”, she does believe in “the magic of imagination and the magic of love”. Let’s add to that another kind of magic that we can all believe in and which continues to be very much part of our lives – and that is the inexhaustible magic of the world of Harry Potter.

Eleanor Spencer-Regan, Vice-Principal and Senior Tutor of St Chad’s College, Durham University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

As Harry Potter turns 20, let’s focus on reading pleasure rather than literary merit

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Platform 9 and ¾, the portal to Harry Potter’s magical world, at Kings Cross in London.
Harry Potter image from

Di Dickenson, Western Sydney University

It’s 20 years on June 26 since the publication of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, the first in the seven-book series. The Philosopher’s Stone has sold more than 450 million copies and been translated into 79 languages; the series has inspired a movie franchise, a dedicated fan website, and spinoff stories.


I recall the long periods of frustration and excited anticipation as my son and I waited for each new instalment of the series. This experience of waiting is one we share with other fans who read it progressively across the ten years between the publication of the first and last Potter novel. It is not an experience contemporary readers can recreate.

The Harry Potter series has been celebrated for encouraging children to read, condemned as a commercial rather than a literary success and had its status as literature challenged. Rowling’s writing was described as “basic”, “awkward”, “clumsy” and “flat”. A Guardian article in 2007, just prior to the release of the final book in the series, was particularly scathing, calling her style “toxic”.

My own focus is on the pleasure of reading. I’m more interested in the enjoyment children experience reading Harry Potter, including the appeal of the stories. What was it about the story that engaged so many?

Before the books were a commercial success and highly marketed, children learnt about them from their peers. A community of Harry Potter readers and fans developed and grew as it became a commercial success. Like other fans, children gained cultural capital from the depth of their knowledge of the series.

My own son, on the autism spectrum, adored Harry Potter. He had me read each book in the series in order again (and again) while we waited for the next book to be released. And once we finished the new book, we would start the series again from the beginning. I knew those early books really well.

‘Toxic’ writing?

Assessing the series’ literary merit is not straightforward. In the context of concern about falling literacy rates, the Harry Potter series was initially widely celebrated for encouraging children – especially boys – to read. The books, particularly the early ones, won numerous awards and honours, including the Nestlé Smarties Book Prize three years in a row, and were shortlisted for the prestigious Carnegie Medal in 1998.

The seven books of the Harry Potter series, released from 1997 to 2007.
Alan Edwardes/Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND

Criticism of the literary merit of the books, both scholarly and popular, appeared to coincide with the growing commercial and popular success of the series. Rowling was criticised for overuse of capital letters and exclamation marks, her use of speech or dialogue tags (which identify who is speaking) and her use of adverbs to provide specific information (for example, “said the boy miserably”).

The criticism was particularly prolific around the UK’s first conference on Harry Potter held at the prestigious University of St Andrews, Scotland in 2012. The focus of commentary seemed to be on the conference’s positioning of Harry Potter as a work of “literature” worthy of scholarly attention. As one article said of J.K. Rowling, she “may be a great storyteller, but she’s no Shakespeare”.

Even the most scathing of reviews of Rowling’s writing generally compliment her storytelling ability. This is often used to account for the popularity of the series, particularly with children. However, this has then been presented as further proof of Rowling’s failings as an author. It is as though the capacity to tell a compelling story can be completely divorced from the way a story is told.

Daniel Radcliffe in his first outing as Harry Potter in the Philosopher’s Stone, 2001.
Warner Brothers

Writing for kids

The assessment of the literary merits of a text is highly subjective. Children’s literature in particular may fare badly when assessed using adult measures of quality and according to adult tastes. Many children’s books, including picture books, pop-up books, flap books and multimedia texts are not amenable to conventional forms of literary analysis.

Books for younger children may seem simple and conventional when judged against adult standards. The use of speech tags in younger children’s books, for example, is frequently used to clarify who is talking for less experienced readers. The literary value of a children’s book is often closely tied to adults’ perception of a book’s educational value rather than the pleasure children may gain from reading or engaging with the book. For example, Rowling’s writing was criticised for not “stretching children” or teaching children “anything new about words”.

Many of the criticisms of Rowling’s writing are similar to those levelled at another popular children’s author, Enid Blyton. Like Rowling, Blyton’s writing has described by one commentator as “poison” for its “limited vocabulary”, “colourless” and “undemanding language”. Although children are overwhelmingly encouraged to read, it would appear that many adults view with suspicion books that are too popular with children.

There have been many defences of the literary merits of Harry Potter which extend beyond mere analysis of Rowling’s prose. The sheer volume of scholarly work that has been produced on the series and continues to be produced, even ten years after publication of the final book, attests to the richness and depth of the series.

The ConversationA focus on children’s reading pleasure rather than on literary merit shifts the focus of research to a different set of questions. I will not pretend to know why Harry Potter appealed so strongly to my son but I suspect its familiarity, predictability and repetition were factors. These qualities are unlikely to score high by adult standards of literary merit but are a feature of children’s series fiction.

Di Dickenson, Director of Academic Program BA, School of Humanities and Communication Arts, Western Sydney University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Not My Review: Pastoral Preaching – Building a People for God, by Conrad Mbewe

The link below is to a book review of ‘Pastoral Preaching – Building a People for God,’ by Conrad Mbewe.

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When to Dump Books?

The question of when to get rid of a book (or books) is one that often causes a bibliophile many a heart palpitation. It may even seem bad form to even contemplate the question, let alone ask it in a blog (especially when the person doing the asking is a fellow bibliophile.

The link below is to an article that takes a look at this very question, with some worthwhile advice.

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