Monday, July 25, 2011

Rowling's Splash and Ripples

Found a great article in the Wall Street Journal, a piece that essentially said thank you to J. K. Rowling for the impact she and her books have made.

One element of the article that I had fun with in particular was the comparisons of Rowling to Dickens, thanks to my studies of Dickens as an English major. I had an entire semester course on his work and had a ball dissecting them, especially some lesser-known works (two of my favorites: Our Mutual Friend and Dombey and Son).

But for this post, I wanted to talk about the overall message of the piece.

First, yes, the article contains a lot of hyperbole. No, Rowling didn't save a world on the brink of illiteracy. Yes, many kids were reading books long before Rowling penned her first Harry Potter book. So did grown-ups.

That said, Rowling's writing and publishing changed the landscape of reading and publishing in huge ways. Love her books or not, here are just a few ways she made a splash that's still rippling:

For the first time, lots of kids as young as eight and nine were reading 700-page tomes. And it wasn't just the nerdy kid without friends. Reading became cooler than almost anything else. Really young kids got caught up in the activity like never before.

Kids who hated reading (and thought they were bad readers) suddenly decided that reading was awesome. Thousands (if not millions) of reluctant readers started their journey into books.

Then the big cross-over happened. In the past, some YA books were read by grown-ups, especially Newbery winners (most of us have probably read A Wrinkle in Time, for example), but there had never been a cross-over like this.

With HP, suddenly parents, aunts, uncles, cousins, and grandparents were reading the same books as young kids. Several generations were in the room discussing the same books together.

My kids were young (and in some cases, not born) when the books first came out. But the books provided hours and hours (and weeks and months) of entertainment for me and my husband. There aren't too many books out there we both like. We've read the series twice together.

Publishing houses took note of the cross-over appeal and huge sales numbers. They then seriously upped the number of their YA titles and pushed them like never before.

The ripple is ongoing. One example: this spring at the Storymakers conference, I spoke with a senior editor at a big house. She said her boss wants them to actively seek out new YA since it's such a big seller. She's floundering a bit, because in her entire career (spanning decades) she's always focused on books for adults.

Thanks to all of this, we have tons more new youth titles being published (and more titles sold and read) than, I'm quite sure, in any other time in history.

The New York Times even had to create new bestsellers list specifically for youth fiction to accommodate it all.

Many adults who never really bothered to read, did pick up Harry for whatever reason (likely word of mouth). Those same folks are now reading new books, sometimes YA, but often adult and literary fare as well. Many have even joined book clubs.

It's almost like Harry was a "gateway drug" for a lot of people to discover (or rediscover) books.

I've talked with many school teachers who are grateful for the impact Harry Potter has had. Even though current junior high students were in diapers when the first book came out, the impact continues. New students, even if they've never read Harry, benefit because they have a much wider variety of books to choose from than their peers did in the mid 90s. Young Adult and Middle Grade fiction has exploded in the last then years. (I can think of several really big YA names that probably owe JKR their careers.)

Then there' s the cultural impact. Like any big cultural phenomenon, vocabulary, ideas, and other elements from the Harry Potter universe have seeped into our consciousness. One example: the word "muggle" no longer means solely what it does in the series. People today use it to refer to others who lack a specific skill or ability in their industry. ("There's this guy in our department who's a total muggle when it comes to technology.")

I know there are others who don't agree or who don't see what I'm saying, that they and all their friends have always been readers. Basically: what's the big deal? Rowling didn't do so much. She didn't impact me.

To those people, I say: You're not normal. (And I mean that in a very, very good way!)

I'm also not normal. I've always been a reader. So are my friends. In 8th grade, some of us even set up a reading club. I can't understand people who shrug and say they can't remember the last book they read.

But those people exist, and J. K. Rowling lowered the numbers a bit.

Bottom line: I believe that the more literate a people are, the better off society is.

So yes, thanks, Jo. Big time.


Susan Anderson said...

i agree. She deserves the tribute.


Melanie Jacobson said...

It was really fun watching my husband get sucked into the series. He borrowed one of the books from me because he was bored on our vacation, and that was that. A new fan was born.

Karlene said...

I very much agree, having some children who are readers and some who are not.

Luisa Perkins said...

I couldn't agree more. Nice piece!

Jessica G. said...

Absolutely agree with your bottom line! She's not my favorite author but the impact in undeniable.

S.P. Sipal said...

Wonderful tribute, Annette! And I'm so glad to discover your blog.

One other aspect of reading that JK Rowling greatly influenced was the depth to which her readers learned to approach her series. Beyond elementary kids reading 700-page tomes, it was nothing to see these same kids, and older, dig into researching her mythical allusions and clues hidden in subtext in order to figure out what was going to happen next in the series. Then, they'd write up what was essentially (very long) book reports of their theories and plaster them on the Internet in order to be the first to discover that particular clue or prediction.


Why Not? Because I Said So! said...

I agree 100% with everything you said. I first noticed the great impact of Harry Potter and his world as a teacher. Then when I had my own children it impacted my family as well. We are such Harry Potter nerds and love every minute of it! Thanks for this excellent post!!!


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