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Harry Potter a classic? Successful? No doubt
But classic? Time will tell
Sunday, July 15, 2007 By Bob Hoover, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
The publication of F. Scott Fitzgerald's "The Great Gatsby" caused few ripples among book buyers in 1925 and was out of print by the 1940s. Similarly, Herman Melville's "Moby-Dick" didn't make much of a splash when it appeared in 1851. Today, the two books compete for the honor of "the great American novel," illustrating that popular success has little to do with reputation in the world of literature. No one questions the popularity of J.K. Rowling's "Harry Potter'' series -- 350 million copies now in print worldwide, with the seventh and final book in the series, "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows," going on sale Saturday with the largest first press run, 12 million, in the history of American publishing. But that enormous popularity has overshadowed consideration of the series' literary merits. Ms. Rowling has written nothing else and has revealed no future literary aspirations. Her strength as a writer lies in her ability to create a large collection of memorable and cleverly named characters, a variety of fantastical places and situations and an ever darker and more threatening plot.
Stacy Innerst, Post-Gazette Click illustration for larger image.
Harry Potter: The books so far The Harry Potter Page
Her literary influences include everything from "Tom Brown's School Days," written in 1851, to George Lucas' "Star Wars" and is spiked with generous doses of "Bulfinch's Mythology" and C.S. Lewis' Christiancentered tales. She has no peer when it comes to book sales, but can she take her place alongside the creators of "Winnie the Pooh," "Lord of the Rings," "Little House on the Prairie," "Little Women," "The Wizard of Oz" and "The Chronicles of Narnia," some of the classics in children's literature? "I think the books themselves will become classics," said Andrea Spooner, editor of children's books at Little, Brown. "Rowling has tapped into so many elements of good old-fashioned fantasy that 'Harry Potter' will be read for a long time." Ms. Spooner, however, believes that Ms. Rowling's legacy will not be entirely literary. "Thanks to her, there's an increased visibility and respect for books among children. They also know about bookstores now and should have a willingness to go there to buy books rather than somewhere else."
"Harry Potter" is not destined to be a classic, but it's not a just trend that will pass, believes Lisa Dennis. She's a specialist in children's books for the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh and has read all six of the adventures. "I don't think [Ms. Rowling's] writing will stand the test of time. The series will have long life because I think the original readers will share it with their children, a family favorite for a very long time," Ms. Dennis said. "I still think Lloyd Alexander and his 'Westmark Trilogy' is better written and has more original characters than the Potter books," she added. First published in 1982, Mr. Alexander's series -- "The Kestrel," "The Beggar Queen" and "The Firebird" -- is grounded in Welsh folklore about a mythical kingdom. It's still in print. "It's a more serious set of books than 'Harry Potter,' " she believes. "That age-old good vs. evil struggle is expressed more clearly, I think. With Rowling, there's an awful lot of 'stage business' going on as well." What helped Ms. Rowling and hurt Mr. Alexander was the Boy Wizard's talent for "going global," Ms. Dennis said. "If Alexander had been able to attract the kind of merchandising and movie deals that Rowling has, he would have sold a lot more books. "All these tie-ins make it easier for more people to connect to 'Harry Potter' and care what happens to the characters. If she's done one thing lasting, it was to end kids' fears of big fat books." Katherine Ayres is the author of nine books for young readers; her 10th, "Up, Down and Around," a picture book for preschoolers, will be published by Candlewick this fall. "From what I see, 'Harry Potter' will be this generation's classic fantasy," said Mrs. Ayres, who teaches the writing of children's literature at Chatham University. "In every generation, the genre is reinvented. There are Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Alexander, [Ursula] LeGuinn. All of them have in common consistent characters and timeless stories." One of the reasons Mrs. Ayres believes that "Harry Potter" is so popular is that the books are "school stories." "Kids can really identify with Hogwarts [Potter's school of wizardry]. There are the bad teachers and the good teachers, the bad students and the good ones and the relationships," she said. Ms. Rowling, though, "really took those stories up a notch by imbuing them with magic." Echoing Ms. Dennis' comment on Potter's long-term contributions, she said, "The series finally got older boys reading big books, and that's something to be said." For several decades, reading surveys by the American Library Association have found that boys and girls in grade schools read at a similar rate, but once males come of high school age, their reading plummets. The Potter series appeared to buck that trend, said Justin Chandra, associate editor of Simon & Schuster's Books for Young Readers.
"Kids, including those who didn't think of themselves as readers, were encouraged to read by all the excitement and attention that Potter created," he said. "Reluctant readers are now dedicated readers. Suddenly, they're enjoying books." While periodic studies of readership among school children by the U.S. Department of Education chart a decline in reading for fun, the "Harry Potter" books have "put the brakes on that decline," said Steven Herb, director of the Education and Behavioral Sciences Library at Penn State University. "People in the library world and people in the publishing world know that Harry Potter has done reading a real service," he added. "Publishers have reported an increase the sales of fantasy and serial fiction. At libraries and bookstores, Harry brings people together to talk about his books. It's been a cultural and social benefit." Mr. Herb said that reports about the drop in the reading of fiction among young people are not surprising. "There's so much competition out there with video games, movies, DVDs that the reading of fiction is fighting a losing battle. Still, I can't discount the positive social activity that the Potter books have caused." Mr. Chandra believes that the Potter books "will have long-term effects on children's books, like 'The Chronicles of Narnia' and 'Lord of the Rings.' They will become part of a whole class of books that can stand the test of time." The reason for Potter's longevity is that "these books touch on the core stories that will last forever," he added. Neither Ms. Spooner nor Mr. Chandra would predict what life in children's literature will be like after Harry, but both agree that fantasy "will continue to be hot," as the Simon & Schuster editor put it. "We are signing up fantasy series that might be viable," Mr. Chandra said, "but forget 'Potter' imitations. Kids are much smarter these days and they can sniff any imitators." His publisher's plan is, "Don't flood the market with fantasy, but go with strong stories and strong characters that play to the market that 'Harry Potter's' developed." "None of us know what's going to happen," said Ms. Spooner, "and all publishers are extremely reserved about overbuying in the fantasy line. We're also very wary about anything pitched as 'the next Harry Potter.' " However, Little, Brown and Simon & Schuster are banking on several "middle grade" fantasy series to draw on the Potter phenomenon. Ms. Spooner cited "Mysterious Benedict Society" and "Atherton: House of Power" and books by Stephanie Meyer. Mr. Chandra pointed to "Pendragon," "Here Be Dragons" and "Spiderwick Chronicles," a series that will be released as a Hollywood film next year.
"I don't believe that J.K. Rowling has raised the level of quality writing for children," Ms. Spooner said. "What she has done is open up a segment of the market to good writers and turned the attention of others to writing for children." She added, "Rowling has also encouraged a lot of bad writing, too."
First published on July 14, 2007 at 11:21 pm Post-Gazette book editor Bob Hoover can be reached at email@example.com or 412-263-1634.
Read more: http://www.post-gazette.com/pg/07196/80186844.stm#ixzz1Z3uEN5LI
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