This is an excerpt from Chapter Eight of
The Read-Aloud Handbook by Jim Trelease (Penguin,
2006, 6th edition). For a list of all topics covered here
and in the print edition see Chapter Eight
CHAPTER 8: Lessons from Oprah, Harry,
from Harry Potter
1998, when the first
Harry Potter book (Harry
Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone) came across the sea,
the arrival went largely unnoticed by educators and government
because they were so busy ranting about the lack of reading
being done by children. At the same time, children's editors
were telling their authors, "Please don't send me a 400-page
manuscript. Today's kids will not read thick books!" Back
in the library, the librarians were trying to cope with
yet another load of "series" trash. "We just got rid of
Club and Sweet Valley High books, and now
the Goosebumps arrive! What's that you say? There's
a hot new title? Harry what? Please don't tell
me it's another series."
It was a series, of course, and in changing the world of children's reading it offers some valuable lessons about what and why children read.
Harry Potter different from other “series” books?
There are two kinds of series books:
- The quick-and-easy commercial kind like Nancy
Drew, Goosebumps, and The
- The more sophisticated
series like Cleary’s Ramona books, Lewis’s The
Chronicles of Narnia, Banks’s The Indian in the
Cupboard, and Rowling’s
The quick-and-easy series are often mass-produced, sometimes written by more than one author, and churned out at a pace of more than one a year; the books in a more sophisticated series are always written by one person, published a year or more apart, and characterized by richer text, plot, and characterization.
Along with its excellent imagery, what immediately sets Harry
Potter books apart from nearly all others is the amount of text. Consuming that many words, students are getting prodigiously better at reading—many for the first time—and enjoying it. When the 2004 NAEP reading scores were announced, the folks in Washington were ecstatic over the seven point rise by the fourth-graders, the largest increase in 33 years, and were trumpeting that it proves the effectiveness of all those Reading
First tests. Really now? Did anyone stop to think that maybe a certain young wizard had something to do with the magical elevation? After all, this was the first generation of NAEP test-takers to have grown up with Harry, to have lived all their known lives in a culture awash in 100 million copies of his books. How about a nod to J.
K. Rowling and her little wizard for the impact they might have had on vocabulary and comprehension?
I’m not talking about literary style or imagery, not even emotional levels—just the number of words a child must traverse in order to reach the end. Here’s a word count I did on some books, including a few classics:
- Goosebumps: 8 words per sentence; 22,450 words in book.
- Heidi: 19.6 words per sentence; 93,600 words in book.
- The Hobbit: 18 words per sentence; 97,470 words in book.
- The Hunchback of Notre
Dame: 15 words per sentence; 126,000 words in book.
- Harry Potter and the Order
of the Phoenix: 13.5 words per sentence; 214,536
words in book.
Lesson No. 1: Harry
Potter has children willingly reading books that are nine times longer than
Goosebumps and twice as long as Heidi.
of the ancillary benefits of the Potter series is the added classroom
cachet that's has been added to books of considerable thickness. It is
now fashionable to be seen reading or even carrying a thick book. Emily
Rodda's Deltora series
was imported by Scholastic from Australia but they apparently didn't think
it worthy enough to publish in hardcover—thus it was born in the
U.S. as a paperback. When it caught on with middle-graders, though, Scholastic
lost little time stacking four of the volumes into hardcover casings
where its thickness has enjoyed Harry Potter's "halo effect."
Do series books actually do any good
or just take up kids’ time?
Certainly series books make a “pleasure” connection with the child. As we
saw in Chapter 1, humans seldom do something over and over unless it brings
repeated pleasures. Pleasure is the “glue” that holds us to a particular activity.
How much damage these mindless adventure stories might do was hotly debated, but not by young Jacques, who was fresh off the boat from France in 1920 and soaking up every Frank
Merriwell sports novel he could find. Nor was he ashamed years later to admit the profoundly positive influence the books played in his reading development and acclimation to America, except by then he was well on his way to becoming America’s best known humanities scholar—Jacques
Barzun (who turned ninety-six in 2000 and celebrated by producing a bestseller on the history of world culture).4
In 1926, the American Library Association asked 36,750 students from thirty-four cities to name their favorite books. Ninety-eight percent listed one of the mass-produced Stratemeyer series books (The
Rover Boys; The Motor Boys; Tom Swift; and the Bobbsey Twins), with the high-IQ students reading twice as many of the series books.5
And finally, Catherine Sheldrick Ross points to the large chunks of reading
done by the series reader as examples of what Margaret
Meek called “private lessons.” That is, these daily readings teach the child the rules about skimming and inferring, about where one must slow down to decipher the clues, about the importance of chapter titles or of character and setting.6 The adage that “the more you read, the better you get at it” is not only true, but it should be the slogan of series books.
Over a five-year period, during the 1990s I surveyed 2,887 teachers, with an average of fourteen years’ teaching experience . When asked to name their favorite childhood books, 30 percent named a series book as their personal favorite. Since a 1999 study shows teachers’ literacy skills to be the equal of their college classmates, and 50 percent of the teachers’ skills exceed 80 percent of the general population’s,7 it should be obvious that series books do not impede literacy.
The most conclusive evidence of series books’ ability to produce better readers
can be found in the thirty years of research done by Prof.
G. Robert Carlson. Each semester he asked his graduate students
to write their “reading autobiographies,” recollections of their early years
with reading—what they loved and what they hated. As he reported in Voices
of Readers: How We Come to Love Books, the majority of these students
had strong relationships with series books in their early years. Did it stunt
their intellectual growth? Well, if they made it all the way to graduate
school, apparently not.8
Lesson No. 2: Series books
are avidly read by the best readers, without impeding their skills.
'Lessons' in the Web or print editions of The Read-Aloud Handbook:
Literacy lessons from the Internet