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Why I love Harry Potter.

This orphaned boy-wizard character mesmerized my son, turning a reluctant reader onto the magic of books

Harry Potter opened the door, and my 7-year-old son walked giddily through it, hardly daring to trust the magic. Harry Potter, for anyone who's been visiting another galaxy, is the orphaned boy-wizard who stars in British author J.K. Rowling's fabulously successful series, which debuted in 1998 with Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone. Harry Potter is a survivor. Raised by his mean aunt and uncle, he learns on his 11th birthday that he is a wizard of uncommon powers. He is summoned to the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry where for seven years (each one to be the subject of a new book in the series) he will study and refine his gifts. To me, the mother of a third-grade boy, Harry Potter was a godsend.

My son Radford used to proclaim that he "hated" reading--it was so "boring" and it made him "tired." This, to the voracious readers who are his parents, was a nightmare, a major cause for anxiety. We would put all manner of books in Radford's hand, trying to get him interested in something. I had some success with the comic strip characters Calvin and Hobbes (the boy with the stuffed toy tiger who comes to wisecracking life when no one else is around), and also with The Magic Tree House series (about a brother and sister who discover a magic tree house that whisks them back to different periods in history, where they must avert some crisis, usually by solving riddles or saving classic books from destruction). The former tickled Radford's funny bone. The latter offered adventure and was simply written. This was key, because at 7, my son was not really a proficient reader. I was frankly worried.

Between second and third grades, he changed schools. The new school sent home a summer reading list that included Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone. It happened to be one of the books my son grudgingly circled when I insisted he choose five. When the books arrived, I put Harry Potter aside at first--it was much longer than the other choices; at 309 pages it was the length of most adult books, and its language was sophisticated and idiosyncratic, with made-up names like Diagon Alley (a sort of wizard bazaar) and Quidditch (a wizard--world tournament played in the air with three self-propelled balls). I was sure Radford would be intimidated.

That entire summer, Radford would begin books, but never finish them. Nothing sustained him. I knew, at his new school, he would be required to do book reports, and I despaired over whether he would ever get through an entire book on his own. Finally, during the last week of summer, I picked up Harry Potter. It didn't occur to me to suggest that Radford read it by himself. Instead, I suggested we read it "together," which at that point meant me reading him a chapter or two a night, and cajoling him to occasionally read a sentence or a paragraph--on a good night, a whole page!

The first night, Radford listened attentively as I read. At the end of our session, he said, "Can I see that, Mom?" and took the book with him to bed, where he studied the cover illustration and read all the back-cover blurbs and inside flap copy. The next night, after I read, he said, "Give me the book, Mommy" When I came back 15 minutes later to turn out the lights, he was reading to himself. I didn't comment. The next night, I read some more, and again he took the book at the end of our session and read on by himself. I began to have to read ahead on my own so that I could catch up with him.

School started, and Radford's growing fascination with Harry Potter was reinforced by other children who had also discovered the boy wizard and his friends over the summer. Radford began to pack the book in his knapsack each morning so that he could read it in afterschool. When he came home, he would regale me with all that had happened in my time away from Harry. At night, my husband and I would go to turn out the lights in our son's room, sure he was long asleep, and find him up reading an hour after we'd sent him to bed. Some nights he'd fall asleep with the book under his head. Other nights, trying to balance the demands of school the next day with our rushing joy at our son's new love affair with reading, my husband or I would call: "Turn off the light now, Radford. You have school tomorrow" (Once out of sight and earshot, we'd look at each other and exult, "Yessss!") Most thrilling of all was the night Radford looked up starry-eyed from his reading and said with feeling: "I had no idea books could be so exciting!"

Indeed, I too found Harry Potter riveting. Some parents have been disturbed by J.K. Rowling's magical themes, her portrayal of witchcraft and wizardry; but to me, the moral lessons in these books could not be more unequivocal. Harry and his friends are fundamentally decent kids, brave and true of heart, and the forces of good always triumph. Love turns away evil, meanness never pays, and courage and loyalty are rewarded. Of course, it doesn't hurt that Rowling's yarns are exquisitely paced, tightly plotted, and the characters are intriguingly drawn.

The best news: Once the reading door opened, Radford couldn't get enough of books: After ploughing through the next two Harry Potter books (and doing his own research online to find out when Book 4 would be released!), he turned to the Time Warp Trio books, the Wayside School books, My Father's Dragon, Aldo Applesauce, and Tales of A Fourth Grade Nothing. Some of the book he enjoys are just plain wacky--like the Captain Underpants series Others, like Stone Fox, are richly poignant. I don't always "get" my son's taste, but I'm thrilled he wants to read, and I have vowed to monitor, but not censor, his choices. His vocabulary has become more varied and surprising, his store of sight words has grown exponentially, and he's much better at negotiating long, intricately constructed sentences. One gauge of reading fluency, I've been told, is the ability to read with expression rather than merely "ticking of words." A child who reads with expression is grasping the larger meaning, while a child who reads in a monotone is putting all his effort into deciphering the individual words and may be missing the story.

Almost a year after Radford discovered Harry Potter, I'm pleased to report that he reads very expressively, and he reads all the time, a book chapter a week or more, not to mention the picture books he now generously reads to his little sister. And now, his critical faculties seem to be kicking in too. Two weeks ago, we were talking about a book he had just read and he said, "Mom, why are most of the books in the library about white people? How come there are so few books about black people?"

Quietly, I promised him, "Tomorrow, son, we'll go and choose some books about black people, and other people, too" And so, my little reader is now discovering Walter Dean Myers (Darnell Rock Reporting), Andrew Salkey (Hurricane), Ann Cameron (The Stories Huey Tells), Alma Flor Ada (The Golden Coin), and Christopher Paul Curtis (Bud, Not Buddy). These are just a few of the most recent titles to come through our wide-open door.

Our Family Favorites

Some of the books that have captured my 8-year-old reader's interest and imagination.

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone

by J.K. Rowling Arthur A. Levine Books/Scholastic Press 1997, $17.95, ISBN 0-590-35340-3

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets

by J.K. Rowling Arthur A. Levine Books/Scholastic Press 1997, $17.95, ISBN 0-439-06486-4

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban

by J.K. Rowling Arthur A. Levine Books/Scholastic Press 1998, $19.95, ISBN 0-439-13635-0

Darnell Rock Reporting

by Walter Dean Myers A Yearling Book, 1994, $4.50, ISBN 0-440-41157-2


by Andrew Salkey Puffin Books, 1974, $5.99, ISBN 0-14-030963-2

The Stories Huey Tells

by Ann Cameron A Borzoi Book/Knopf, 1995, $20.00, ISBN 0-679-867732-5

The Golden Coin

by Alma Flor Ada Atheneum, 1991, $16.00, ISBN 0-689-31633-X

Bud, not Buddy

by Christopher Paul Curtis Delacorte Press, 1999, $20.00, ISBN 0-385-32306-9

The Bracelet

by Yoshiko Uchida A PaperStar Book, 1993, $5.95, ISBN 0-698-11390-X

Rosemarie Robotham is an editor at Essence Magazine. She is the author of the novel, Zachary's Wings (Scribner, 1999), co-author of Spirits of the Passage: The Transatlantic Slave Trade in the Seventeenth Century (Simon & Schuster, 1997), and editor of the literary anthology The Bluelight Corner: Black Women Writing on Passion, Sex and Romantic Love (Three Rivers Press, 1999). She also has been anthologized in John Henrik Clarke's Black American Short Stories: One Hundred Years of the Best (Hill & Wang). Ms. Robotham lives in New York City with her husband and two children.
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Title Annotation:Review
Author:Robotham, Rosemarie
Publication:Black Issues Book Review
Date:Jul 1, 2000
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