Standing on the balcony of the Second Story Café at Davis-Kidd late last Friday night, looking down on what store managers later estimated to be about 350 children, and watching as hundreds of hands shot into the air to answer detailed trivia questions based on details in British author J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, I was struck by a thought I’ve never had before in my life: The republic is saved.
OK, maybe that’s an over-the-top reaction. This was only a party, after all, a massive marketing ploy designed to sell books to a bunch of kids. Not exactly the stuff of Liberty.
It’s true that the party at Davis-Kiddlike gatherings at virtually every store in town that sells booksmarked the midnight release of the long-awaited fourth installment of Rowling’s series about a young wizard’s coming of age in a magical but dangerous world that has already destroyed his parents. And it’s true that the book’s publication was a major publishing event all over the countryAmazon.com kept its supply under the protection of armed guards until the books were shippedbut there wasn’t expected to be a shortage, no deliberate withholdings to stoke demand. So if the event at Davis-Kidd was just a party, why didn’t all those parents sensibly wait until Saturday morning and buy their books at a reasonable hour?
Because this wasn’t a ballgame or a movie release or a new Nintendo game, which we expect to generate long lines and out-of-proportion exuberance: This was a party for a book, of all things, and as such it was as much a celebration of Books as it was a celebration of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. Who would ever, ever have thought that the VidKidsthis generation of the World Wide Web, the Playstation, the videodisc, the GameBoy, and personal-sized satellite discswould turn in droves to the pleasures of a book? We should all throw a party.
Betsy Triggs, a Nashville pediatrician who went to the Davis-Kidd party with her mother, her sister, her son, her niece, and two of her nephews, says, “For us it was much more about making a memory than buying a book; in 20 years we can say, ‘Remember that night we stayed up till midnight, waiting for the Harry Potter book to come out?’ We came back the next day to actually buy the book.”
One group of middle-school girls who’d come together as part of a sleepoverShelley Williams, Hannah Klein, and Amy Teng, all rising seventh-graders at Meigs Magnet; and Kelly Jemison, a rising sixth-grader at St. Bernard Academywere determined not to leave the store without a copy. When I asked, skeptically, “You’re at a slumber party; are all of you actually going to start reading this book tonight?” they shouted, instantly and simultaneously, “YES!!!!”
Ann Neely, a Peabody professor of children’s literature, also struck up some conversations with kids as they waited in line. “For many of them, the magic of staying up past midnight was a little bit of the excitement,” she says, “but it was more than that too; I had the sense that they were waiting up for these ‘friends’ to arrive that they hadn’t seen in a while and being so excited when they finally got in.”
These are friends parents can’t help but love. Wendy and Buz Martin arrived at Davis-Kidd in black tie, having left a formal dinner to get their youngest child Alex, 9 (who arrived in gray bunny slippers), to the party in time. They’re big Potter fans, partly because they love the books themselves, and partly because Harry Potter has made Alex love books. “We started reading the first book as a family, but by the second book Alex was reading ahead, taking it on his own,” Wendy Martin says. “It’s the first thing he’s really sought to read avidly.”
Alex isn’t alone; the numbers for these books are unprecedented in children’s publishing. The first three Potter books have sold 30 million copies in 31 languages. The new book had an initial printing of 5.3 million copiesmore than any first printing in history, and more than the previous Potter title sold in a whole year; an additional 2 million copies will be printed within the month. As for sales, last weekend Barnes & Noble alone sold more than 860,000 copies through its stores and Web site114,000 in the very first hour of release. (As a point of reference, it’s worth pointing out that in less than two years’ time, Joanne Rowling has already sold more than half the number of books that John Grishamthe best-selling author of the 1990shas sold in his entire career, and to a demographic that traditionally buys far fewer books.)
So a lot of kids and their parents like these books; great. But apart from making a bunch of money for a few peoplenotably Rowling herself, the one-time welfare mom whose worth had reached an estimated $22 million even before Goblet of Fire came outwhat’s the big deal?
Actually, there are several big deals: First, Harry-besotted kids are reading other books too. While waiting for Goblet of Fire to arrive, bookstores and libraries began to circulate “If you loved Harry Potter, try these” lists. And kids are buying: Last year paperback sales of children’s books grew nearly 24 percent; hardcover sales grew more than 11 percent. That’s compared to 3-percent growth in paperback sales and 2.6-percent growth in hardcover sales of adult titles.
Which means that more children are reading more books, or at least that adults are buying more books for kids. So many more, they’re turning adult publishing inside out in the process: The New York Times will add a children’s bestseller list to its Book Review on July 23, the result of Rowling’s unprecedented appearancewith the first three Harry booksin all three of the top slots of the hardcover bestseller list last year. The new children’s list will mean that conventional adult books won’t have to compete with Rowling again. Already, according to Mary Grey James, senior product manager for children’s books at Nashville-based Ingram Book Company, publishers have delayed bringing out adult books to avoid having to compete with Goblet of Fire. “Even big-name authors like Patricia Cornwell have been pushed back to September and October to give them a shot at the bestseller list,” she says.
It’s only fair to point out that disgruntled adult authors aren’t the only ones grumbling about the unstoppable Potter juggernaut. According to the American Library Association, the Harry Potter books were the most challenged books of 1999. (A “challenge” is a formal attempt to remove a book from a library or school curriculum, or to restrict its access by children.) Kimbra Wilder Gish, a Nashville librarian whose article “Hunting Down Harry Potter: An Exploration of Religious Concerns About Children’s Literature” appeared in the May/June 2000 issue of the national library trade journal, The Horn Book, explains why: The Bible, says Gish, forbids the practice of witchcraft. And the trouble with Harry is that he makes the practice of witchcraft look like great fun, which is a serious problem for conservative Christians. Even worse, the extraordinary detail of the books makes witchcraft seem completely convincing, not an “imagined” world at all. Christian parents, Gish says, “are rightfully concerned” that impressionable children may begin to see occult practices as less dangerous than they really are.
Parents who share Gish’s faith tradition are doing more than simply complaining to the local library. They’re also complaining to their children’s teachers, and in some quarters Harry Potter is off limits in the local schools. Connie Crowell, who teaches second grade at Julia Green Elementary, says she’s learned the hard way the dangers of anything even remotely smacking of the occult. “At another school I once had a parent take me to task at Parents’ Night for reading Sylvester and the Magic Pebble. So the only way I would read [the Potter books] to my class is to send a letter home asking if any parents objected,” Crowell says. “I personally enjoyed the first book and loved the imagination of it and the lessons about good and evil. But I don’t want to be splashed over the front page of the newspaper saying that I’m teaching children that witchcraft is a good thing.”
But it’s those very lessons about good and evil that inspire many parents to admire the Potter series as teaching materials for the hard questions of real life. “I’d argue that these are very moral books,” says Kim Maphis Early, a parent and an ordained Presbyterian minister currently working as a consultant in theological education in Nashville. “They deal with children who have to make choices about themselves, about who they want to be and how they’re going to respond to evil and loss and tragedy in the world. And to my mind, [the children] are making good choices.”
I confess I didn’t give a lot of thought at first to questions about the moral or spiritual legitimacy of Rowling’s imagined world. I just loved the books themselves, and loved that my son loves them. But when it started to dawn on me that he was far from the only child who loves Harry and Ron and Hermione, that there were literally millions and millions of children who love these books too, the moral and spiritual implications began to seem huge.
What interests me most is that so many children are reading them and talking about them and relating to the characters in them. At Davis-Kidd last Friday night, the group of slumber-party girls I talked with included two white kids, an African American, and an Asian American; three of the four girls went to public school, the other went to a private academy. But despite the differentand, if they were adults, potentially divisiveconstituencies they belong to, every one of them loves Harry Potter. One girl told me her favorite character is Hermione because, “I don’t want to brag or anything, but I’m really smart.” Another one said her favorite character is Harry’s best friend Ron, because, she said, “I’m just like him; I can get an attitude really quick.”
Regardless of their race or their nationality or their gender, kids all over the country, all over the world, are saying the same thing: “I’m just like Harry,” or “I’m just like Ron” or “I’m just like Hermione.” The fact that the characters in these books are witches and wizards who go to a boarding school in Scotland where ghosts play tricks on them, where homework consists of trying to turn a mouse into a teapot, and where teachers transform into werewolves, does not seem to deter these children. “I’m just like Ron,” they insist. And so they are.
So are we all, in fact, like people who do not, on the surface, appear to be very much like us. Adult books of our generation often don’t want to acknowledge that fact, but real literatureall art, in facthas been insisting on that understanding of human nature since it first began: We belong to the same amazing species, and we’re more like each other than we’re like anything else in this huge and overwhelming world. In our current prosaic era of identity politics, in this generation’s stingy interpretation of the capacities of the human heart, too many adult writers insist that only those who have shared their particular trials can ever begin to understand their particular pain. But kids know better.
“I’m just like Ron,” a Nashville girl stubbornly insists about a British boy who isn’t even, strictly speaking, human. She’s the real reason I believe our republic is in good hands. Surely the first step in taking care of each other, in defending each other’s rights and insisting on each other’s responsibilities, is to understand how other people feel. To me, the real magic in the Harry Potter books is that they’re teaching an entire generation of kids the power of empathy. They’re teaching children and adults alike that people have a lot in common after all.