Believe it or not, I’m actually surprised at the lack of Harry Potter stories in the news lately.
When the last book in the series was released, I remember the news media hyping the book and its fans and the anticipation for at least a week in advance. This time it looks like they actually waited till the day before the book’s release. Well, in the US, anyway. It might have gotten more hype in Britain, what with the country’s Harry Potter-centric economy.
But here’s a point for us all to muse over: why the hell are these books so popular? Publishers have never seen anything like it. They are only slightly less popular than the Bible. Young kids who hate reading devour these books and then return to watching bad teen dating shows on MTV.
I do enjoy the books and have read them many times, but I have a deeper emotional connection to them than most folks. They were one of the only things that both my mom and I enjoyed (things = movies, TV shows, music, food, books, etc.); she got me into them. And I think because it was a rare connection between us, we both magnified our enjoyment of them a bit. For my mom, who was spending half her days in chemotherapy and the other half recovering, I’m sure the idea that someone was going to arrive at the door with a broomstick or flying car to whisk her away to a realm of magic had great appeal. And since she died, I’ve found some comfort in re-reading these books, like when I read the words I get to hold a piece of her for a little while. Well, that’s not exactly it, but I think you can see how that makes the books important to me.
At their core, the books are really a series of expanded Scooby Doo mysteries, where the young wizard detectives take a whole school year to discover that the scary swamp monster is actually Old Man Higgins, who would’ve gotten away with it, if it weren’t for those meddling kids, and that house elf (although Old Man Higgins wouldn’t be running around in a monster costume; in these books, Old Man Higgins would probably be a real swamp monster).
The writing is pretty good, the mysteries actually work pretty well (no cheap shots), there’s whimsy and there’s darkness, the typical coming-of-age “the adults treat the children like children, but the kids can really handle it” feel, and lasting themes highlighting class, race and sweatshop labor.
But still, nothing is so out of the ordinary about these books to justify their international phenomenon. I did read an essay which argued that the book’s popularity dealt with a British need to redefine their national identity to themselves, which made sense when I read it, but that fails to explain why kids in Kansas City and Munich and Beijing like them too.
So there’s a little sociological discussion question for the weekend. Not “why do kids like Harry Potter?”, but why does Harry Potter appeal so strongly to so many kids? Is there something there, or is it just a case of miraculous marketing?
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