J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince
sold more copies in its first twenty-four hours on bookstore shelves than Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code
sold in an entire year. The Harry Potter series
has been credited with instigating an international reading
frenzy, especially within though not limited to the world’s technology-fluent youth. But unlike The Da Vinci Code
, numerous critics and readers recognize the series as compelling, character-driven literature. Rowling
’s literary creation has furthered "development of human beings and society as a whole through the cultivation and enrichment of the human mind and spirit,” thus personally achieving the University of Southern California
mission statement, and warranting serious consideration for the USC Honorary Degree.
This is not to argue that Rowling determined to specifically address or cultivate young readers. Instead, through her devotion to writing quality literature that explores nature of courage, friendship, love, and life choices, Rowling captures and enriches an audience usually dominated by multimedia with the power of her words.
In 2005, the National Center for Educational Statistics released a report stating that the amount of 17-year olds who reported never or hardly ever reading for fun rose from 9 percent in 1984 to 19 percent in 2004 and the percentage of 17-year-olds who read daily dropped from 31 to 22.
Though new technologies (Ipods, youTube, MySpace
, online games, and TiVo) have some benefits, their abundance and complex nature emphasizes the simplicity of typed words on a page. The number of individuals who browse bookstores or libraries for a new novel to read before they sleep at night has decreased with the development of these new sources of entertainment. In 1998, Scholastic bought Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone
from Rowling for a six-figure amount, unprecedented for a children’s book. Harry Potter quickly became a pop culture symbol throughout many countries. The first five Harry Potter books sold 270 million copies in 62 languages and 200 territories, and more than 103 million copies in the United States alone.
Many teachers have credited Rowling's series with encouraging students to read, broadening their vocabulary and literary skills, and even turning young readers onto other books. A Wall Street Journal
article, "Hip Hip for Harry," writes that a recent British survey of educators and students found that 84% of teachers felt that Harry had helped improve child literacy, while two-thirds claimed that the series had turned non-readers into readers. US News and World Report
explores these claims further, in “The Power of Harry Potter: Can the teenage wizard turn a generation of halfhearted readers into lifelong bookworms?” Writer Vicky Hallett opens her article with the story of a young dyslexic teenager who asserts that the series activated his passion for reading. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone
was the first "real book” that he ever read. The article also states that 59% of students think that the books have improved their reading skills and 48% say the books are why they read more. Hallett includes stories about
student-organized Harry Potter clubs, raised English grades, and class field trips to obtain the sixth book because the school’s low-income neighborhood had no bookstore nearby. She also describes a study by Professor Diane Barone who explored the Harry Potter books as a literary status symbol. She followed 16 low-income kids from kindergarten to sixth grade, concluding "in second or third grade, they all started carrying around the books even though they couldn’t read them...by fifth and sixth grade, they’d all read them. It was a status thing. They wanted to be part of the club." The article describes an instance at a low-income elementary school where a principal brought the book for a student, who finished it, and then circulated it around the whole fifth grade.
At Linda Verde Elementary School in Lancaster, California, a fifth grade teacher plays a similar role with her own students. Pamela Zietlow says that her school’s library does not yet have the most recent, sixth book in the series. Last summer, after both she and her daughter read a purchased copy, Zietlow took it to school for her students. Each year, she introduces new fifth graders to the series, as many of them cannot afford to buy the books on their own. Zietlow holds copies of each novel in her classroom library. For several weeks, she had been missing the sixth book, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince
. Most children in her class are still catching up on the fourth and fifth in the series. Finally, a former student brought in The Half Blood Prince
, apologizing profusely for keeping it so long. Zietlow’s current students eyed the book hungrily, and started reading even more to finish their current novel so that they could begin the most recent of Rowling’s works.
Once her students finish reading the books that Rowling has published so far, they ask Mrs. Zietlow for more books that they might also like. She recommends The Chronicles of Narnia, Islands of the Blue Dolphins
, Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events, The Cay
, and many new science fiction/fantasy novels. Although the Harry Potter series may have instigated the students’ passion, once they start reading, they don’t stop. Zietlow is a regular at Lancaster’s Barnes and Nobles, often buying new books for students that have done well on their literary comprehension tests. The statistics mentioned by both the Hallett and Wall Street Journal
articles are exemplified daily in her classroom when during reading time, students silence and open their books, eager to enter a new world for the hour.
Rowling has met the demands of such claims with kindness and professional determination. While many might simply ride the popularity of the series to the end, without taking the remaining books as seriously as the first that brought her fame and wealth, each of Rowling’s books receive more critical acclaim
than the last. Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince
received accolades from numerous critics. Publishers Weekly
wrote that “[Rowling] accomplishes a great deal in [the] book, pulling together threads from all the previous books and expertly poising readers for the planned finale.” The Chicago Sun Times
said, "Rowling's latest has lost none of the charm, intelligence and hilarity that have catapulted her series into publishing history. But this book also has a poignancy, complexity and sadness. There's an emotional punch you won't believe." The New York Times Book Review
writes that "to read Rowling's novels as an adult is to sink into a half-remembered state of childhood rapture, the trance produced when you gobbled up fantasies for the first time." Yet not all individuals praise the Harry Potter series.
As Harry Potter’s popularity has expanded, Rowling has simultaneously become one of the most banned authors in the world. Strict religious groups, specifically Christian sects in the United States, insist that the novels promote the occult and Satanism because of their magical elements. On her website
, Rowling addresses this saying, "once again, the Harry Potter books feature on this year’s list of most-banned books. As this puts me in the company of Harper Lee, Mark Twain, J.D. Salinger,
William Golding, John Steinbeck, and every other writer I revere, I have always taken my annual inclusion on the list as a great honour." Rowling then cites Ralph Waldo Emerson as stating, "every burned book enlightens the world." Similarly, the censorship attempts on Rowling’s novels only establish the books’ popularity and the literary power. Rowling (and other critics) refutes that there are Satanistic aspects in the series, especially as the books function on the simple premise of good verses evil, and their magical aspects exist as part of the fantasy world Rowling has created, and not as attempts to recruit children to Wicca or the Occult.
Those selecting the USC Honorary Degree might not directly assault Rowling as a poor choice because of the claims that she promotes witchcraft. Particularly because USC resides in a diverse location at the heart of Los Angeles, some might not expect this controversy to even arise, as it stems from conservative values. However, USC's choice for honorary degree must represent and honor the university's many graduating students, some of whom may object to Rowling's writing. Despite this controversy though, one would hope that USC evaluates both the compelling and poignant content of the novels, and acknowledge how her work has transformed America's reading habits.
Rowling also exerts much energy on the behalf of her devoted fans. Her interactive and visually compelling website
includes an area devoted to the numerous fan sites that report about all things Potter such as The Leaky Cauldron
. She also answers frequently asked questions about her life and the books, debunking numerous rumors circulating about plot secrets. Her website includes links to several charity organizations that she works closely with, including One Parent Families
, the MS Society of Scotland
, and Children's Voice Campaign
. In her article about fan culture, Mary Kooy describes Rowling’s reading at the Toronto Skydome, which drew 20,000 Harry Potter readers. It set a record in the Guinness Book of World Records
for the live reading of a novel (Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire)
. Kooy says that "when [Rowling] finished, the lights came up to reveal the entire audience on its feet cheering again...[She] bid them farewell and urged them to 'read, read, read.'" According to Kooy, Rowling herself suggested moving the reading to a larger venue so that fans would not get turned away. Kooy’s article also cites instances in which entire classrooms received free tickets to the event.
Rowling, like the institution of USC
, serves a global community, and "help[s] [students] to acquire wisdom and insight, love of truth and beauty, moral discernment, understanding of self, and re-spect and appreciation for others" through not only her writing, but also her philanthropic work. Rowling does not function within her profession with moral caring motives
(in other words, she serves her creative aspirations and not her reading 'clients' first), but with integrity motives
: a "[desire] to meet ethical standards governing a
profession and in other ways to seek moral aims by working as a professional" (Martin
14). Though Rowling created Harry Potter because of the prompting of her imagination and not to alter a generation’s reading habits, she is also aware of the power of her writing. On her website
Rowling demonstrates care and understanding for her audience and offers a great deal of connection for them to experience (through frankness about her work and creative process, as well as with interactive, and sometimes hidden, elements that may delight Harry Potter fans). Rowling's philanthropic work insinuates that she comprehends her role to the younger generation, and that she fulfills this role by putting her energy and resources towards serving that population (for example, fighting to protect children’s rights).
It would be petty to simply compare Rowling’s style to another writer’s to prove its worth, as an author’s work equates different things to various readers. Yet her writing has clearly developed an intensely important meaning for millions. While all ages appreciate Rowling’s novels, the Harry Potter series has proven invaluable to the younger population, stimulating their literary passion. Choosing Rowling for a USC honorary degree
would not argue that she is the world’s greatest author, but instead that she has surpassed others by first drawing so many to her own works, and then turning her readers towards books by other authors and thus inserting literature as an essential process in the everyday lives of many. The Harry Potter reading frenzy should not be celebrated merely because Rowling has large numbers reading her own literature, but also because she has helped readers realize a passion for the idea of books, and indirectly increased the reading audience for many other writers.
As a keynote speaker for USC commencement ceremonies, Rowling could impart numerous wisdoms to her audience. Though touched with fame and wealth, she has maintained passion for
the creative process, and seems to indulge in the limelight only when it is particularly beneficial to her fans (i.e. her intricate website and reading at the Skydome). If the awarding of the degree is indeed, as James O. Freedman
writes, "an opportunity to emphasize an institution’s values," (Freedman 1) then Rowling exemplifies many of USC’s goals with her own life. She has personally fulfilled USC's mission, enriching and cultivating "the human mind and spirit,” and has empowered millions to continue that process on their own, through a lifetime of reading. In her novels, a portkey exists as an inanimate object, which upon contact, immediately transfers characters to a completely different place, no matter how distant. Through her artistic creation, Rowling has fashioned a literary portkey that has transported millions of the world's younger generation into the limitless and powerful world of literature.