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Posted at 8:31 AM ET, 11/19/2010

Is 'Harry Potter' young adult literature?

By Ernie Bond

Today's guest blogger is Ernie Bond, chair of the Teacher Education Department at Salisbury University. He is the author of Literature and the Young Adult Reader (Prentice Hall 2010) and co-author of several chapters on Harry Potter.

As a professor of Children's Literature I used to be amazed by how many college students would read Harry Potter and become die-hard fans. This was a children's book after all. The demographic I work with, mainly female pre-service teachers, were rather skeptical of fantasy as a genre when "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone" was first published in the USA. As Harry and his companions grew older and more and more of my students came to college having already read the series or seen the films, students tended to be more receptive to the idea of reading fantasy for pleasure. This is only anecdotal but one could certainly make the argument that this children's series has had a real impact on today's adult readers.

One discussion we often have in class focuses on the question of whether (as the characters and the topics mature) the books in the series ever stop being narratives for children. When do these storylines become primarily for young adults or even adults? The parent who is shocked when she takes her first grader to see this new "children's film" with all of its angst, fear, and the overpublicized nude scene (it is really rather modest) probably has not read the novels. Harry is no longer a child and the issues that he confronts are not necessarily relevant to or appropriate for a 6-year-old.

Personally I would consider the whole series to be for "all ages." True the primary audience matures with each book/film in the series and for some children the latest movie will be too intense, or too reflective, too mature, or too filled with emotions they cannot relate to directly, but many kids will still get caught up in the action and the magic. As for adults, the local midnight showing is sold out and it is not elementary school children who are going. Many teens, college students, and faculty members already have their tickets.

Speculative fiction (fantasy, science fiction, horror...) more than other genres can cross boundaries based on age. These narratives are after all set in imaginative realms and in many ways serve as our new mythologies. Many speculative fiction titles can be found in bookstores in both the children's section and the adult section (and likely the teen section as well). Certainly as many adults as tweens salivate over "Twilight" and "The Hunger Games." In England, the Harry Potter books are marketed in children's as well as adult editions (same text, different covers).

So what makes "The Bluest Eye," which is about a child, an adult book? What makes "The Chocolate War," which was written with an adult audience in mind, a classic for teens? Why does "The Book Thief," originally published as an adult book in Australia, receive the Printz Award for Young Adult Literature in the USA? Marketing and the author's intent come into play but ultimately it is about audience, and in the case of "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows," if the book and film appeal to people of all ages then we may have to settle for the idea that a good story cannot be confined by Muggle expectations.

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By Ernie Bond  | November 19, 2010; 8:31 AM ET
Categories:  Pedagogy  | Tags:  Harry Potter as children's literature, Harry Potter in teacher education, teaching Harry Potter  
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I read the first Harry Potter book as an adult (mid-30s) after hearing about it from the children in the neighborhood. "This is the best book! You have to read it!" they told me. So I read it and agreed that it was a good book. When I have heard about parents reading these books to their very young (e.g., kindergarten) children, I want to say, "It's okay to just read it to yourself," because I figure they just want an excuse to read it for themselves!

Posted by: janedoe5 | November 19, 2010 12:27 PM | Report abuse

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