20 years with Harry Potter
Chancellor's Professor of English Jonathan Alexander discusses the prolific series and its impact on young-adult literacyHarry Potter celebrates 20 years on June 26th and that seems like a long time for a young-adult fiction franchise to be successful. What do you think it is about Harry Potter that has made it so prolific?
That's a great but difficult question! If we knew the answer, we could possibly anticipate the next significant trends in storytelling for young people. As is, many writers and publishers have at least tried to hop on the Harry Potter bandwagon with their copycat narratives about kids and magic (think, for instance, about Lev Grossman's highly successful The Magicians series, about another school for magic.)
But I think the particular appeal of Harry Potter for a whole generation of readers is that they could follow the adventures of the kids as they, as readers, grew up. Harry, Hermione, and the others age along with readers, creating a powerful and durable connection we hadn't seen before in children's and young-adult (“YA”) literature, at least not since L. M. Montgomery's Anne of Green Gables a century ago.
What does the success of Harry Potter teach us about young-adult literacy?
The success of Harry Potter reminds us that many kids enjoy reading, and that they will bond with characters and engage in ludic reading -- or reading for sheer pleasure -- if they connect with characters, stories, and situations. They'll also try writing their own stories and, increasingly, making multimedia content about their favorite characters and environments. The amount of fan fiction and video fandom that draws on the Harry Potter universe is staggering, and speaks powerfully to the ways in which rich reading experiences can spark creativity and storytelling ingenuity. My colleague in the UCI Department of Informatics, Rebecca Black, and I just wrote up an initial study about autistic or neuro-diverse characters in Harry Potter fan fiction. Kids are using Harry Potter characters to explore issues that are important to them in their own writing and media making. In some cases, kids create their own small movies, mimicking or even extending the storylines of favorite characters, and sometimes even creating their own characters to inhabit the Harry Potter universe.
Harry Potter is relatively unique in that its author is actively engaged on social media, and the series' companion site, Pottermore, creates an additional space for readers' "extra-textual" engagement. Does this tell us anything about how young readers like to engage with texts today, or do you think this phenomenon is unique to HP?
Curiously, the copyright holders of Harry Potter tried to squash such "extra-textual" engagement, such as fan-fiction writing, but they quickly learned that sending cease-and-desist letters to children is bad for business -- and, moreover, that actually encouraging such engagement would very likely lead to additional brand loyalty, with consumers of these stories, books, movies, videos, and games eagerly awaiting and purchasing the next Harry Potter item. More importantly, I think, as media scholar Henry Jenkins argues, the Harry Potter characters have become part of a whole generation's "mythology," and being able to write and make media about those characters and their universe allows young people the chance to use the stories to ponder important questions, such as the nature of good and evil, being an "outsider," and developing your own special "magic" or talents to transform the world into a better, safer place.
JK Rowling has been criticized for integrating diversity into her stories after they have been published. Any thoughts on this?
I think that Rowling was smartly adapting her narrative to changing social, cultural, and even political circumstances. The striking case, of course, is making Dumbledore gay, which is not something evident in the novels. But that was also a move that would've been very difficult to pull off in 1997. By 2017, with marriage equality and other civil rights expansions for LGBT folks, making Dumbledore gay allows him to keep up with shifting attitudes, keeping the characters and stories fresh. It also prompts fan fiction and media-making that can explore characters' backstories and future developments as new information about they is "revealed" as "canonical."
I have to ask--do you associate with a house? If so, which one and why?
Oh, I'm going to have to say Slytherin. I look best in black.
Jonathan Alexander, Chancellor's Professor of English at UCI, studies young adult ("YA") fiction and how young people develop and understand their literacy practices for an increasingly multi-mediated and multi-modal world. He often lectures on YA fiction, contemporary literacy, and the connections between them, including how young people are taking the initiative to become their own content-creators, producing a range of texts and media speaking to other youth about their lives, issues, and concerns. Alexander is a three-time recipient of the Ellen Nold Award for Best Articles in the field of Computers and Composition Studies and is the author of multiple books on literacy, including Writing Youth: Young Adult Fiction as Literacy Sponsorship (Lexington Books, 2016) and On Multimodality: New Media in Composition Studies (National Council of Teachers of English, 2014). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org