The Potter Effect for a Potter Generation

Commenting on the Potter Effect in my last post, I suggested that it’s more than just a trend towards longer and longer books for children and young adults. It’s as much about how a generation of kids has learned to read.
The last few years have seen a more wide-spread conversation about the Potter Effect. Both ScientificAmerican and Psychology Todayhave published stories on how reading Harry potter will make you more empathetic and less prejudice. And these aren’t just opinion pieces. Recent studies on kids who read the Harry Potter books have brought scholars to similar conclusions, such as the authors of “The Greatest magic of Harry Potter: Reducing Prejudice.”
The Harry Potter generation—and there is debate over what constitutes such a generation—have a particular approach to reading books. And before you get offended, defining a Potter generation is about a demographic; it’s not about fandom. Being born outside the generation doesn’t make you less of a fan.
I’m not alone in counting the Potter generation as those born between 1985 and 1990—those young people who were old enough to read the series as it was published. These are young people, my own kids included, who had the chance to experience the series as it unfolded. We can extend the dates to those born up to and including 1995, but these kids would be coming to the Harry Potter books late in the publication of the series.
The Potter generation has a particular way of reading fantasy, and even film. The series has empowered a generation of readers, but in such a way as to often place it at the centre of their personal reading canon. Such readers will begin with, move out from, and return to Harry Potter.
I’m not finding fault, and perhaps it’s no different than what I did as a teenager with Tolkien and Lord of the Rings. However, I teach children’s literature every year, and I see how students use the Harry Potterbooks as a reference point for other texts. For example, if a student comes to Tolkien’s The Hobbit for the first time, she might comment that the book doesn’t use magic the way the Harry Potter books do. That may be true, but Rowling couldn’t have written Harry Potter without having read Tolkien, Lewis, Le Guin, MacDonald, Nesbit, or half a hundred others.
My point is that I teach texts in context, both historically and culturally. Many of my students read relationally, which means they understand books in relation to other books, but they are often unaware of the gaps in their own reading experience.
Again, I’m not finding fault; I’m just trying to learn how to teach people who, I think, read differently from me. And maybe their way is better. Last fall, I put Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets early in the term—my way of getting my students to begin with something familiar in order to incorporate those books into their canon that were less familiar. It seemed to make a difference, but I’ll have to try it several more times to be sure. Whatever its effect, recognizing the impact of the Harry Potter books on a generation has helped me to become, I hope, a better teacher, and to align myself more closely with those students who come through my classes every year.

The Potter Effect and the School for Wizards

You may have noticed the buzz in the last week on the Internet about the Potter Effect. I have my own take on this phenomenon. According to The Booklist Reader, the Potter Effect refers to the trend towards longer and longer books for children and young adults. No harm in that. However, the Potter Effect is more far reaching than simply kid’s reading and demanding longer books.
This effect has to do with the way Rowling’s series has shaped the literary experience of a generation. I’ve said it before—Rowling is responsible for encouraging more people to read than any author in the last two centuries—save maybe Charles Dickens. This, too, is part of the Potter Effect. And now that we have a generation of people who have grown up with the series, we are seeing the Potter Effect playing out in other interesting ways.
Here’s an example. My children’s literature students are often surprised to discover that J. K. is not the only, and certainly not the first to include a school for wizards as part of her story. The claim I’ve heard regarding the originality of the Harry Potter books because of its use of a school for wizards is unfounded. Don’t get me wrong. I love Hogwarts, too. It simply wasn’t the first literary school for wizards. Here are my favourites.
1.      HarryPotter, J. K. Rowling
I don’t need to say much more. However, I will say that Rowling does a masterful job of introducing Hogwarts for the first time in Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. Harry’s journey by train, his arrival in Hogsmeade, and his trip by boat across the lake in the dark to the school plays on every child’s sense of excitement and apprehension around starting school.
2.      TheMagicians, Lev Grossman
I’ve written recently on Lev Grossman’s series. While more adult than young adult, this series is worth every page. Brakebills College is also a fresh look at the trope of the school for wizards. Highly recommended.
3.      PercyJackson and the Olympians, rick riordan
While technically not a school for wizards, Camp Half-Blood is a summer camp for demigods in training. I’ve always thought of Percy Jackson as Rick riordan’s response to Harry Potter. Did you know that both characters have black hair and green eyes? Check out the series. Again, highly recommended.
4.      The EarthseaCycle, Ursula K. Le Guin
For me, this is the original. I read A Wizard of Earthsea at age eleven, and I had never read anything like it before. The school on Roke Island is a place of magic and learning, its only drawback being it’s a school for wizards, not witches. In other words, this is a school for boys. Still, highly recommended.
A fantasy series with a school is a relatively common trope. The school story in children’s and young adult literature has a long history, going back to Thomas Hughes’ Tom Brown’s School Days. If you want a list of books or series that use a school for wizards, check it out on Goodreads.