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.