Some other kid's dad had a Ward Cleever moment last week.
Amazon accidentally delivered the kid's copy of Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince on Friday instead of Saturday as they were supposed to. The box even said Do Not Deliver Before July 16. But the kid's father wouldn't let him open it when he came running in all excited from the mailbox.
The father said it wouldn't be fair to all the kids who wouldn't be getting their copies until midnight and were waiting patiently.
One of those kids waiting until midnight was our 12 year old. He and I went to the Harry Potter party at one of the bookstores in town. This was more my idea than his. He enjoys the books but he would have been content to wait till Christmas to read the new one. In fact, by 11:30 Friday night he was ready to give up his place in line, go home, go to bed, and put the book on his Christmas list in the morning. He'd had a long, busy day of biking and swimming and was exhausted.
Harry Potter is a phenomenon but he's not a requirement. Lots of children who love to read don't love to read Harry Potter and although J.K. Rowling has been credited with getting children to read she had nothing to do with our kids' love of reading. When he was in kindgergarten the 12 year old taught himself to read with our Calvin and Hobbes books and while last year he read the second most books among the other kids in his age group in our library's summer reading program he prefers histories, books about mythology and science, and, sigh, comic books, to novels.
His brother likes mysteries. He likes Harry Potter, but he loves Lemony Snicket's Series of Unfortunate Events and if there's a midnight release of the so far nameless book the twelfth in October he'll be the first in line.
After Lemony Snicket his next favorite author is Roald Dahl, with Matilda being his favorite of Dahl's books.
As it turns out, I think I'm more interested in Harry Potter than they are. I'm not surprised or disappointed that they're not wild about Harry, though. When I was their age I didn't care much for fantasies. I prefered books about knights, realistic books about knights, not sword and sorcery books with knights in them. I liked histories and biographies and the Hardy Boys, of course. In junior high when I began picking up "grown-up" novels I loved Mark Twain and Jules Verne and---I'm not boasting---William Shakespeare. I also enjoyed spy novels and Agatha Christie mysteries, but no other detective stories except Sherlock Holmes. If something like Harry Potter had come out when I was a kid I'd probably have ignored it or even hated it on principle---the principle being that too many girls liked it. Harry Potter is very popular among girls, so popular that I've been wondering if in fact girls are really Rowling's main audience. There seemed to be an equal number of boys and girls under 12 at the Harry Potter party Friday night, but all of the older kids were girls, including three college students in line just ahead of us---Harry Potter has been around long enough now that many of his first fans have graduated from high school.
My niece, Violet Mannion, who has become a regular commenter on the page, can speak to this. She is an enthusiastic Potter fan and I'm hoping she'll give us her review of the Half Blood Prince, which I suspect she's read through at least twice by now.
According to the Boston Globe, it's a much darker book than the ones that have come before, which, considering what happened in the Order of the Phoenix, makes me think JK Rowling is following even more closely in the footsteps of her major influence and only rival in the small club of authors who have become phenomenons, Charles Dickens.
Michael Berube, who at last report was a hundred and twenty pages into the Half Blood Prince, has had his mind boggle at the thought of how much pressure Rowling is under whenever she sits down to start a new book. In his post the other day he was musing on this and wondering what other writers had to meet the expectations that Rowling has had to.
I can't think of anyone else except Dickens. In the United States huge crowds used to gather at the docks when the news got out that the ship brining the latest installment of one of his novels was coming into port.
The legend is that in Boston the crowds learned that Little Nell had died when the captain of the ship bringing in the last chapters of The Old Curiosity Shop appeared on deck with tears streaming down his cheeks.
At any rate, the point of this post hasn't been to take anything away from Rowling or Harry Potter, even though I think the effect she's said to have had on children's reading is greatly exaggerated. I think her reputation on this score has benefited from timing---the Potter books hit the bookstores at about the time the bookstores had all turned into Barnes and Nobles and Borders.
Lovers of independent bookstores who loathe and despise the rise of the mega-stores should remember that in most of America before the mid 1990s the only bookstore in town would be a Waldenbooks stacked high with the latest Garfields and Tom Clancy, with the literature section tucked into an uncomfortable and badly lighted corner of the store where the only thing to sit on was the stack of remaindered coffee table books the clerks hadn't gotten around to shelving yet.
I think Rowling and the mega-stores have had a symbiotic relationship. Lemony Snicket too. But I don't think either Rowling or Snicket, or Philip Pullman or Garth Nix, have created a generation of readers who would not have come into being without them.
All of them should be credited with improving kids' reading skills and tastes. A hundred years ago children learned to read by reading Charles Dickens and the Brontes and Louisa May Alcott and Robert Louis Stevenson and Edgar Allan Poe. Adults marvel at the idea of children reading 652 page novels. (On our way home from the Potter Party at 1 in the morning, the 12 year old told me he thought it would take him a few days to read the Half Blood Prince. He said it deliberatively, as if he saw a big job ahead and was planning the most efficient method for tackling it.) But long ago nobody thought anything of it. Children didn't read picture books because there weren't picture books.
Illustrations are another thing and I wish it was an art form that would be brought back.
The great good thing Rowling and her contemporaries have done, I think, is help create a community of young readers.
There have always been children who love to read, but they tended to do it all on their lonesomes, holed up in their rooms, and the joy they found in their books was a private joy.
But Harry Potter has opened the bedroom doors as wonderfully as he opened the Chamber of Secrets. All these young readers now talk to each other. They trade books, they get online and post in forums and on webpages, they build friendships around their mutual love of books, and they read more and they read faster. Reading isn't an escape from their lives and other kids. It's a part of their lives and a connection with other kids.
Intellectuals have always posited that the world would be a better place, full of smarter, more moral people if the love of books became universal. The argument against this idea has been that the readingest group of people on earth, college professors, are among the most miserable, both in their own feelings and in their characters.
But looking around at the Harry Potter party the other night all I saw were a lot of bright, articulate, polite, cheerful, and nice young men and women.
A store full of Harrys, Rons, and Hermiones, with not a Malfoy, Goyle, or Crabbe in sight.
So maybe there's something to it after all.