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The New York Public Library

The New York Public Library

Posted: August 6, 2010 11:54 AM

Harry Potter: The Boy Who Lives On

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Harry Potter has accomplished plenty since his 11th birthday on July 31, 1980.

He defeated Lord Voldemort. He got hitched and had a few kids. He became a respected auror. And, of course, he rose from the cupboard under the stairs to become one of the most skilled wizards in history.

But the birthday boy's biggest bit of magic arguably has nothing to do with wands or Patronuses or Hogwarts or Quidditch.

It has to do with muggles.

Harry Potter -- who just celebrated his birthday last week -- has left an impact on non-magic kids that is "still growing," according to Julia Chang, supervising librarian for children's programs at the New York Public Library.

The books are still "very hot" -- in Fiscal Year 2010, author JK Rowling's books were circulated 81,070 times, five times more than the 14,814 circulations the popular "Chronicles of Narnia" series had -- and have created an army of new readers interested in science, magic and history.

"Harry Potter just spreads reading," she said. "We see kids asking for history books or, even more so, science books. Anything to do with potions or things the fizz. Kids love it. I think that's a Harry thing. And, of course, we see kids interested in fantasy and magic books... This series has brought in new readers. Now they're reading other things, which is great."

Chang said NYPL has added many free science programs, which are "extremely popular."

"You don't think of that connection, but it's definitely there," she said.

Sue Yee, children's librarian at the Chatham Square branch, said she and a colleague created a program last year called, "Snape's Lab" which had "all sorts of chemical potions."

"I thought we'd get 10 kids," she said. "We got 25. We said, 'Oh God, where are we going to put them.' The kids just really like that part. The chemistry."

That is especially important in New York City, where schools have long worked to try to improve science testing. The New York City Department of Education announced plans in 2007 to spend millions on a new science curriculum because, as Chancellor Joel Klein said then, "Far too many of our kids are not doing well in science. That's going to have to change."

Chang said, "JK Rowling is just so amazing. To get kids excited about science can only lead to good things in all other realms, including school. So the books also have educational value."

There is also a big interest in history and mythology, which helps contribute to the popularity of the newer Percy Jackson and the Olympians series by Rick Riordan.

Yee said she routinely hears the same request from kids -- "I want something like Harry Potter" -- but said,

"There really isn't anything else. The Percy Jackson books are the closest, so those are quite popular. They deal with Greek mythology and the kids like that. The Warrior Cats are also popular. We tried to pawn a few other books off on them, but they didn't all take."

She added, "They just want magic, or kids finding out that they're magic. So they're really looking for new books to read, and that's exactly what we all want."

One thing kids are no longer afraid of are long books -- the longest Potter book, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix is 870 pages.

"Kids ask for books, and I'll say, 'You know, that one's kind of long,' and they'll respond, 'Oh, that's OK, I read all the Harry Potter books.' So kids are not afraid or intimidated by longer books, which is good."

She also said the books bring people together and create a love of reading that is contagious. "When classes come in, when one reads the book, they all want the book," she said.

And that love of reading also crosses language and generational boundaries.

NYPL offers 6,978 copies of Rowling's books (both the series and the smaller, supporting Potter books), including 6,148 in English. The remaining books are in Arabic, Chinese, French, German, Greek, Hebrew, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Polish, Portuguese, Russian, Spanish, Urdu and Vietnamese.

"I remember one time when a kid came over and he told me he wanted Harry Potter but he wanted it in Chinese," Yee said. "He's come before and he only reads stuff in English, so I asked him why he wanted it in Chinese. He said, 'Yeah, my grandma wants it. She saw me reading it and now she's reading it.' He was 11, so I don't think he was thrilled to be reading the same thing as his grandma, but I thought it was really nice."

Chang said the Harry Potter movies are now flying off the shelves, and there's a spike in book circulation every time one of the movies comes out.

But the question is -- how long will it all last, and when will the next big phenomenon hit?

"Harry's become part of our culture now," said Chang. "I remember when one of the books came out, a lawyer from Scholastic gave us a signed first edition for our archives, and walked up the steps of the Stephen A. Schwarzman building with the book in a clear briefcase. [Our President Paul LeClerc] accepted it with white gloves. It's just all so fun and exciting and part of us. Right now, we see a lot of parents taking out books, and they'll want to read those books to their kids. I think it will get passed on."

As for the next big thing, Chang said, "Nothing can replace Harry, but certainly new and wonderful things can add to what Harry has started. So, yes, there will be something else. We can always be sure that another wonderful character will rise."


By Angela Montefinise
The New York Public Library

 

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