Is it too bold to divide children and young adult literature before and after Harry Potter? The J.K Rowling saga completes 20 years and to celebrate the date we have invited a specialist in the seven novels: Elisabeth Gruner. A professor of literature at the University of Richmond, Virginia, USA, she holds a doctorate in 19th-century English literature with a specialization in children’s literature from the University of California. Even though the series has sold more than 800 million books worldwide, only time will tell if the books will join the exclusive category of children’s classic. Besides, there are those who wrinkle their nose at the Hogwarts wizards.
Will J. K. Rowling ever have the importance of Lewis Carroll, for example?
This is hard to say, though I think in terms of effect on children, yes, she already has. The books were so popular and formative for a generation of children that her importance can’t be ignored. There are college classes on her work, and she is regularly included in surveys of children’s literature, as is Lewis Carroll. Like Carroll as well, her works have been translated into many world languages, making her impact even more widely felt. My only caveat is in terms of the works’ continuing to provide material for scholarship. Carroll scholarship continues over 150 years after the publication of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. I imagine that the same will be true of the Harry Potter series, but it is as yet too early to tell.
What is the importance of the work, especially the 7 HP novels, for children’s literature in general?
One really significant effect of the books has been the expansion of scholarship in children’s literature generally. Before HP the field existed and was robust and active. Since HP, it has grown. Many more institutions offer courses in children’s literature, and many more scholars have taken up the field (often without knowledge of its history, but they are scholars and they can learn). I believe it has also led many children and young adults to explore other areas of children’s literature—many who thought they “didn’t like fantasy,” for example, so enjoyed this series that they went on to read other fantasy series such as His Dark Materials, books by Terry Pratchett and Diana Wynne Jones, etc.—or, perhaps, have moved from fantasy to other popular books for children/young adults, like the books of John Green. (Green explicitly taps into the Harry Potter fan community.) The Harry Potter fandom is also extremely active, generating (among other things) fan fiction that appeals to readers of the series and increases the likelihood that they will read and write other works.
In your opinion, is Harry Potter a classic?
Yes, Eliana, I think it is. It is of enduring interest to readers and scholars, and is culturally/historically important as well. J. K. Rowling may be to the 20/21st as Dickens was to the 19th century. I’m not saying she’s as good a writer as Dickens, necessarily, but that her works approach his in level of popularity and interest to other writers. We also see in Rowling’s work many of the important concerns of our time: the education of children; position of the news media; necessity for empathy, diversity, and equity; and the battle against a fascist regime.
Is there a resistance among intellectuals in considering the saga a classic?
Yes, obviously. Popularity does not always correlate to literary quality, and writers such as Harold Bloom and A.S. Byatt, for example, have raised questions about the series’ literary quality. Many children’s lit scholars do as well. “Classic,” however, may mean “enduring” rather than “of high quality,” and few could dispute the enduring nature of the series. For comparison’s sake, note that the similarly popular Twilightseries seems not to have aged as well, or endured as widely.
Is there still a religious resistance around the saga because it deals with witchcraft?
I really couldn’t say for certain, although the series remained on the ALA’s list of challenged children’s books as of August, 2016. Most of the challenges in the past were for witchcraft, so I assume that is continuing.
Hogwarts presents itself as a charming school, in every sense of the word, but also quite rigorous. Has there been a change in the children’s learning because of this? Or even the discipline of the characters, especially Hermione.
I have argued in print that the series does not particularly promote reading or even an appreciation of academics. The children regularly copy each others’ homework (or at least get the answers from Hermione), fail to do their assignments, and focus on almost anything other than academics despite the school setting. (See my article, “Teach the Children: Education and Knowledge in Recent Children’s Fantasy,” inChildren’s Literature, volume 37, 2009. https://muse.jhu.edu/article/
What are the moral values that stand as the backdrop of the saga?
Loyalty and courage, the values most associated with Hufflepuff and Gryffindor respectively, seem to me the moral values most endorsed by the series.