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The Harry Potter series has captivated millions of children—and adults—around the world. The Harry Potter series has captivated millions of children—and adults—around the world.

Potter Perspectives

Inside the magical world of children's literature
By Gina Jacobs

This story was originally published in July 2007 when the final book in J.K. Rowling's series was released. In anticipation of the release of the film version of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, we have reprinted the story here for your enjoyment.

Are you a muggle?

If you don’t know the answer to that question, you are not among the millions of Americans, young and old, who have been enraptured by the story of young wizard Harry Potter.

Now, the world’s muggles (aka non-wizards) are waiting with bated breath for the upcoming release of the seventh and final book in the Harry Potter series: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.

The books, which have sold more than 325 million copies worldwide over the past 10 years, have an uncanny ability to engage readers of all ages. When author J.K. Rowling snagged the top three places on the New York Times best seller list (in 1999), it was further evidence that this children’s story had gone mainstream.

“No other book written for children has been so successful that it has crossed over to adults,” said June Cummins, associate professor of English and Comparative Literature at San Diego State University and a specialist in children’s literature. “There have been books written for adults that picked up a young readership like ‘Treasure Island’ and ‘Tom Sawyer,’ but it usually doesn’t happen the other way around.”

Thanks to Harry Potter’s wide readership, a new audience is being exposed to the magical world of children’s literature, which long ago cast its spell on the faculty in SDSU’s National Center for the Study of Children’s Literature.

“We won the battle [for legitimacy] long ago,” said Alida Allison, who is also a professor of children’s literature within the English department. “At San Diego state, children’s literature is prized for its intrinsic value as literature, not as a stepping stone to literacy.”

SDSU’s Center for the Study of Children’s Literature was created in 2002 and now trains thousands of California’s future teachers on how to use children’s literature in the classroom. The center got a major boost in 2005, when SDSU alumni Raymond Sabin and A.K. Jones funded an endowed professorship for the program.

Children’s literature at SDSU

Cummins and Allison are two of the five full-time faculty members in SDSU’s Center for the Study of Children’s Literature, which has become known internationally as a stronghold for the discipline.

Scholars from around the world have come to study, including 2005 Fulbright Scholar Anto Thomas Chakramakkil from India, who specializes in 20th century American children's literature, with an emphasis on “The Wizard of Oz.”

Xia Yun, a professor of English from Chongqing University studied at the center during the 2006-07 school year, thanks to funding by the Chinese government. She and Allison teamed up and are now researching how American early readers and chapter books can be used to teach English in China.

Members of the center also review hundreds of children’s books each year as an aid to parents. The reviews cover fiction and non-fiction books for readers of all ages. Since 1997, more than 1100 books have been reviewed and subsequently donated to the SDSU Library and local school districts.

The center has also donated more than 100 books to the first-ever children's literary library in Kerala, India and to Chongqing's Teacher Education Program at Southwest University in Chongqing, China.

Currently, the center is working to establish a joint Ph.D. program in English and children’s literature with the University of California, Riverside.

“This would make SDSU the very best place to do doctoral work on children’s literature,” said Jerry Griswold, one of the first English professors hired to teach children’s literature at SDSU nearly 20 years ago. He now runs the center.

The degree would be SDSU’s and the California State University system’s first doctoral program in the humanities. Students would be able to study alongside the nationally recognized faculty in the program, including Latino/a literature professor Phillip Serrato and Joseph Thomas, an expert in children’s poetry.

More than a book

And, who can tell – there may be an occasional course about the magic of the Harry Potter series.

Cummins, whose research focuses on multicultural, British and American literature for children, has been up to her ears in Harry Potter since the first book in the series, “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone” was released. She has lectured to colleagues nationwide about the Harry Potter books, especially regarding the consumer impact of the series.

“To my mind, the big story behind the Harry Potter phenomenon is not found in the texts of the books but in the packaging, marketing and commodification of this child character and of the series’ children readers,” Cummins said. “In the interest of raising good consumers, we are led to believe that children are ‘empowered’ by consumerism when, in fact, it controls and exploits them.

In spite of Cummins’ critical take on the market power of the books, she herself is an avid Potter fan because she believes Rowling is an excellent story teller.

She points out the ways Rowling uses the paradigms of classic children’s literature. It is fantasy like “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe,” it’s an orphan story like “Oliver Twist” and it’s a fairytale like the rags to riches story of Cinderella, Cummins said.

“The author takes cues from the most successful themes in children’s literature, dating back to the 19th century boarding school stories, which were popular in England,” she explained.

Hogwarts at SDSU

With Potter on the brain, even the SDSU Library has gone Hogwarts. In anticipation of the final book in the series, “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows,” the library is hosting a weekly book group, which will disband after this last book is released.

“This is a chance for the community to re-read the series together and predict what will happen in the final book,” said Linda Salem, children’s literature librarian with SDSU’s Library and Information Access.

Salem, whose own work, “Children’s Literature Studies: Cases and Discussions,” addresses the religious controversies surrounding Harry Potter, says readers have a special connection to Rowling’s books because of the longevity of the series.

“Many readers have grown up with Harry, Ron and Hermione [the three main characters], so they feel invested in what happens next and really care about the characters they have gotten to know over the years,” Salem said.

Potter Predictions

With the world in waiting, Potter fans are eager to figure out how their favorite characters will fare in the final installment. June Cummins offers a “scholarly” prediction:

“If traditional children’s literature is any indication, the seventh and final installment in the Potter series will have a happy ending,” said Cummins.

“(Rowling’s) stories have adhered closely to classic children’s literary themes, so I just can’t see Harry dying at the end.”