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Just wild about Harry

July 29, 2007|Sonja Bolle | Sonja Bolle is a freelance book editor and children's book reviewer. Her "Word Play" column appears monthly at www.latimes.com/books.

For everyone in the business of getting kids into books, Harry Potter remains a phenomenon. It was a revelation that fourth- through seventh-graders would read 600- and 800-page books, let alone re-read them. That they would stand in line in the middle of the night -- in costume! -- to buy a book. That they would endlessly trade details of the lives of fictional characters, as if they were popular classmates or sports stars. The enormous excitement whipped up by the series has made publishers see a generation of kids who, even if they are identified as reluctant readers addicted to other forms of entertainment, can be reached with a thrilling enough story.

Since J.K. Rowling's first book, "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone," was published in the United States in September 1998, the series has "persuaded a lot of kids that reading can be fun -- an entertainment, a captivating experience," says Michael Cart, a children's book author, editor and critic. Despite statistics showing that reading drops off in adolescence, particularly among boys, Cart adds: "It may be true that after Volume 7, some may never pick up another book, but they have discovered something that might have remained foreign to them all their lives." And who knows what effect that one intense reading experience will have?

Perhaps there will emerge a group -- known as Dumbledore's Army, surely -- that, like the Baker Street Irregulars, the club for experts on all things Sherlock Holmes, will give a sense of community to Potter fans who have shared a rich universe seen only in the mind's eye. This ability to imagine is an essential ingredient in pursuing success. The Baker Street Irregulars boast two U.S. presidents as members. Surely some of the kids who aced trivia contests at the Potter release parties are well on their way to something great.

Harry Potter is certainly not the first series to captivate kids. Brian Jacques' thick "Redwall" books were popular enough to land on bestseller lists in the early 1990s, before children's books got their own list (thanks to Harry Potter). But there's definitely a new thirst for the epic series. At Children's Book World in West L.A., bookseller Luke Robertson observes that "kids really know what they're looking for. They'll come in and say, 'I want a long series I can really get into.' "

For Diane Roback, children's book editor at Publishers Weekly, an important effect of Harry Potter has been "making reading cool for boys." There's a competitive-sport quality to reading you didn't see before. Eva Mitnick, manager of the Robertson branch of the L.A. Public Library, says she'll hear boys one-up each other: "I've read that five times!" "I've read it seven!"

The young wizard has also made fantasy cool again. Although the "Lord of the Rings" movies share some credit here, Rowling definitely brought it to an audience too young to be watching Peter Jackson's films. The geek factor of fantasy is gone. Indeed, "there was a stigma for kids who had not read Harry Potter," says Idalee Alderson, librarian at Westland School in West L.A.

I ask you, when was the last time you felt uncool for not being a fan of a book?

That hipness factor has made young readers more aware of the publishing process too, leading them to hotly anticipate new releases from other fantasy writers, Mitnick says. "We've got kids who have never talked to a librarian slinking up to the desk to ask if the new Christopher Paolini is out yet!"

If children are taking note of the publishing process, the publishing world, in turn, is paying more attention to them. Suddenly, there was "media coverage, review notice, shelf space," says Doug Whiteman, president of the Penguin Young Readers Group. Before Harry Potter, the bulk of the children's business -- 70% of it at Penguin -- was in baby books and picture books. "Now that everyone has seen the kind of [sales] volume a wonderful novel or series can do," he says, books for older kids account for more than half his division's list.

The increased visibility of children's books also has drawn in reluctant readers in what Whiteman calls "a self-fulfilling prophecy." The way boys took to Harry Potter gave these readers a new cachet. "When we first published the Alex Rider series" -- Anthony Horowitz's James Bond-influenced action-adventure books beginning with the U.S. publication of "Stormbreaker" in 2001 -- "there was a wait-and-see attitude," Whiteman says. But by the third Rider book, "Skeleton Key" two years later, the series had gained traction with reviewers -- and took off in sales.

"Publishers are looking for swift-paced series now," Cart says, "because they think boys will read them." Even if few of these series land permanent places on his store shelves, Robertson rejoices at the new effort being made to "grab kids on the first page."

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