Growing up, not outgrowing Harry

July 15, 2005|By Tanika White | Tanika White,SUN STAFF

They were at that awkward age when the first book came out. Goofy grins, limbs too long, pouting about school-night bedtimes - the ideal target audience for a fantasy about magic and wizards and scary boarding schools.

Now, seven years later, the first Harry Potter generation is almost all grown up. Instead of braces, they have piercings. Stubble has sprouted. They're driving, dating, making plans for college.

And yet at the witching hour tonight, when millions of 'tweens and school-age kids pile into minivans to be the first to get their hands on Harry Potter and The Half-Blood Prince - the sixth book in J.K. Rowling's literary and cultural phenomenon - many of the series' original fans, now 16, 17, 18 or older, will be right there in line with them.

Unchaperoned and unabashed.

The magic and drama they felt in 1998 with the first book continue to exert a hold on those first Harry fans, but if anything, they find that the stories and themes get even richer the older they get.

"I'm going to be there Friday night at the Borders in White Flint. That's where I went to the last one, too. And I'm dragging a couple of friends," says Laura Alin, 19, a rising junior at the University of Maryland College Park, who read her first Harry Potter at 13.

She has since read them all, multiple times, and not just in English. She has also read Harry in French and Spanish, and friends traveling abroad this summer have promised to bring back the complete series in Italian and Portuguese, so Alin, a French and international business major, can read the books yet again.

"When I first started reading them, I thought they were a little more juvenile," Alin says. "But there are so many things in the book that aren't for kids at all."

Meaty matters

Sure, there are flying owls, bubbling potions, giants and ghosts. But Rowling also has packed her books with meaty matters - death, adoption, betrayal, identity issues and angst.

It's those grown-up topics, and more, that keep readers such as Alin coming back year after year, despite the books' classification as children's literature.

"It's just a great story," says Amy Seeger, 22, a Milwaukee administrative assistant who discovered the books when she was 14, while baby-sitting the neighbor's kids.

"And even though I'm an adult by age standards, it's such a big part of who I am, as a reader and as a person."

Unique experience

This particular cohort of Harry Potter lovers - unlike adult readers or those who might have jumped on the bandwagon late in the craze - have had the unique experience of growing up with the bespectacled, bewildered, boundary-pushing Harry.

From eating chocolate frogs and trading famous wizard cards in Book One (Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone) to scoring his first kiss in Book Five (The Order of the Phoenix) - as Harry has aged, so have they.

That the same group of kids would stay with the same series over so long a period of time is quite unusual.

Morality in Potter

"This really is, in a lot of ways, a new phenomenon," says Mary Whitney, an assistant professor of psychology at Saint Joseph College in West Hartford, Conn., who recently completed a four-year study on the influence of Harry Potter on young children and young adults.

In her study, which concentrated on how readers assessed the books' characters for dimensions of morality, researchers couldn't think of any other book, movie or medium that has had a similar following.

"Maybe Star Wars, maybe the Tolkien books, but not even really those," Whitney says. "In general, it was one age [group] that read them."

Life gets complicated

But of course Harry and his friends - 11 years old in the first book - have aged too, and each successive book deals with more mature themes, says Ken Haller, assistant professor of pediatrics at Saint Louis University School of Medicine and a huge Harry Potter fan.

"As adolescence goes forward, life becomes more complicated and difficult," Haller says. "Kids have to deal with more complex things every year. Harry Potter helps make them feel like they're not the only ones going through this."

Being teased by your classmates. Getting singled out. Going to a new school. Socio-economic issues. Feeling unloved.

Most of the kids-turned-young adults who love Harry Potter can relate to one or all of those situations or feelings. And, unlike the youngsters who are now reading the book, as more and more birthdays pass, they have the benefit of hindsight - and Harry - to help make sense of it all.

"Children can enjoy it, but I think there are some things that you have to be grown-up to make the connection," says Seeger, who is getting married in October to a fellow Potter-lover.

Seeger can identify with many of the books' subtler themes, such as the weight that Harry carries as Hogwarts' once-and-future savior of all things good.

"Being the oldest child, there's always this sort of expectation that you're going to be responsible and you're going to do well, and Harry always had that," Seeger says.

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