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Features. Harry Potter flies into curriculum; class studies publishing phenomenon

Courses study the phenomenal success of the series about the boy wizard

by Nisha Ajmani ’02

Boy wizards, house elves and Bertie Botts’ Every Flavour Beans aren’t just for kids.

The Harry Potter book series, by J.K. Rowling, is so popular that the fifth book, “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix,” sold about 5 million copies in United States during the first 24 hours of its release.

“The numbers are mind boggling,” said Solveig Robinson, assistant professor of English and Publishing and Printing Arts program director. “Nobody’s ever sold that many books that fast.”

The volume and popularity are so amazing that she taught a unit about the Harry Potter phenomenon in publishing history as part of The Book in Society class this fall. The class, one of three required for a Publishing and Printing Arts minor, studies the history of publishing and literacy, the role of print in culture and genres. PLU also offers a children’s literature class, taught by associate professor of English Suzanne Rahn that includes a unit on Harry Potter.

So, what’s the explanation for the mass appeal of these books?

“I think the popularity of them is in the storytelling,” Robinson said. The books tell suspenseful tales of teenage wizards with magic powers and tools like flying cars who battle evil forces, but still have time for friendship, family and school. Harry Potter, with his lightning bolt birthmark on his forehead, has become a hero for readers of all ages.

Robinson attributes the huge volume of sales to the fact that families are buying more than one copy so they don’t have to share the book and wait to read it. Also, collectors are buying all the different versions of the book such as each country’s edition, adult copies, children’s copies and books on tape.

When the much-anticipated fifth book came out in June, children across the country were allowed to stay up past their bedtime and dress up like wizards for midnight release parties at bookstores. Robinson attended some of them too as part of the research for her class. “One of the best things about going to the launches was seeing people united for something so positive and fun,” she said. “People really wanted to get a book in their hands.”

"It was very exciting," said a student in Publishing and Printing Arts who went to releases with Robinson. "The Harry Potter story is unique in history." She says the books have inspired children to read even though the text might be hard for them.

Difficult or not, a lot of kids finished all 870 pages of the book quickly.
“Any book that would inspire pre- teens to stay up all night and read solidly for 36 to 48 hours with that kind of attention to detail has got to be a pretty amazing book,” Robinson said.

But the books aren’t just for children. “Publishers have really acknowledged that sales are going to kids and adults,” Robinson said. A campaign to market the books to adults is under way. Adult covers have been made so that they are taken more seriously and adults feel comfortable reading them in public.

“I don’t think there’s anything to be ashamed of or concerned about,” Robinson said. “You should read for pleasure.” Her students read one romance novel and one action/adventure novel to show them that reading things other than “literature” is fun. “The idea that all reading has to be serious, good for you reading is not realistic,” she said.

The student says the assignments in Robinson’s class, and the rest of the PPA program, have provided her with tools she’ll use in the workplace. “That program is fabulous. Every class I took showed me another vista.” The program was featured in an article in the Spring 2003 issue of Publishing Research Quarterly, a prominent publishing studies journal.

Robinson’s animation in class inspired the student. Robinson is the managing editor of the journal Perspectives in Biology and Medicine published by The Johns Hopkins University Press and uses her real world experience to teach. “She’s living it and teaching it at the same time,” the student said. “She has one foot in the publishing world.”

Robinson’s first book, “A Serious Occupation: Literary Criticism by Victorian Women Writers,” was published in February. She has also worked as an editor for textbooks and magazines as well as for little presses and big presses.

“That’s what has been so fun about teaching in the PPA program here,” Robinson said. “I get to do both the things I really love. I finally get a chance to combine them. It helps ground things. When students ask what it’s like in the real world, I can be concrete.”

Next Feature: Roof Rats of Old Main

Photo Credits

By: Jordan Hartman ’02
Solveig Robinson, director of the Publishing and Printing Arts program, says there has never been a publishing phenomenon like the success of the “Harry Potter” series.


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