Teenagers are no longer reading Harry Potter books in their legions, it emerged this week, as J.K. Rowling’s series dropped out of the top ten favourite books for secondary school pupils. Instead, teens are reading books aimed at primary school children. This is disquieting news. Of all the books teenagers can access, they should be reading the Harry Potter books.
Yet there is much that is commendable. J.K. Rowling may be a bit too fond of adverbs, semi-colons and the present participle (verbs ending ‘-ing’), but otherwise the syntax is a treat and a model for those studying English. She combines simple, active voice clauses, plain verbs with a rhythmic, flowing cadence and decorative, advanced vocabulary.
She's an old-school, middlebrow author, a modern-day Agatha Christie. In her transparent prose, words function as a window to the storyline. This is why devotees of literary fiction hate it: they regard words as something to be toyed with, and style more important than story.
Such detractors invariably miss the point. In 2007, the literary critic Nicholas Lezard wrote in the Guardian of ‘prose that reasonably intelligent nine-year-olds consider pretty hot stuff, if they're producing it themselves; for a highly-educated woman like Rowling to knock out the same kind of material is, shall we say, somewhat disappointing.’ Yet the Harry Potter books are precisely meant to impress children. It's like saying primary school teachers should be teaching algebra instead of arithmetic.
The virtues from the Harry Potter books are not merely educational. The stories set a good example for future citizens. With Harry befriending and defending 'muggles', 'mud-bloods', 'half-bloods' – victims of a sort of racism – he instils the virtues of tolerance and understanding. As a 2014 study published in the Journal of Applied Social Psychology showed, children who read Harry Potter, or any stories in which the protagonists mix with otherwise stigmatised groups, develop improved attitudes in real life towards social outcasts. And the books are ideal for both boys and girls, having strong, active female role-models such as Hermione, Ginny, professor McGonagall, Mrs Weasley and Luna Lovegood.
Yet the liberal, humanistic message of the Harry Potter books isn't laboured or distracting. And who could really argue with them? Being tolerant of people and judging them by their character, not ethnicity, are laudable virtues. There is nothing wrong, either, with strong, active female characters. I started reading the saga so I could share the experience with my Potter-mad nieces; I want them to grow up strong and active.