‘19 years later,’ as the last chapter-heading has it, and quite probably for many decades after that, there will still be millions of adults who recall their initiation to literature as a little touch of Harry in the night.
– Christopher Hitchens reviewing Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows_ in the New York Times, August 12, 2007.
In 2004, the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) published a study titled Reading at Risk: A Survey of Literary Reading in America, reporting that the number of literature-reading young adults dropped 20 percent between 1982 and 2002—the greatest recorded loss of readership in the country’s history. The decline represented 20 million potential readers and Dana Gioia, NEA Chairman, called it a “national crisis.”
Panic ensued and a flurry of reading incentive programs sprung up around the country, including NEA’s own The Big Read which now operates in all fifty states and even internationally. Then, in a 2009 report, Reading on the Rise, the NEA proudly reported a 21 percent increase in young adult readership which began in 2002 and has continued through 2008.
Though reading incentives never detract from young readers, it is perhaps not coincidence that in 1998, four years prior to NEA’s chronicled revival, the first book in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, was released in the U.S. In 2000, when the fourth book in the series, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire was released, it sold nearly 3 million copies the first weekend it was available. By 2002, the second Harry Potter movie, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, was in theaters and in 2004, the fifth book, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, was released, selling 5 million copies worldwide in the first 24 hours it was available.
A recent survey issued by Scholastic, the 2010 Kids & Family Reading Report, found that 43 percent of the children ages 9-11 believe the most important outcome of reading books for fun is to open up the imagination. 62 percent of the same demographic say they read books for fun “to be inspired by storylines and characters.” For a group whose numbers were clearly dwindling in the 1990s, it is not surprising that the release of an incredibly imaginative story coincided with a dramatic revival or readership.
The clamor for young adult reading programs to “save reading” seems to indicate that kids were reading much more twenty years ago but have recently given it up. This is, of course, not true. In the 1960s, Daniel Fader, a high school teacher and University of Michigan professor, realized none of his students were reading independently and founded the “Hooked on Books.” In the program, he replaced thick anthologies with single copies of novels and used class time for independent reading. In 1985, Richard C. Anderson’s seminal report endorsed by the Commission on Reading, Becoming a Nation of Readers, claimed “Children should spend more time reading.” In 1996 the Standards for the English Language Arts, commissioned by the National Council of Teachers of English and the National Reading Association placed independent reading at the center of their curriculum. Educators have always known reading is important for child development, it has simply been difficult to market literature to this age group. Until Harry Potter.
As Motoko Rich wrote in a 2007 New York Times article “in a way that was previously rare for books, Harry Potter entered the pop-culture consciousness. The movies… heightened the fervor, spawning video games and collectible figurines. That made it easier for kids who thought reading was for geeks to pick up a book.”
But ultimately, Rich was skeptical of the lasting effect of the Harry Potter phenomenon—the title of his article was “Potter Has Limited Effect on Reading Habits.” But perhaps she was too quick to pass judgment. In the past seven years, the young adult genre has exploded with a number of new book series [See list below]. Between 1995 and 1997, the number of young adult titles published per year fell dramatically, dropping from 5,000 to just over 3,000, according to R.R. Bowker’s Publishers Weekly. In 2009, there were over 30,000.1 In a 2007 Seattle P-I article, Booklist magazine critic Michael Cart writes, “Kids are buying books in quantities we’ve never seen before… And publishers are courting young adults in ways we haven’t seen since the 1940s… We are right smack-dab in the new golden age of young adult literature.”
Siobhan Reardon, President of the Free Library of Philadelphia says that young adult readership is “one of those areas that continues to expand, and a lot has to do with the significance of the graphic novel or the comic book… once you start dedicating a section of library specific to the materials of a teen’s life, you can see that the stuff will fly out the door, and we’re seeing that happen here… more and more around the country you’re seeing the libraries dedicate very specific, good sized spaces to teens, particularly away from the crowds that come in.”
In January 2010, the Kaiser Family Foundation published a comprehensive study of the media habits of more than 2,000 eight to eighteen year-old American children. The study found that the average time spent reading books for pleasure in a typical day rose from 21 minutes in 1999 to 23 minutes in 2004, and finally to 25 minutes in 2010. The rise of screen-based media has not melted children’s brains, despite ardent warnings otherwise: “It does not appear that time spent using screen media (TV, video games and computers) displaces time spent with print media,” the report stated. Teens are not only reading more books, they’re involved in communities of like-minded book lovers. The Story Siren, a young adult online book review authored by an Indiana graduate student gets 3,500-4,000 unique page views a day.
In 2009, Gioia called the rise of young adult readership “startling” and noted that it was not even a school-based trend but “a broader, community-wide phenomenon” that was likely a result of national reading incentive programs. He did not, however, mention the quality of young adult literature or its growing availability via the internet.
In 2004, in the introduction to the Reading at Risk report, Gioia claimed that the study “documents and quantifies a huge cultural transformation that most Americans have already noted—our society’s massive shift toward electronic media for entertainment and information.” He was implying that the dramatic decline in young adult readership was somehow related to the electronic media shift. This is no unfamiliar claim. However, the 2010 Kids & Family Reading Report found that one-third of kids, ages 9-17, said that they would read more books for fun if they had access to eBooks, including kids who read five to seven days per week and those who read less than once per week.
Worldwide, young adults are the most literate demographic. According to a 2008 UNESCO report of literacy rates in 2000, 96.8 percent of young adults in North America, ages 15-24, are literate and in the world, 87.6 percent of the same age group (959 million kids) can read (worldwide, only 82.4 percent of adults—people older than fifteen—are literate). With the highest literacy rates, the young adult demographic was primed for a good book.
Harry Potter revealed what NEA statistics previously doubted: there is a young adult market for literature. In 2007, when the final book in the series was released, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, it sold 11 million copies worldwide in the first 24 hours it was available. The seven-book, 4,125-page series has sold over 48 million copies in the United States and over 400 million copies worldwide since the first book, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone was published in London in 1997 and have been translated into 67 different languages.
Half of the 9-11 year-olds surveyed by Scholastic said they read books to “help you figure out who you are and who you could become.” What began with Harry Potter, an undoubtedly captivating and even inspiring work, is now commonplace. The Twilight Saga, a four book series by Stephanie Meyer, has sold over 28.5 million copies in the U.S. in the five years since the first book, Twilight was released in 2005. The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, released in 2008, is the first book in Collins’ Hunger Games Trilogy and has already sold over 540,000 copies in the U.S. There are many new young adult series and kids line up at midnight to get their hands on the first available copies. This is a sign of avid, even voracious, readership, not, as the NEA reported in 2004, “a diminished role of voluntary reading in American life.”
What is surprising about this shift is page numbers: young adults now devour books the size of Russian novels in months (Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, the fifth book in the Harry Potter series, is six pages longer than Anna Karenina). Series previously thought to be an impossible number of pages are suddenly not so long: The Lord of the Rings trilogy by J.R.R. Tolkien (1954) and The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis (1949), are mere fractions of the length of Harry Potter. After reading only five different book series (the seven-book Harry Potter series, the four from The Twilight Saga, The Lord of the Rings trilogy plus The Hobbit, the seven-book Chronicles of Narnia, and the thirteen-book, A Series of Unfortunate Events by Lemony Snicket) the young adult has read at least 13,500 pages for pleasure.
While writers like Lewis, Tolkien, Rowling, and others have done a great deal to popularize and legitimize the young adult genre, what we’re currently witnessing appears to be the genre’s true renaissance. It’s a time when these books are not only accepted by our culture, but actually embraced and celebrated. These days, reading (fanatical reading at that) is a part of young adulthood and there’s no reason to believe that digital age precludes that “touch of Harry in the night.”
In 2007, R.R. Bowker changed their categorization of books, choosing to include any book that had been issued an ISBN whereas they had previously limited the scope to books with ISBNs that were also for sale. This indiscriminate approach is partly responsible for the massive increase in the number of young adult books but R.R. Bowker only traced book production back to 2002 using this method. Regardless, in 1950 when C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien were publishing the Chronicles of Narnia and the Lord of the Rings series, there were only 907 titles, 3 percent of 2009’s output.