“Harry Potter”, Literacy, and the 100th Anniversary of Children’s Book Week

This April 29 through May 5 is the first of two Children’s Book Weeks that are going to be held in the United States this year. Why? 2019 marks an important milestone: It has been 100 years since the initiative was first started in 1919. The Children’s Book Council’s charity Every Child a Reader describes the week as “the longest-running national literacy initiative in the country,” in fact.

Every Child a Reader explains the week’s history.

Children’s Book Week originated in the belief that children’s books and literacy are life-changers. In 1913, Franklin K. Matthiews, the librarian of the Boy Scouts of America, began touring the country to promote higher standards in children’s books. He proposed creating a Children’s Book Week, which would be supported by all interested groups: publishers, booksellers, and librarians.

Mathiews enlisted two important allies: Frederic G. Melcher, the visionary editor of Publishers Weekly who believed that “a great nation is a reading nation,” and Anne Carroll Moore, the Superintendent of Children’s Works at the New York Public Library and a major figure in the library world. With the help of Melcher and Moore, in 1916, the American Booksellers Association and the American Library Association sponsored a Good Book Week with the Boy Scouts of America.

Since 1944, the Children’s Book Council has been responsible for Children’s Book Week, which had been held in November until 2008, when it was moved to May. Every Child a Reader has been in charge of planning events ever since. This year’s theme, Read Now ∙ Read Forever, hopes to continue a century’s worth of love for children’s books. A second Children’s Book Week will be held from November 4 through November 10. Partners include the American Library Association (ALA) and the Library of Congress.

The benefits of reading for children have been documented in many studies, including the benefits of reading the Harry Potter series. Here are just a few examples.

A study from the Ohio State University found that there was a knowledge gap of over a million words between kindergarteners who were read to at home by their parents before entering school and those who were not, which could explain differences in children’s vocabulary and reading skills. The study was based on a number of calculations, which were used to measure how many words a child would likely be exposed to through books.

The lead author of the study, Jessica Logan, an assistant professor in the Department of Educational Studies, commented on the findings.

The word gap of more than [one] million words between children raised in a literacy-rich environment and those who were never read to is striking.

Logan noted the differences between many of the words used in books and words used for daily communication, however.

This isn't about everyday communication. The words kids hear in books are going to be much more complex, difficult words than they hear just talking to their parents and others in the home.

The study came about after a previous study that Logan had conducted, which found that one-fourth of children in a national sample were never read to, while another fourth were only read to once or twice weekly.

Reading aloud to young children also has benefits for their behavior and attention, as a 2018 piece in the New York Times explained. The researchers behind the study "Reading Aloud, Play, and Social-Emotional Development," including Dr. Alan Mendelsohn, an associate professor of pediatrics at the New York University School of Medicine, found that the time that parents spend reading aloud to and playing with their children could help curb aggression and hyperactivity. Dr. Mendelsohn was quoted on the findings.

We think when parents read with their children more, when they play with their children more, the children have an opportunity to think about characters, to think about the feelings of those characters. They learn to use words to describe feelings that are otherwise difficult and this enables them to better control their behavior when they have challenging feelings like anger or sadness.

Another benefit of reading can be the development of empathy, as a group of researchers in Italy and the United Kingdom found out through the Harry Potter series itself. This study, published in the Journal of Applied Social Psychology in 2014, found that students who had read the Harry Potter books were less prejudiced against stigmatized groups than those who had not. The study’s abstract explains more.

We conducted three studies to test whether extended contact through reading the popular best‐selling books of Harry Potter improves attitudes toward stigmatized groups (immigrants, homosexuals, refugees). Results from one experimental intervention with elementary school children and from two cross‐sectional studies with high school and university students (in Italy and United Kingdom) supported our main hypothesis. Identification with the main character (i.e., Harry Potter) and disidentification from the negative character (i.e., Voldemort) moderated the effect.

The lead author of the study, Loris Vezzali, stated that schools could use Harry Potter as a way to teach students about empathy for others.

Encouraging book reading and incorporating it in school curricula may not only increase the students’ literacy levels but also enhance their prosocial attitudes and behaviors and ultimately help in the creation of a more equal society.

There have also been benefits to children’s publishing. The Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) discussed this in a 2017 piece. Thanks to the success of the Harry Potter series, the fantasy genre grew in popularity, Dr. Michelle Smith of Deakin University explained. Belle Alderman of the National Centre for Australian Children’s Literature at the University of Canberra explained that Harry Potter also helped blur the line between books for children and books for adults.

Even the first book of Harry Potter was quite long and quite complex with a large cast of characters and a lot of things that were happening. The editors and people who were reading it [were] thinking, ‘Who would buy this for a child?[‘] … [but now] people are thinking it’s okay to have a very long book.

Author J.K. Rowling has been recognized for her contributions to children’s literacy too. In 2013, the National Literacy Trust named her as one of Britain’s top ten “literacy heroes.” The nominees were selected by the public, while the nine recipients of the award were chosen by a panel.

In 2014, Rowling supported a campaign by the National Literacy Trust to increase reading standards for British schoolchildren. The Read On. Get On. campaign was created after it was found that over a million children in Britain’s schools would not be able to read “well” by the age of 11. As of 2019, the campaign is still active.

Both Bloomsbury and Scholastic, two of the major publishers of the Harry Potter books, have also worked to increase children’s literacy through the Harry Potter series. Last summer, Scholastic launched a summer reading challenge for young readers with a Harry Potter theme, while Bloomsbury is working to make the Harry Potter books easier to read for those with dyslexia. (As a fun fact, even Princess Beatrice of York has said that the Harry Potter series helped her like reading in spite of her dyslexia.)

In short, there’s no better time to read with a child than the present. Looking for ways to celebrate Children’s Book Week with a child in your life? Check out the list of official Children’s Book Week events here. How will you be celebrating?

Mary W.

I am a Slytherin, a lifelong fan of Harry Potter, and a member of MuggleNet staff since 2014. In my Muggle life, I am passionate about human rights, and I love to travel around the world and meet new people.