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You have to have been living in a box not to know about the literary phenomenon of Harry Potter. Not since Roald Dahl's Charlie and the Chocolate Factory have I seen such widespread acceptance of a single title by thousands of kids and grown-ups. The fact that the books are well written and exciting works of fantasy makes them a gold mine for anyone interested in promoting reading. That adults are reading and enjoying them on their own without the help or excuse of a child interpreter makes the phenomenon even more remarkable. Are they the best fantasies ever written? Probably not, but they are far above run of the mill.
In Harry Potter we get every little guy's fantasy of a physically weak but smart hero vanquishing villains of far greater strength and power. It's the Br'er Rabbit syndrome: the small ones use wit and humor to get the best of the big, powerful ones.
In most cases there is, however, little need for you to read Harry Potter as a class read-aloud because the kids are already reading it and talking about it. Since that's what you hope to do with the few books in a year that you have time to read aloud, I'd choose a related book, perhaps a different fantasy to share as a read-aloud.
That doesn't mean, however, that the Harry Potter books have no place in the classroom. If your kids are between 3rd and 8th grade, Harry Potter is already in your classroom. It's time for you to join in the discussion.
Start by reading the first Harry Potter book, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone. You can probably get a better summary of the action from the kids but until then, these brief summaries will have to do.
Harry Potter's life among the "Muggles" (ordinary humans) and particularly among his tasteless and cruel relatives will remind you of that of poor James with his rotten aunts in Dahl's James and the Giant Peach (Knopf, 1996 ISBN 0679880909. Hardcover, Paperback, Cassette.). This time it's an aunt, uncle and cousin who are the ghastly ones. Harry's life is terrible indeed until a mysterious letter from Hagrid, a friendly giant, informs him that he has been accepted at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. (It turns out that Harry has been receiving other related mail but it has been intercepted by his evil relatives.)
At Hogwarts, Harry Potter is surrounded by friends and like-minded individuals. That's where the real adventure begins. It turns out that Harry's parents were killed by an evil wizard -- a creature so evil that others are afraid to speak his name but we'll utter it here: Voldemort. It was at the time of their deaths that Harry got the lightning-shaped scar on his forehead that would later identify him.
Now Harry must find out a good many things: Who is the Man with Two Faces? What's hidden on the third floor of Hogworts Castle? He must also find out what he himself is capable of doing and being. Even wonderful schools such as Hogwarts have vacations, however, and in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (Arthur A. Levine/Scholastic, 1999 ISBN 0439064864. Hardcover, Cassette.), Harry Potter has spent a terrible summer with the Dursleys. They even try to stop him from boarding the train to take him back to Hogwarts at the end of the summer. It's one hazard after another until Harry gets to the safety of the school, but how safe is it?
Evil voices whisper to Harry through the walls. Another student seems to have it in for him. Then mysterious words appear on the wall, "The Chamber of Secrets Has Been Opened. Enemies of the Heir, Beware". Harry and his wizard friends Hermione and Ron succeed in cracking the mystery but not without a large dose of humor and suspense.
In Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (Scholastic, 1999 ISBN 0439136350. Hardcover), Harry has managed to infuriate the Dursleys by causing a particularly obnoxious visitor, Aunt Marge, to inflate like a balloon and drift upward to the ceiling. Since using wizardry when among Muggles is strictly forbidden, Harry has angered the officials at Hogwarts -- at least he thinks he has. With only his pet owl, Hedwig, Harry leaves the Dursleys and is whisked off in a purple bus to an inn called "The Leaky Cauldron". There he spends the rest of the summer. Again, however, the real adventure begins when school starts and Harry learns that Sirius Black, an escaped prisoner, is after him.
There you have a not very complete summary of the action so far. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban is the third volume in the series, but it's not the end. The author, J. K. Rowling, has many more in store for lovers of fantasy, magic and suspense.
Do take advantage of all the eager readers of these books. First join them. They'll love the fact that they know things you don't because they've read the books first this time. You'll enjoy them even if fantasy isn't your favorite genre. Share your reactions as you read the books. Laugh and speculate with the kids about the next book or about the action in the present ones. Compare them to other characters in books. Then lead them onward.
Some kids have discovered through these books what it's like to become thoroughly engrossed in another world. Encourage them to read some other books that might do the same for them at least while they're waiting for the next Harry Potter. Steer them toward The Book of Three by Lloyd Alexander (Yearling, 1989 ISBN 0440407028. Paperback, Hardcover.), Redwall by Brian Jacques (Ace, 1998 ISBN 0441005489. Paperback, Hardcover.), The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C. S. Lewis (Harpercollins, 1997 ISBN 0060277246. Hardcover, Paperback, Cassette.) and other fantasy series.
We can use the Harry Potter books for a good many literary activities that lead to or from the discussion of the books themselves. As with all literature, however, don't analyze and work over a book to the extent that students forget they ever liked it. When you see dismay in the faces of those who were previously eager to read and talk about the books, you've gone to far. Put it back.
Recognizing the first point at which a plot becomes a fantasy, for instance, is almost always a worthwhile activity. The most common definition of fantasy is that, according to the rules of nature as we now know them, this could not have happened. If an owl talks, for instance, even though every other action and reaction that animal or any other creature in the book has is realistic the work is a fantasy. Encourage kids to use that definition and come up with the first piece of fantasy in each book.
You can go from that point to identifying it in other works of fantasy. Sometimes the step into fantasy happens early on such as in the book Alice in Wonderland (Scholastic, 1988 ISBN 0590420356. Paperback, Hardcover, Cassette, Large Print.). Other times we stay in the real world longer and the step is made with more subtlety as in Charlotte's Web (HarperTrophy, 1999 ISBN 0064400557. Paperback, Hardcover, Cassette, Large Print.). Sometimes there is a literal step into fantasy as in the aforementioned Alice in Wonderland (down the rabbit hole) and in the Narnia books where the point of entry is the wardrobe. In other fantasies, the magic starts on the first page as in the Redwall series.
A bulletin board could grow out of that point of fantasy discussion with students identifying the moments of and entry into magic in various fantasies and showing them graphically.
Another strong element of fantasy has to be believability. Anything cannot happen in a fantasy. As Lloyd Alexander once said, "The muse of fantasy wears sensible shoes." In a well-written fantasy, the reader is asked to swallow a departure from reality but put in too many such swallows and the reader is no longer engaged.
Take Charlotte's Web, for instance. The reader is asked to believe only three things for that book to work. First, animals can talk and relate to each other. Second, one human, for a while at least, can understand what they say. Some of the animals can read and Charlotte can write. That's it. That's the extent of the fantasy. Other than that in Charlotte's Web animals live and die according to rules of nature.
Now start the kids identifying what they must believe about Harry Potter and company. When they each bring their lists to the discussion group, there should be some opportunity for rewording and combining "facts" and testing them out with selections from the books.
You can find ways to show graphically the main events in one of the series in flow charts which are the beginnings of outlining. You can look at those events on a line or bar graph showing the amount of danger Harry is in at those main points of action.
There are, of course, many websites relating to Harry and his friends and your kids will want to find them. Below you will find some of them listed.
That's just a taste of what's out there to keep Harry Potter alive.
Graceling by Kristin Cashore. (2008, Harcourt. ISBN 9780152063962. Order Info.) Novel. 471 pages. Gr 8-12.
Katsa is the king's niece and a Graceling -- one born with special powers. In this medieval style fantasy her gift is the ability to kill with her bare hands. Her quest to save the seven kingdoms brings her through a high adventure of combat, romance and self-discovery. Read More.
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