Editorial: Potter’s Field

On this occasion of our 75th anniversary issue, I’m reminded what a constant presence the past is at the Horn Book offices. When, as we do here with some regularity, we invoke past editors of the Horn Book, we don’t bother with chronology. They aren’t Back Then but (with the exception of my immediate predecessor) Up There and at the same time, with physical as well as intellectual evidence at hand, Still Here. We often call upon them while assigning books for review. Something arcanely Anglophilic? “Assign it to Ethel.” A new book about Babe Ruth? We wonder if baseball fan Anita Silvey can be lured back to bat for two hundred words or so. I outrage the doll collectors of America (see last issue’s editorial, and next issue’s letters) and ask Bertha for help. But then I remember her Bookshop muse, Alice-Heidi, and sadly think, no help There.

Right now I really want to ask them all about Harry Potter. I don’t have any opinions about Harry; at least, I didn’t have any opinions until J. K. Rowling’s series became a “publishing phenomenon” (ghastly but apt phrase) and — as Canadian critic Perry Nodelman recently discovered when he appeared on a Boston radio call-in show — children’s books became All About Harry. So I’m feeling suckered — neither by the book nor by the publisher, but by the cosmic forces that have ordained that this likable but critically insignificant series become wildly popular and therefore news, and therefore something I’m supposed to have an opinion about.

We are given to understand that the presence of the Harry Potter books on myriad bestseller lists means something beyond the obvious redundancy, that is, the books are bestsellers because lots of people are buying, and, presumably, liking them. But what else does it mean? As I write, the New York Times fiction bestseller list includes, along with the first two Harry Potters, books by Thomas Harris, Stephen King, and Danielle Steel. Steel’s Granny Dan, this week, is doing better than either of the Harrys, therefore… well, therefore nothing.

I will be accused of disingenuousness. The difference is that Harry Potter is a children’s book on the bestseller list. Of course. But when R. L. Stine’s Goosebumps started invading the lists, I don’t recall a similar atmosphere of jubilation. Reactions ranged from condemnatory to dismissive. And all that the annual appearance of Dr. Seuss’s Oh, the Places You’ll Go! means is that it’s June. I have more respect for Harry Potter than I do for most children’s books, both real and so-called, that bleep onto the adult-attention radar screen, but I can’t help asking why all those literati who regularly demonstrate disdain for the latest bestseller craze have decided to change the rules for Harry. Why, for heaven’s sake, did the British Library Association feel it needed to publish a prepared statement explaining why Harry had not figured in this year’s Carnegie Medal? Mr. and Mrs. Heins are appalled (they told me).

In a letter accompanying a reader’s copy of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, Scholastic says of the Harry books, “all of this attention focused on a children’s book can only be good for the visibility of children’s literature in general — everyone wins.” Most teachers, librarians, booksellers, and parents I’ve talked to agree; Harry Potter is not a success born of publishers’ hype. But I feel compelled to add that Harry’s blessing is not unmixed. It sets an odd standard for success; in fact, success itself becomes the standard. Bestseller lists are a perilous blend of reportage and marketing: lots of people have bought this book and, therefore, so should you. Harry Potter has become a case not of attention focused on a children’s book, but attention focused on attention; the “visibility of children’s literature” less important than the inevitable search for the “next Harry Potter.” For, to paraphrase the late Jacqueline Susann (who certainly knew a thing or three about how bestsellerdom works), once is never enough.

From the September/October 1999 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

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Roger Sutton About Roger Sutton

Roger Sutton has been the editor in chief of The Horn Book, Inc, since 1996. He was previously editor of The Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books and a children's and young adult librarian. He received his M.A. in library science from the University of Chicago in 1982 and a B.A. from Pitzer College in 1978. Follow him on Twitter: @RogerReads.

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