What Hath Harry Wrought?

mj12.jpgJust to get a sense of historical perspective, when I last spoke at this festival, there was no euro, no iPods, no Wikipedia, no Facebook; Pluto was still a planet; and I was still drinking. More to the point — today’s point — is that Harry Potter had yet to appear on our side of the pond. That would happen in the fall of 1998.

Harry Potter revealed a lot about children’s reading and changed how children’s books were published. I’d like to examine just how the world of books for children and young adults has changed since the last time I was here.

People throw around plenty of notions about what kids like to read. Or if kids like to read. Boys won’t read about girls, for example, a maxim of our profession to which British publisher Bloomsbury kowtowed (as did Viking almost fifty years ago with The Outsiders) by persuading Joanne Rowling to forgo the use of her first name on the cover, substituting her first initial and that of a pretended middle name. (She didn’t have one, so she took the initial of her grandmother Kathleen.) Would it have made a difference if the author of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone — more about that title in a minute — had been known from the start as Joanne Rowling, a lady? I propose that the biggest difference, if there was one, would be that adults would be the ones automatically thinking “girl book” and thus tailoring their recommendation of the book with that in mind.

And Harry Potter turned another piece of conventional wisdom on its head — that kids don’t like to read long books. Or books that have hard words like philosopher in the title, which had prompted Scholastic’s change to Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. Oh, do let’s keep going: kids don’t like hardcovers, kids don’t like books set in foreign countries, and to combine the two, kids won’t spend their own money on hardcover books set in foreign countries. Now let’s subtract. Take away the foreign countries; kids won’t spend their own money on hardcover books. Take away the hardcover; kids won’t spend their own money on books unless they are popular paperbacks.

And let’s take away the question of money altogether to reveal the conventional wisdom that unfortunately provides the basis of much of our work as teachers and librarians: kids don’t like to read. Kids must be forced to read, tricked into reading, bargained into reading. Like the terms disgruntled employee and scantily clad, reluctant reader is a compound cliché, one that slips far too easily from our professional tongues.

I could go on a long rant about this but will instead just give you a few points to consider:

Point one: Reluctant to read what? If you put down that novel and look around, you will see that lots of so-called reluctant readers are reading plenty; they just aren’t reading fiction, which in this age constitutes “real reading” as defined by “real readers” — mainly teachers and librarians. It wasn’t always thus; think of the first book to win the Newbery Medal, Hendrik Willem Van Loon’s The Story of Mankind.

Point two: If reluctance to read is considered the default, how do we feel about kids who already like to read? Do they get less attention by virtue of the fact that they don’t seem to need us as much? They do need us; in fact they are us, so let’s give them more respect.

Point three: Car commercials aren’t there to convince us to take up driving. Why do so many books, especially for younger children, belabor the point that reading is fun? A good book should be its own argument.

Let’s look at some more arithmetic, brought to you courtesy of The Horn Book Guide, to show you how Harry Potter proved we were wrong about a lot of things. The Guide, updated bimonthly at hornbookguide.com and published in print twice a year, reviews all new hardcover trade books for children and teens, rating each one on a scale from one (buy it now!) to six (hold your nose!) and indexing them in just about every way you can think of. Thus, the electronic version allows you to search, sort, and count reviews until the cows come home. I did some counting, and now I would like to show my work.

Sutton chartIn 1998, The Horn Book Guide reviewed 3,613 books; in 2010, it reviewed 3,967 books, an increase of around 10%. A modest upswing: the much-discussed “explosion” in children’s book publishing has been largely in self-published books, both printed and digital, which the Guide does not review. Remember, however, that print runs for trade children’s books have increased, sometimes enormously; witness John Green’s recent autographing of the entire first print run of The Fault in Our Stars: 150,000 copies.

Here are some numbers to make fiction-happy librarians rejoice. In 1998, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone was one of 652 novels reviewed in The Horn Book Guide. In 2010, the Guide reviewed 1,298 novels, twice as many. And where fiction constituted 18% of all trade children’s books we reviewed in 1998, in 2010 that percentage almost doubled, to 33%.

As you would expect, the success of Harry Potter meant a surge of fantasy publishing: the Guide reviewed 135 fantasy novels in 1998 and 415 in 2010. Even more meaningfully, at least 309 of those 415 were sequels or books in series; the number of reviewed series books of all kinds of fiction rose from 175 in 1998 to 520 in 2010, making up a whopping 40% of all fiction reviewed.

The appetite for series fiction neither began with Harry Potter nor ends with children. (If we would only accept how alike children’s reading is to our own, I am convinced that our reluctant-reader problem would almost entirely disappear.)

But what Harry demonstrated was a greater acceptance among adults and a greater willingness in the market for hardcover series. In the past we saw major crazes in paperback: Goosebumps, Sweet Valley High, The Baby-sitters Club. But Harry Potter proved, in the millions, that there was big money in hardcover, and an eagerness among kids for hefty books, ones that could be carried as totems of inclusion in a really big club (see Rebecca Donnelly’s “Hitting the Ground of Joy” in this issue for more on this phenomenon).

While hastening to give Harry Potter and J. K. Rowling their due for doing so much to put children’s reading in the forefront of cultural attention around the world, I also believe that we need to put them in context. There was stellar fantasy before Harry Potter, and there were children’s-book bestsellers, too: Goosebumps, anyone? In fact, it just might have been the Goosebumps kids who made Harry happen. And Goosebumps should give thanks to Love You Forever, published in 1986.

Sutton bookstackHere’s why. In 1986, children’s bookstores were flourishing, as were picture books, a symbiotic relationship based on two simple things: people were spending lots of money on books, and there was a population boom of young children. That arithmetic — consumer spending added to where the youth population is bulging — has far more impact on how well which types of children’s books do than anything else. And in the gung-ho 1980s there was a change in the balance of who bought the books, too. For most of the twentieth century, schools and libraries had been the largest customers for hardcover children’s books. But in the eighties, publishers — themselves increasingly consolidating and coming into the hands of publically traded companies — found there was more money to be made by selling books directly to children and parents themselves.

By the time Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone rolled around, those infant recipients of Love You Forever in 1986 were twelve years old. Goosebumps was at the height of its popularity in the early nineties, right on schedule for these now elementary-school kids, who were ready for something new. It takes nothing away from the phenomenon of Harry to say that the time was right. Unfortunately, the time was no longer so right for children’s bookstores — by the time Harry arrived to inject a fresh spurt of consumer willingness, too many of those stores had closed in favor of the superstores like Borders and Barnes & Noble, and Amazon.com was quietly stalking them. (Remember that when people discovered they could easily buy the UK edition of Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets from Amazon.co.uk a full year before Scholastic planned to publish it here, entirely new publishing models were born.) In big box and online stores, books need to sell themselves, and that’s exactly what a series is good at.

I wish I could tell you that the recent baby boomlet (Wikipedia says that more children were born in the U.S. in 2007 than in 1957, the height of the baby boom) means YA books will go crazy again in 2022, but we just don’t know. There’s the economy, of course, and it would take a whole other speech, and a whole other speaker, to speculate on what effect the increasing ubiquity of electronic entertainment will have on printed books. No, movies did not drive out theater, TV did not drive out movies, and none of them drove out books. But — oh, let me take a stab.

I laugh when people worry about reading going electronic, because I already do most of my reading that way. So, probably, do you. I spend most of my workday dealing with e-mail, editing articles and reviews, reading news, and writing memos, book reviews, and speeches like this one. All of this takes place on one screen or another.

I do read children’s books in print, and so far the Horn Book has refused to review from electronic galleys. I’ll probably be overruled about this eventually, but my thinking is, If you’re gonna sell it on paper, I wanna see it on paper. My own recreational reading is a mix: newspapers online; half a dozen print magazines a month; books in hardcover, paperback, or e-book format on my iPad; and audiobooks on my iPod. I like to have several books going at once.

I expect that my reading will only become more electronically based — and I’m relatively old. What will it mean for babies today? What will my grandson, now two, be reading when he is twelve? How will he be reading? One thing I wonder, and part of me even hopes it will come true, is whether publishing might cease to be seen as a moneymaker by its governing corporations. That selling five thousand copies of a book might be enough, and schools and libraries might, I hope, be well funded enough to buy those copies. Wouldn’t it be funny — okay, I mean wouldn’t it be great — if libraries, currently trying to position themselves as the e-centers of e-everything, instead found themselves as The Place To Go when somebody wanted a book to hold in his or her hands? Every author in this room is going to disagree with me on this, but there are too many copies of too many books being published. A little curation would be a good thing.

In a speech at Library Journal and School Library Journal’s e-book summit (and referenced by Stephen Roxburgh in our March/April 2012 issue), Eli Neiburger brought up the idea of book publishing as being akin to the candle industry, a comparison I’m liking more and more. Particularly because the combination of candles and printed books means we will still be able to read if the lights go out forever. (Clearly I’ve been reading too many of those teen dystopia series.) But while candles have been replaced by electric light in the developed world, every house has some, everybody uses them sometimes, and you can buy them everywhere. We use candles in emergencies and in celebration. They are utilitarian and glamorous. They can be the center of attention or shine light on something else. They can be life-saving or dangerous. You can light one from another. These are all the things that matter about books, too.

From the May/June 2012 issue of The Horn Book Magazine. Article adapted from Roger Sutton's 2010 Ezra Jack Keats Lecture, delivered at the Fay B. Kaigler Children’s Book Festival in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, on April 7, 2011. For more in our Fan Week series, click on the tag Fan Week 2016 and see #HBFanWeek on Twitter.
Roger Sutton
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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Great article, Roger! Very interesting to see those numbers, although I suppose they also fold into their data what Horn Book people think is worth reviewing, as opposed to the absolute metrics of what is published. When people talk about "teenagers these days," I always mention this thing about a culture of more sustained reading coming about w/ the new millennium -- longer books, more involved series, etc. While the literacy picture is more complicated than that, I think people forget that this is very heartening good news. mta

Posted : May 06, 2012 11:21

Roger Sutton

Thanks, Tobin. It's at least a semi-scientific survey--The Horn Book Guide reviews all new hardcover trade books--good, bad, ugly--published for children and teens from publishers listed in Literary Marketplace. I am not sure I'm with you on the "culture of more sustained reading," however. It's sustained, I guess, but only in the sense that series publishing encourage people to read the same book over and over . . . .

Posted : May 06, 2012 11:21

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