Parents, not Potter, spark Interest in Reading

Monday, August 7th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

Some parents joke that their kids are under a spell: Are they really reading for fun?

Children of all ages and even some adults are hooked on the fictional adventures of 14-year-old Harry Potter.

Author J. K. Rowling released her fourth book in the Harry Potter series July 8, with an initial printing of 3.8 million copies for U.S. readers. Her first three bestsellers remain hot items at local libraries and hot sellers at area bookstores.

But while the Potter series has been roundly praised for causing so many young people to crack open a book, local librarians and some researchers say they haven't seen any evidence yet that the books have had much effect on overall reading habits. They're not complaining, however, about the opportunity to get children coming through library doors.

"If it has faddish elements, am I going to complain? No," said Carol Dumont, manager of the children's center at the Dallas Central Library. "We will take them and introduce them to other books of adventure."

Some researchers who study reading habits say the Potter series, like other previous children's publishing phenomena, is not the be-all and end-all solution to literacy problems.

"Everyone is hoping there is a magic fix – to take millions of kids who don't want to read and have them read a bestseller, and we now will have a generation of readers," said Jeanna Beker, director of the National Children's Literacy Initiative. "But I don't think it's a magic fix."

Rather, many literacy experts say, parents can better ensure reading habits by reading to children early and often. In its 1985 report, "Becoming a Nation of Readers," the U.S. Department of Education's Commission on Reading wrote that "the single most important activity for building the knowledge required for eventual success in reading is reading aloud to children."

"No one book or one author is the ultimate goal," Ms. Beker said. "The best guarantee to help children keep reading is to start them young and to give them lots of pleasurable experiences with a range of books."

In 1999, 53 percent of American children ages 3 to 5 were read to daily by a family member, down from 57 percent in 1996, according to a report from the Federal Interagency Forum on Child and Family Statistics. In 1993, the figure was 53 percent, reported the forum, a group of government and private research organizations that collects and reports federal data on child and family issues.

Solomon Gardner, 9, of Dallas said during a visit to the Dallas Central Library on Tuesday that he remembers his parents reading to him when he was younger. He said the rhyming Dr. Seuss books got him interested in reading on his own. Now, he and his older brothers take the bus downtown to read at the library on hot summer afternoons. "It's fun," said the fourth-grader, who has not read Harry Potter. "You learn new words."

Dr. David Walsh, president of the nonprofit National Institute on Media and the Family, said reading aloud to children early helps familiarize them with concepts that will later help with talking, reading and writing skills.

"It's laying down emotional building blocks so children associate warmth, security and pleasure with the experience of reading," he said.

Dr. Walsh said the Potter series was released at a good time – when the nation is concerned about the problem of illiteracy.

"It's encouraging kids to read, encouraging kids to read more, and encouraging kids to read who don't read," he said. "The real challenge is to build on that and keep it going. It has created an appetite for kids ... and demonstrated to millions of kids that not only is it important, but it's a heck of a lot of fun."

While the Potter phenomenon alone isn't likely to turn the tide on literacy, local parents and librarians say they welcome the "reading revival" and the excitement that came with the fantasy series.

"It makes me happy because our kids need motivation in reading and this has helped them get that motivation to find that reading can be exciting," said Kjerstine Nielsen, branch manager at the Dallas Public Library's Walnut Hill branch.

Gail Vesledahl said her 9-year-old son has never been excited about a book. Now he is fighting with his 16-year-old sister to read the fourth Potter book. They are reading it simultaneously.

"He does it on his own," Mrs. Vesledahl said. "I think he won't feel so overwhelmed when he looks at big books. Now he knows it could be exciting and imaginative."