An Expert Talks About Harry Potter
What is it about Harry Potter that is so appealing to kids?
The characters and their lives are quite similar to those of real-life kids and their life stories, but at the same time, they are one degree removed — by the fantasized world of magic — so they are very familiar yet safely different. For example, the peer relationships in the books are very much like the real-life social lives of kids. The stories of friendships, competition, misunderstandings, loyalties, meanness, and so forth are truly compelling for readers. Hogwarts — a school for wizards — is certainly unique, and yet the competition there on and off the athletic field is so comfortably familiar that it draws kids' interest.
So I think the bottom line is that Harry Potter is so popular, at least in part, because it is at the same time absolutely unreal and absolutely real to kids.
How do I know if my child is ready to understand the content in the Harry Potter books?
First, I would suggest that these are not the best books for parents to read to kids who are not yet able to read them on their own. Most children would not be able to read them before 3rd or 4th grade.
Parents generally know their children, especially their inclination to be fearful of the dark or the unknown. Parents also usually know best when their children are thinking abstractly enough to know the difference between fantasy and reality. It is at this point that children are really ready for the books. So it comes down to knowing your child and keeping the door open to conversations about the books. Read them yourself or read them together and be ready to listen to the feelings he expresses. Most kids, if a book is over their heads emotionally, will drop it, especially if it is scaring them. Allow this, with little or no comment.
The books are filled with scenarios that discuss common childhood issues like loneliness, fitting in, bullying, loss, and rule-breaking. What's the best way to use the books to talk about difficult subjects with my child?
I advise parents to read the books or listen to them on tape. Then they can easily ask their children about what has happened. They can ask if they are up to the part when a certain thing happens, and if so, what they thought about that. But be careful not to impose your zeal for "talking out" problematic emotions if your child is not ready to discuss them.