Ruffs and Zings: the Harry Potter Phenomenon

by Sherwood Smith

In a conversation not long ago, someone asked if people thought the Harry Potter books would become classics.

I don’t think I have to go into how nobody can predict classics with much success, any more than publishers can guarantee best sellers; even if they put a selected book through the mega hype machine, there’s no guarantee that that will pay off.

Anyway, my short answer? I think it’s more likely that the Harry Potter phenomenon will endure, rather than the books themselves. But who can be sure?

In her short novel, or novella, Bellwether Connie Willis speculates in a sort of Josephine Tey manner on how fashions change, and who changes them. In that particular story I was mildly frustrated because I kept waiting for her to answer the story’s specific question with Coco Chanel, but she never does. But then that wasn’t the point of the story.

The general question remains. Many times we don’t precisely know who kicked off what fashion when. Like, my kids were watching the HBO Henry VIII miniseries, and my daughter, who likes to peg social customs and detail, pointed out that the clothes were beautifully period, except for the total lack of codpieces.

Those fashion necessities persisted for a couple of decades at least, back in Henry’s day. Every man wore them. Henry’s were not subtle. We can probably figure out why they were left out for modern TV audiences, but that leaves the question, what was going on in early sixteenth century Western European culture to make codpieces popular in one set of years, and huge coach wheel ruffs popular in another?

The question could be reframed as, can we recognize what it is in the zeitgeist that makes a fashion, or a work, take fire so much that everyone gets drawn in?

A little over a century ago, there was a best seller called Trilby, which in spite of reviewers and readers everywhere hailing as a classic in the making, dwindled gradually to the name Svengali entering the surging sea of detached metaphors whose origin is long lost.

How can we tell at the time if the work is going to become an enduring part of literature or a relative flash like Trilby, all but forgotten the next generation down? When I was young, the two ‘new classics’ were Love Story and Jonathan Livingston Seagull.

At some point, they gained enough readers to become phenomena. I remember a conversation with a neighbor in Isla Vista (scene of much bank burning and rioting in the early seventies) that having Love Story lying in plain view on his stereo, below his potted plants, signaled that he was hip and mellow, date material. He actually thought the book the stupidest thing ever written, but it was a sure-fire chick magnet. Many of his dates would begin with a “meaningful discussion” over this book.

I wondered how many women besides me secretly despised the book, but kept quiet to avoid acrimony, because of social expectation. Not that everyone hated it. I also had some friends who adored both books, and memorized aphorisms out of them. Some had the Love Story theme played at their hand-fastings. There were many, many people who felt that “Love is never having to say you’re sorry” was deep and meaningful—and they had the poster on their walls next to their hanging plants or macrame art to prove it.

I have this theory I call zing. I see zing as that moment of visceral thrill (which includes physical reactions—terror, vertigo, eroticism, grief, laughter, etc), the joy of recognition, the shiver of the new, the echo of longing, the glimpse that widens the universe in a single flash. A work that resonates with that level of meaning can strike so far down in one’s psyche as to cause tectonic shifts in paradigm.

There is nothing more powerful than the zing of surprise in a new thing. Book, music, art, fashion. Idea.

Readers who’re long familiar with a given genre are not going to get as many zings of the new as an older readership. Some are going to perceive zing where others are going to get the anti-zing, the eeew!

Also, if a work gives a reader enough zings, the reader is going to invest all that remembered zinginess in the next work by that author before reading the first page, so unless the second work really disappoints, the zings intensify. Zing can echo down the memory lane.

Here’s an example. There is a line in a book by Lois McMaster Bujold, paraphrased as: The next number up is one. I was on a panel not long after that particular novel came out, and that bit came up. There were a pair of panelists unfamiliar with the line. One shrugged, thinking it forgettable. The other thought it was cute. Those of us who had been following the course of the Miles Vorkosigan series got a very intense memory zing from the quoting of that line because it resonated with memory. Then comes the zing of looking around, and discovering others with that same rapt look, the same grin. Another zing, the one triggered by belonging.

So, up to the present day, and Harry Potter, which is still selling briskly, if not in the mind-boggling quantities of the previous decade. At what point did a popular children’s series tip over into a world phenomenon? I don’t think anyone can say for certain, though it seems around the time of the third book.

When I was a teacher, I observed different levels to kids’ engagement with the books. First and mostly, there were the kids who read and loved them. But that was not all those who joined into the Potter enthusiasm. There were the kids who didn’t actually read the books—though they owned them. There were the kids who waited for the movies. There were the kids who hoovered up the story by listening to kids talk about it on the playground, and knew every twist of the plot, every spell, but who hadn’t actually read a page.

The books, someone said, had a devoted readership of eighty million. Are those eighty million still eagerly reading—even rereading Potter? I’ve talked to some young college kids and mid-twenties who remember the Potter days with fondness. They might have spent a fun night camping out at a bookstore before a new volume came out. They wore Potter costumes, they talked on the playground about Slytherin versus the other Houses. They speculated endlessly about Malfoy. Have they read the books recently, or any other book? Not really—“I don’t have time for reading.” They remember the stories with a smile, but their zing of memory seems to emanate from the activities experienced with the social bond.

Since the Potterphenom, it seems to me that people have looked around for another phenom, kind of like happened after Star Wars in 1977. So we had the Twilight phenom, and more recently the Hunger Games phenom.

Some readers do go back and passionately reread these books, though it’s too early to tell if that will happen over a lifetime—or spring to the next generation. Because isn’t that the essence of a classic, that one can revisit a book one’s entire life, and find new meanings? That a new generation can find value there, in spite of the ‘newness’ being worn off? I think that is different from a phenomenon, which is a great body of people happily sharing a work at one specific time—that sharing being at least as important as the work itself. I suspect that all of us alive during the years the Potter books came out will always remember the excitement of that time. As for the books becoming classics, isn’t that really a question for the Potter fans’ children, and their children’s children?

Sherwood Smith is a member of Book View Cafe



Ruffs and Zings: the Harry Potter Phenomenon — 47 Comments

  1. That strikes me as an excellent distinction between phenomena and classics, without automatically carrying the elitist tinge so many definitions seem to carry. And it encapsulates why we can’t judge what’s a classic until a good chunk of time has passed; we have to see what the next generation thinks before we can say for sure.

  2. I suspect the Potter books will endure at least for another twenty years or so, because those who read and loved Harry Potter as children will pass the books on to their own offspring. What happens then is anybody’s guess?

    A good test is always looking at bestseller lists (the 20th century bestseller lists by decade can be found here) and major literary award winners (Pulitzer, Nobel, Booker, etc…) from past decades and see how many names you don’t recognize, even though they were the most successful and/or critically acclaimed books and writers of their time. For example, of the eight German winners of the Nobel Prize for Literature, three are names that only scholars of German literature recognize at all – these writers did not last in spite of Nobel honours.

    Sometimes, a writer or a book can also be considered a classic for decades and then suddenly fall out of fashion nonetheless. For example, Sir Walter Scott has largely fallen out of fashion and is no longer read and studied with the same fervour as he once was.

    19th century German writer Gustav Freytag is more remembered for his plot pyramid than for his novels nowadays. Another German writer from the same period, Felix Dahn who wrote the historical epic Ein Kampf um Rom (Battle for Rom) was considered a classic for almost an entire century, but fell out of favour after WWII. When I wrote a paper on 19th century historical fiction at university, both Dahn and Freytag were out of print and only available in used editions. Karl May’s fame lasted for more than a century, but he is on his way out. Kids of my generation still devoured May, but today’s kids have never heard of him except as the inspiration for Der Schuh des Manitu, a film comedy that is basically a slashy Winnetou parody, and they certainly don’t read him. I suspect the reason in all three cases is similar, because Freytag, Dahn and May all wrote dense and difficult to digest Victorian doorstoppers. Freytag and Dahn suffer from dated nationalism as well.

  3. Coincidentally, the fact that Karl May is falling out of fashion will also kill Der Schuh des Manitu, after all the highest grossing German film of all time, down the line, when a generation grows up that doesn’t understand the references or why the jokes are funny.

  4. Der Schuh des Manitu is another German film I’ve never heard of. The sooner we get can access to film and TV outside our border, the better. Netflix is nice for some stuff, but woefully slim on choices.

    I remember reading some Karl May, recommended by a friend in Vienna in 1972. He explained how popular May was, especially his Westerns. I thought, why would someone in Europe ever read Westerns, and got one. The West in it was like a fairyland–totally unrecognizable. I was too ignorant to think further about this, but now I am aware that that would be an interesting subject to pursue. . . at a time when it would be even more difficult to obtain May’s work, sigh.

  5. My first reaction was–are ANY children’s or middle grade “classics” still read?
    I remember librarians and teachers trying to get us to read “classics” some of which I liked and some I hated. Harry Potter was big in my community, and the kids like fantasy, but I don’t see older books being read or considered.

  6. Pilgrimsoul: good question, and one I can no longer answer. (When I was a teacher, we did have the kids read classics, and hard could be the debates when some of us tried to get someone’s 1940 idea of a ‘classic’ replaced with something we thought better.) But I kept hearing about schools in which the kids read small snippets of books in a reader over the course of the year, and no actual books at all. Third hand, though. And that was before I retired.

  7. I agree with Cora that the books will last at least one more generation. I haven’t reread them (and I skipped a couple), but I’ll certainly read them to our son. I’ve no doubt he’ll love them.

    I suspect they are most likely to follow a similar trajectory to The Hobbit; they’ll never be as popular again as they were when they first came out, but there are enough parents with enough good memories to keep introducing them to their children and to keep churning them over.

    And, of course, it will depend on what Rowling does next. If she keeps her popularity with future books (although undoubtedly it won’t be at quite the same level) there’s more of a chance that the Potter books will remain in people’s consciousness.

  8. I think Rowling would have had a better chance at classic if she’d kept the later books as lean as the earlier ones. Kids who are wrapped up in the phenomenon may push through the later bloat for more Harry, but I think once the social impetus fades, so will the books. Aside from the lack of focused editing in the later books that made them far too long for their content, the later books also seem to belong to a specific moment when kid fic, like adult fic, became very dark. And I think that darkness is a fashion that will wane, and the later books will not survive that. But the first few might, on their own.

  9. Patrick: yes, the key is how the next generation will react. Here’s an example from my own lifetime, and talking to many fellow sf and f fans who became teachers. At cons for the past twenty years I’ve heard laments about trying to get kids to read the Heinlein juveniles, to just about universal lack of interest.

  10. Really interesting post. Maybe “niches” have something to do with it. At one point *Love Story* filled the meaningful conversation/babe magnet niche, for example, but it could be equally well filled (or better, for a later age) by another book – say, *The Bridges of Madison County* a decade or two later on.

    Then there’s the “phenomenon” niche, where the pleasure is in passing all the shibboleth tests, sharing the social experiences, etc. Phenomena are temporary by definition, wheeling as they do around specific events (the publication of a new book, the release of a new film), and when one expires, another naturally takes its place. In the case of Harry Potter, this was Twilight, at least for many. People who would once have belonged to Ravenclaw started to wear shirts reading “Team Jacob”.

    Classics are books that somehow either maintain their niche, or change niches, or maintain a broad portfolio of niches – I guess. The question then is whether HP has anything left once its phenomenal days are gone. (The parental “I read this as a child and so I’m going to buy it for you so as to innoculate you with my own childhood memories” niche is its best bet, perhaps.)

  11. Charlie: I like that observation about the portfolio of niches.

    Camille: it’s too early to say if Harry Potter will fill (to borrow Charlie’s term) the niche of the reinvented stereotypes. Because that’s basically what she did–took stereotypical characters, and chucked them into a meshing of old stereotypical formula plots: the school story, and the magical adventure novel. Like Georgette Heyer reinvented the Silver Fork Novel niche.

  12. There are many adults without children who are fans of Harry Potter. My son was a teenager when the books came out. I read the books. He did not. I have several childless friends who are also Harry Potter fans.

    In fact, how I found out about Harry Potter was from reading an article in the LA Times about how the book appealed to adults. Parents were buying the books for their children and reading them then recommending the books to their adult friends.

    The adult characters in the books are way more interesting and varied than the child characters. So I think that when those who read the books as children come back and read them as adults that they are going to find a whole new layer to the stories that they missed when they were children.

    And I hated Love Story. Why is it that only the dead depressing romances are made into movies?

  13. Kiana: that is a good question. But bathos has always been popular–look at the Werther phenomenon, and how it spread across Europe to England, influencing the Romantic poets while young!

    There’s a lot of fun stuff in Potter for the adults, like the clever play with Latin for the names of the spells. And yes, there are some interesting things for adults to consider, buried under the kids’ storyline, like how Harry’s dad was probably pretty much of a jerk.

  14. Werther is of course a literary fad that has become a classic. It’s still on highschool reading lists and you can even get today’s students interested in the book with some effort. I once introduced the epistolary form via The Vampire Diaries, a latter day version of the format that many students were familiar with.

    I suspect that Der Schuh des Manitu is unavailable in the US in spite of its huge success in Germany, because if you haven’t grown up with Karl May and particularly the Karl May film adaptions of the 1960s with their unintentional slashiness, you simply won’t get the jokes and it becomes a weird western parody with gay trappers and gay Native Americans cavorting through the Croatian mountains.

    Your reaction to Karl May is interesting (if you’re really interested, all of his stuff should be on Project Gutenberg by now – try the Winnetou trilogy for his take on the western or Durch das Wilde Kurdistan for adventures in the Middle East), because his version of the West was very much a fairy tale, as May never saw the US or actual Native Americans until very late in his life, he was making it all up from whole cloth. Other German western authors (there were others) were the same and yet their books were incredibly popular and many are still in print.

    Interestingly enough, early exposure to Karl May via the film adaptions permanently left me unable to enjoy Hollywood westerns. To me they were just films about ugly old men who kept shooting at each other, kept killing Native Americans and were unreasonably afraid of them (Didn’t they know that Winnetou and has Apaches were the good guys?), treated women like crap and were unreasonably upset about stolen horses, but not at all bothered about people getting shot. They were stupid, too, standing opposite each other and shooting at each other. Winnetou and Old Shatterhand would never do that sort of thing.

    My best friend and I had it all worked out, BTW. She was going to marry Winnetou and I was going to marry Old Shatterhand. We never really noticed the slashiness.

  15. Enduring popularity is determined greatly by what needs of mythographic space the work fulfills, particularly in the kinds of works like fantasy that do deal with the liminal and the limits, if any, of heroism.

    For instance in the U.S., the Western in text and in movies. In the 30’s, the unswerving popularity and levels of high production of such works fell almost to zero for the first time since the genre began in publication and then not much later the new industry of moving pictures. There are social reasons for that, including the so-called closing of the frontier and opportunity that the audience felt during the Depression. Then with the lead up to entering WWII the production and popularity zoomed back. There was a need for that mythological space again, one we could believe in, as we accomplished miracles to fight the nazis.

    Love, C.

  16. Cora: that is fascinating–I need to look into getting these. Thanks for the reminder of public domain.

    Foxessa: the whole westward movement paradigm is an interesting one to look at. Also, the west in film; when I worked as a slub in Hollywood, an old screenwriter told me that in part the Westerns kept showing up in film because the locations were right there–talk about low budget!

  17. Lol, should I even admit to not only having the Winnetou and other Wild West stories and the Desert/Kurdistan ones, but several of the Münchmeyer Romance series in an unabridged version? 😉

    Winnetou and Old Shatterhand are slashy enough in the books, but the movies give an even stronger vibe …. all those meaningful looks …. 😀 Though it has something to do with both being described as good looking; Kara Ben Nemsi and Hadschi Halef Omar ben Hadschi Abul Abbas ibn Hadschi Davoud al Gossarah (and I didn’t look that up) never gave a slashy vibe because Hadschi just isn’t hot (sorry, Hanneh 😉 ).

    Though yes, getting any Felix Dahn these days is tricky. I do have Ein Kampf um Rom, but I’ve in vain tried to hunt down some of his other books, like Die Bataver and Stilicho. Gutenberg is a nice idea but I don’t read fiction on screen (I’ve tried but I just can’t do it) so those are out of questiion.

  18. Don’t get me started on Werther. I’ve always liked to read classics, but that one just SUCKED and kept me off Goethe’s novels for quite some time (I did like his plays Faust and Götz von Berlichingen, though). Die neuen Leiden des jungen Werther (forgot the author) was a tad better bud didn’t really hook me either.

    Oh, and Love Story on someone’s shelf would so have put him off the list of possible dates. 😛

  19. Oh yes, the Greifenklau family in those Kolportage novels that May wrote. My church library had the full edition of Karl May books – I read his autobiography and his late metaphysical reinterpretations of Asia, USA and Arabia – which made me chuck Iltschi and Hatatitlah and decide I wanted Rih and no other horse, if I ever wanted one.

    I love the fact that Winnetou turns into sort of a Christ figure at the end when Tscharlieh revisits the US and I enjoyed Ardistan and Der Mir von Dschinnistan, too – I ate his lets-all-work-together for good across the nations up whole, no matter how problematic he was as a person.

    I wonder how many English speaking children still read Winnie the Pooh or The Wind in the Willows?

  20. Hmm, or was the horse’s name Syrr/Sirr after all? He’s sort of like the Shadowfax of Karl May’s world.

  21. Good questions, Estara. Do children read Pinocchio or Andrew Lang’s Fariy Tale books of Many Colors, which were among the classics of my far off youth.

  22. I admit I haven’t read those last works of him. I wanted my action and my intrigue and I never believed in that let’s all be nice to each other thing. I read Dostojevsky at the same time, after all. 😉

    Greifenklau, yeah that castle in France with all those secret tunnels and the flashbacks to the love stories of father and grandfather and their old feud with the Richemontes. And the Alderhors family from that other series who got spread all over the globe, one sister sold into a harem, one brother working in the quicksilver mines in Arizona, another a soldier in Siberia …. those are more fun than they should be. 😉

  23. Winnie the Pooh got a surge in popularity here in the States after the Disney cartoon, but Wind in the Willows was always a kind of sleeper, either given by grandparents or discovered in the library by the heavy reader kids. (I didn’t read it until I was an adult because I loathed animals-dressed-up-as-people whimsy. My magic had to make visual sense, and I could not envision a frog driving a car.)

  24. This is a great post, Sherwood.

    I agree with the idea that when, how, and for how long (in terms of waning and waxing popularity) a work endures has something to do — a great deal to do — with the mythological space it inhabits and thereby how that space is needed by and/or feeds into whatever the current cultural mix/mythologies are.

  25. I’ve asked myself the same question about the Potter books. TIme will tell.

    Yes, some children still do read some of the children’s classics. My kids have read both Winnie the Pooh and The Wind in the Willows as well as Alice in Wonderland, Through the Looking Glass, Farmer Boy, Treasure Island, Robinson Crusoe, to name a few. Partly the reason for that is because we have them and other children’s classics at home in our kids’ bedrooms on bookshelves, and partly because of the curriculum at our kids’ school, which curriculum includes a return to a form of classic learning and instruction.

    I don’t doubt that other classics are still read such as To Kill a Mockingbird and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, for example. But there certainly is a “craze” that happens with certain releases that really sucks people in. It’s something one might get caught up in at the time, but then come to realize that the writing, and or editing of said “crazes” was subpar. But for whatever reason, people find varying levels of meaning in those works and often talk themselves into thinking they are really great, completely, 100 percent. I’m embarrassed to admit that that is precisely what happened to me with Twilight.

    At first, I hadn’t even heard of it and when I was first introduced to the book, I determined, based upon the quick library summary, that I really wasn’t all that interested.

    Then, I attended a symposium where Rosemary Wells, Joan Bauer, and Stephenie Meyer were slated to be the author presenters. I decided I’d better be familiar with their respective works, so I read everything by Joan Bauer and enjoyed her YA realistic fiction pieces, and loved Rosemary Wells’ picturebooks with my young children, but still, had no interest in reading Twilight.

    When my friend, who I saw front and center at the symposium and who never left her seat in order to attend Stephenie’s session all three times, I asked her WHY? She was so enamored with Twilight, and gave it such glowing recommendations, I decided to give it a try.

    I admit to liking the first book. I found it to be a somewhat creative approach to the otherwise dark vampire story and I bought a copy. Then I read book number 2 and book number 3 in the series, but by then was disappointed with the “rush job” I felt the author did in writing them and the whiney Bella character became a disappointment, and the whole obsession with paragon Edward drove me crazy, along with the Jacob conflict. I wouldn’t even read the 4th one. Just a few months ago, I donated my copies to the local library–yes, even the autographed copy of Twilight that I purchased and had Stephenie sign at that symposium.

    As I read books today, I often ask myself, “Will this stand the test of time? Is this classic material?”

  26. Greta: I don’t see any reason for being embarrassed over one’s liking for a book at any given period of one’s life. The author behind that book worked hard, and the book worked for you at that time. If you grow out of it, well, then it’s not a classic for you . . . and sometimes, if we multiply that by numbers of people, we get closer to an answer about classics. Personally, I think the perfect audience for Twilight is age thirteen–or those in touch with their emotional thirteen-year-old. (I never read the second through fourth, just didn’t sound like my cuppa.)

    I, too, had all these carefully collected classics on my home shelves, but my kids didn’t take to them. (My daughter later discovered L.M.Montgomery, but actually she preferred the amazing Journals to the fiction. She doesn’t read much fiction, outside of a few nineteenth century classics; she turned out to be a film person. And my son is into music, as listener and musician. I have hopes that grandkids might one day discover those books!)

  27. In elementary school I read and reread and rereread the several volumes of Thornton Burgess’s Mother West Wind tales we had in the house, which I later discovered were books read by my father when he was a child. I purchased reissues of the first three books when my children were of age and I read them aloud to them, and yet . . . they did not take. Instead, my sons read and reread Otto and Uncle Tooth, and insist that I keep all the Otto and Uncle Tooth books on my keeper children’s shelf (next to the 3 Burgess books).

    Well – that was a bit off topic – but you know what I mean.

    I wonder if To Kill A Mockingbird will remain a classic or if it’s time, too, may eventually pass.

  28. I wonder, too, about To Kill a Mockingbird. It does seem one of the best books of the 20th century, but who knows what from the 2o9th c will endure? (Who can name the best sellers of the 1400s, say?)

  29. It was the bible. JSYK

    The whole idea of classics has amused me for a while. The ‘canon’ of literature is a very strange phenomenon, usually nationalistic, and very, very restricted. However, if we look at the things that really are in the canon, like Shakespeare and Jane Austen, and Werther, they were written for pretty much the teen demographic. So probably Harry Potter has a decent chance at being a classic, since it has nothing to do with the writing, but with the culture.

    The thing about kids, is that when they’re the right age to be reading Winnie-the-Pooh and that sort of thing (I personally preferred Paddington Bear), they don’t have tastes yet. They develop tastes and interests in the years after, and it’s important to move with those tastes, always have at the tips of your fingers the ‘classic’ that suits their interest. I loved Ivanhoe, Connecticut Yankee, Treasure Island, when I was young, but I hated Robinson Crusoe (so boring) and young is the best age to be given these books, because no one’s told you that they should be hard to read. They’re not hard when you’re that age, because all books are hard, and you learn by reading them.

    But of course the worst books are ‘children’s classics.’ Things that are supposed to be about growing up are just traumatic. Where the Red Fern Grows, Bridge to Terabithia, Tuck Everlasting… you don’t enjoy those books, you recover from them. They’re brutal and awful and pretty traumatic. But excellent children’s books, whenever they were written, they’re the kind of books you remember your whole life.

  30. Best-sellers of the 1400s . . . heh. You could look it up! *grin*

    One reason I have always held the film “What’s Up, Doc?” in such high esteem (despite a silly screwball comedy script and premise–but with great dialogue and wonderful cast) is that last line. Barbra’s character says to Ryan (O’Neal)’s character, “Love means never having to say you’re sorry.”

    He blinks. “That’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard in my life.”

    It’s only funny, of course, if you’ve seen or know about the film of “Love Story,” in which Ryan starred opposite the Woman With The Fatal But Non-Wasting, Non-Wilting disease.

    I would guess that “Mockingbird” will remain a classic so long as our civilization is remembered or at least studied. You’d have to be somewhat familiar with the old South and her traditions and embarrassments or it wouldn’t make as much sense. It resonates with me because of my upbringing, and my mother actually LIVED in those “whites only water fountain” times. The same is true for “Gatsby” and other current candidates for The Great American Novel.

    Something like “Lysistrata,” on the other hand, has come down to us and is still understandable despite the vast diffs between us and the Oldest Dead White European Males. Also Shakespeare has held up very well, although you do have to convince the female students that “it really was that way for women back then.” (grin)

    Does it still speak to us about the eternal human condition in a way that resonates and makes sense? Then it’s still a classic. . . .

    I vote “no” on Potter lasting. C. S. Lewis’ Narnia books have a much better chance–although parts can come across a bit twee at times if you re-read them as an adult. And Pooh/Alice are still on the radar.

  31. Cara: I don’t know that Shakespeare wrote primarily for teens–it seems to me that his genius was not only writing for the pit and the galleries, but for all ages.

    Jane Austen, as well.

    That said, a lot of enduring works were written by younger authors and took fire for younger readers, but somehow endured. It’s a puzzle!

    Shalanna, oh yes, Hollywood Fatal disease–you just get prettier before you croak!

  32. Hollywood Fatal Disease isn’t confined to Hollywood. There was the Bel Canto Consumption, where you remain capable of singing an insanely difficult aria even as you cough up bits of your lungs.

  33. I started reading Harry Potter just before it became a phenomenon (or before I was aware of it being a phenomenon), as a child, and I loved the first three books. From that point on I read each one as it came out, but didn’t enjoy them as much. I haven’t reread any of them since the last book was released.

    I think they’ll still be read, simply because there are so many people who enjoyed them, but not in the same way as they were initially. They definitely got worse and less edited after the first three, and given my complete lack of desire to reread any of them now, they don’t last for me.

    My collection of Diana Wynne Jones books, however, I have reread again and again from the age of 8 onwards, and I still enjoy them. They are classics.

  34. Pingback: SF Signal: SF Tidbits for 5/23/11

  35. David, you also could do that with a knife stuck in your heart, a bullet in your brain and other fatal injuries. But I admit I have a soft spot for opera death scenes.

  36. Ah yes, opera death scenes, where people who have just been stabbed to death still manage to sing for 15 minutes.

    Opera consumption is particularly amusing BTW if Mimi or Violetta is played by a soprano who is anything but consumptive. Our local opera house had a memorable La Boheme performance in the late 1950s, where the consumptive Mimi was played by an unknown and rather corpulent soprano. The reviewer for the local paper was just about to fire off a bad review complaining about the impossible casting. But then the corpulent young lady began to sing. The name of the unknown soprano was Montserrat Caballe

  37. Wispy little things might be perfect for ballet, but they don’t seem to have the lung power for roof-lifting arias. I remember during my grad school days, I was a waitress at a dinner house where Friday nights they offered live singing. One of my fellow waitresses was putting herself through music school. She was a six foot tall, broadly built, splendidly shaped redhead, and she talked with rueful amusement about costuming herself as tiny, fifteen year old Cho-Cho-San.

  38. I not only read Andrew Lang’s Coloured Fairy Books as a child, I was able to find copies of them to buy for myself as an adult.

    They’re in print, at any rate. I’ve recommended them for people who want to broaden their views of fairy tales, since they are both finite and far-faring.

  39. Cara M.: I’ve actually had it said that books like Bridge to Terabithia were helpful and touching reads … for kids who have seen an equivalently large trauma in real life and need something to show them they’re not alone in it. (Paterson herself wrote it for exactly that reason; to make sense of a real world tragedy). Jane Yolen talks about how sometimes a story can break through the shock and start a more healthy grieving when nothing else can, and that’s the *purpose* of such books.

    They’re apparently *awful* things to subject children to who want exciting adventures, and a happy ending, and who don’t know where it’s going. They’re books meant for a very particular situation — but because they were praised so highly for that, they were assumed to be something universally appealing. And now are given out as such. Which I think is cruel, both to the kids and the books. (Paterson has written some much better, more adventury and not nearly so depressing books. I think they deserve more attention.)

  40. I was going to suggest the various LM Montgomery novels as books that are still read – but I don’t have numbers or even anecdata to support that, and may well be wrong.

  41. @ Cara M.: You know, I always hear people say this about Bridge to Terabithia, but I loved it when I read it at age 7–even though, yes the ending is horribly sad, and I had not gone through a similar trauma personally. My sister loved Where the Red Fern Grows, and we both loved Tuck Everlasting–which I don’t remember finding traumatic at all. We were reading these in the mid-90s, so well after all three books had entered their ‘classic’ status, though none were assigned for school. My point is not to diminish the bad experiences that other children may have with reading this particular books, but just to point out that not everyone reacts the same way, and for some children those much-abused ‘children’s classics’ really do work.

    I also think that there is still an audience for what we think of as the children’s classics–I worked in a children’s bookstore up to a year ago, and some of our steadiest sellers were things like the Narnia books, Pippi Longstocking, and Beverly Cleary. Admittedly some classics did better than others, but… I think in general kids are relatively oblivious to how ‘old’ a book is, just as they are to how ‘hard’ it is–I know as a child reader I didn’t always distinguish between contemporary books set in the past and books that were actually written decades or centuries before, and pretty much all of the 20th century was jumbled up in my idea of the ‘recent past’.

  42. @ Gen & Lenora Rose

    I’ve always been one to cry over books and laugh out loud, and I know that oddly enough Alanna was also rather traumatic, but for other reasons. I was a Redwall reader, and those always had at least one tragic death, but it was a noble death. I suppose books are probably the best place for children to get somewhat traumatic experiences, but I wasn’t really ready to face the irrationality and purposelessness of death in the real world. (I’m still not, at least not to enjoy it as a plot point. Which is why I tend to avoid literary fiction.)

    It just makes me wonder what children would choose as classics, rather than what adults think children should read. It’s good to know that the selection of these books as ‘classics’ wasn’t totally unfounded, and a lot of them are quite good and engaging until the last six pages or so (unlike a lot of ‘issue’ books), when they suddenly betray you and rip away your happy ending. (I’m having an odd flashback to the previous discussion about romance novels…)

    But of course one of the best things about children’s literature, is that there is so much good stuff to choose from, and if you’ve read a lot, it’s possible to find the right book to suit the kid. I know that when I was working at the library and someone said “well, we’ve finished Harry Potter,” I would say, “This is Diana Wynne Jones, give her a shot.” After Twilight, LJ Smith. Beverly Cleary, Mary Norton. Matt Christopher, Gary Paulsen, Robert Louis Stevenson. There are a ton of classics, particularly when you find the right kid.

  43. It depends, I suppose, not just on taste and time, but also on environment. I grew up in fairly small towns with libraries that didn’t have heavy use, purchase, or turnover. I read a lot of old classics, only some of which were also read by my peers (I’m 30). So, for instance, I read The Five Little Peppers and How They Grew. My dad gave me Freddy the Pig, though I didn’t care for it. I read The Water Babies, Peter and Wendy, Bambi and Bambi’s Children, etc. But I haven’t met many folks my age who have also read these – whereas I’ve met tons of folks my age who’ve also read the Anne of Green Gables books. So I’d say that Anne is a classic, and, at least in book form, Bambi isn’t.

  44. I think environment is pretty crucial. I spent some of my formative years (7 to 11) in Kenya, which means I grew up reading what British girls were reading 20 years before then. Narnia yes, Wind in the Willows yes (from my parents), Alice yes, Anne yes (I am Canadian after all), but lots of other classics I have only a vague acquaintance with. I still have all my Arthur Ransomes and a lot of pony books — Monica Edwards, Patricia Leitch, Ruby Ferguson, the Pullein-Thompson sisters — and I’ve been re-buying a lot of Rosemary Sutcliff. I didn’t discover DWJ until about 7 years ago, which I regret. And I read a ton of Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys and Enid Blyton, but would not now. It all depends so much on what you’re given by parents and kind friends, and what’s on the shelves at the cottage or the used book store or the school library.

    On another note, I have a T-shirt that reads “Evil means never having to say you’re sorry.” It makes me giggle every time I wear it.