The July 21st release of "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows," the seventh and final book in the Potter series, will reveal what author J.K. Rowling has ultimately done with her Boy Wonder. While young readers around the world are speculating on Harry's fate, many experts of children's literature, including Betsy Hearne, a professor emerita of library and information science at Illinois, also are weighing in on the topic. Hearne's research interests include literary and artistic analyses of children's books. She served as the director of the Center for Children's Books at Illinois for 11 years, and as the editor of the Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books for nine years. She was interviewed by News Bureau Humanities Editor Andrea Lynn.
What is your expectation regarding Harry's longevity?
As the hero, Harry must live - unless Rowling wants to violate the fairy tale/fantasy mode that she has followed so far.
Would it be ethical for Rowling to kill her beloved protagonist when so many millions of children have grown up with him and, indeed, identify with him?
Death is nothing new to children's literature, and children certainly can and should be introduced to death in a book before they have to deal with it in real life.
However, the conventions of this series lead to expectations of an ending that may involve loss but will be triumphant for the hero. The death of Albus Dumbledore, the headmaster of the fictional wizarding school, did to some extent prepare children for an even greater loss, but I don't think it will be Harry.
Has the Potter series changed children's literature? Do different standards apply to the Potter oeuvre?
Harry Potter has certainly affected publishing history. Although there have been many fantasy series just as good or better – authors Lloyd Alexander, Susan Cooper, Philip Pullman, and of course C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien come to mind – this series has soared on wings of global media attention in numbers never before achieved by any book series. It has shown that children can read long books if they are motivated to do it, that children's books can claim adult readers as well, and that it's still worth taking a risk to develop new writers, which Rowling once was. Unfortunately many great books don't catch that lucky updraft and will go out of print unknown to young readers.
Have Potter clones begun appearing in children's literature?
Absolutely! The Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books has seen a major trend of long fantasies, which require more time to review and generate new critical questions. How do you evaluate a series that may be uneven, volume-to-volume? Do you consider each book, year by year, for awards, or do you give an award for the cumulative achievement of the whole series? Once a series is complete, how do you recommend a series that advances in age from a young protagonist to an adolescent when the child may want to read them one right after the other?
Adults are an important bridge between children and books. They can use the Harry Potter forces to strengthen that bridge, to support the kind of motivation and confidence that stimulate literacy, to develop deeper bonds with children by reading and discussing these and other books together. It's a rare and heartening opportunity for all of us.