One of Harry Potter’s greatest ‘magic tricks’ is bringing the book back into children’s lives and returning them to reading.
But, there’s another bit of magic at work in this literary phenomenon which is even more important … and that is encouraging children to imagine!
To ‘imagine’ is to create with the mind and in the doing, the mind is created and the brain is developed. Imagination is a human instinct and ability and young children do it naturally and frequently. In a way, imagination is like aerobics for the mind …. an exercise which strengthens and develops and improves with practise.
That’s why play is so important to small children because the act of imagining is an integral part of their learning about themselves and the world around them. Play involves all of the senses in a way that watching television does not. The beauty of books is that the story, while told through black marks on a page, only comes alive through the imagination of the reader. As we read, we create the story in our mind, guided by the words that the writer has used. But it is only a guide and much of the work is left up to us. When fantasy and magic are involved there is even more work to do and it is even more fun.
The Harry Potter stories follow in a long and rich tradition of fantasy, magic and myth. They may not be exceptional literary works and J.K. Rowling may not be a ‘great writer’ per se: but she is a great story-teller and that is what makes the young boy wizard such a magical ingredient in our children’s lives. The words certainly matter and Rowling is a more than competent writer, but what matters most of all is the story. It is the story which stimulates, inspires, titillates, fascinates and engrosses. It is the story which feeds our imagination and sends children off on more adventures than Harry Potter could even imagine.
The magic ingredient in these books is, well, magic! Kids love magic. They love fantasy. They love the impossible and sometimes the unbearable and they love it most of all when there is a relatively safe structure, i.e. good triumphs over evil and it happens in an imaginary world where I have some control.
It is in the battle, both in the book and in the imagination that they find ways to manage an often fearful world. Using their imagination takes them to places which make them stronger and more prepared for life. This is what fairy tales used to be about until political correctness stepped in and took out the truly scary stuff, the gruesome stuff and anything which could be deemed racist or sexist.
The do-gooders who took the pruning shears to some of our most magical fairy tales were oblivious to the fact that children know the difference between the real world and the world of fairy-tales. That’s the whole point! Incredible things happen in fairy tales, terrible things happen, nasty, cruel, vicious and unkind things happen because that is where it is safe to learn about them and to learn how strong and brave you really are.
Rowling’s books are about kids finding out how strong and brave they are in the face of danger and evil and even death, the really big one.
“My books are largely about death,” said Rowling. “We are all frightened of death.’
And children, being emotional and psychic sponges, must certainly ‘pick up’ the general atmosphere of fear which surrounds death in our society and Harry helps them deal with it.
The Irish philosopher, Edmund Burke said: ‘Early and provident fear is the mother of safety.’
Small children learn about being afraid and being safe through fantasy and they learn best through stories told or read which force them to imagine for themselves.
The infant is born with 10 billion nerve cells or neurons and spends the first three years of life adding billions of glial cells to support and nourish these neurons which then form thousands of interconnections with each other via spider-like projections called dendrites and longer projections called axons that extend to other regions of the brain.
A six-year-old's brain is two-thirds the size of an adult's though it has 5 - 7 times more connections between neurons than does the brain of an 18-month-old or an adult. The brain of a 6 - 7 year old child appears to have a tremendous capacity for making thousands and thousands of dendrite connections among neurons, which suggests that the more connections we have, the better and the younger we develop them, the better because this potential for development ends around age 10 - 11 when the child loses 80 percent of these neural connections. What we don't develop or use, we lose as a capacity. An enzyme is released within the brain and literally dissolves all poorly myelinated pathways. Myelination involves covering the nerve axons and dendrites with a protective fatty-protein sheath. The more a pathway is used, the more myelin is added. The thicker the myelin sheath, the faster the nerve impulse or signal travels along the pathway.
As with the body, so too with the brain: practise makes perfect and ‘if you don’t use it, you lose it’.
And the practise children need does not come from sitting in front of a television set or computer screen. Books demand involvement and brainwork and books of fantasy demand even more. More to the point, they encourage and support a child’s natural instinct to imagine which then enables them to immerse themselves in creative play which involves all of the senses – sight, sound, smell, touch and talk – and which creates and strengthens the brain connections they need for a healthy mind.
Reading is also a slow and steady activity in the way that watching television or playing computer games is not. And the reader can decide the pace at which he or she reads. It is also a very portable activity and one which can be picked up or put down at will or whim without the story suffering. Reading is probably the most important skill your child will learn and the best time to learn is when one is young.
Harry Potter has been phenomenally successful for the simple reason that children don’t just need books in their lives, they need fantasy, both physiologically and psychologically …and so it seems do a lot of adults and probably for the same reason.
The publishers who initially rejected Rowling’s manuscript may not have realised we needed Harry but as soon as the first book was published, kids did. In recent times there has been a movement toward ‘real stories’ for kids in the belief that what they wanted, and needed, were stories which talked about life as it was. There’s no denying that such stories have a place but I would be willing to bet that kids actually need fantasy more than they need reality.
The Harry Potter success story says that reality is not what children want. They want what they have always wanted and usually had: fantasy, fairy tales and magic!
I remember as a child devouring the Enid Blyton stories, particularly the Magic Faraway Tree, where I could escape an often uncertain and at times frightening world for one of magic and the imagination. It was a place of safety, just as Harry’s world is, because it is a place of escape and despite all the dangers, a place of safety. Children may not be consciously aware that it is a place of learning but I suspect that instinctively they know it is.
In a world of quick-fix and sound-bytes a little magic goes a long way and a lot of magic goes even further. If Harry Potter did not exist we would have to invent him. But he didn’t and we did! Well, J.K. Rowling did and for that we should all be grateful, children and adults alike!