Politics & Policy

Harry Potter and the Deathly Reading List

A parent's summer book report.

If you have school-aged children at home this summer, I feel pretty confident that you, like me, have spent a certain amount of time inducing, bribing, or possibly outright dragooning them into spending some time reading over these lazy, hazy months.

#ad#Most schools devolve this pleasant task on to parents by obliging their pupils to have read a small stack of books by the end of the summer. Some, like the place our daughters go, make it an extra-delightful hot-weather activity by requiring each child not only to read books, but also to report at three-page length on them, three times over. Other schools, such as the one our son attends, require only that children read three books and turn in a signed pledge swearing they’ve done so when they return to class in September.

Either way (unless the children in question are naturally bookish), as the days tick past and everyone runs about in bathing suits, a fugitive awareness begins to mount in the back of your mind that the ambitious zest with which the whole family started the summer (“We’ll meet at four every day in the family room and we’ll all read together!”) is dissipating, almost imperceptibly, like air sneaking out of a pool toy, and that despite everyone’s best intentions it’s going to come down to a terrible whip-cracking in late August.

Because, of course, the children aren’t meant to read just any books; they must read the books that they have been assigned to read, regardless of the books’ appeal to them, personally. Therein lies the difficulty. A pleasure (yay, reading!) pretty quickly becomes a chore (ugh, summer reading…) when it becomes obligatory. And, being a chore, children naturally try to sneak out of it.

Let’s say that in a burst of efficiency, you manage to drag three rascals in from the sunny outdoors and corral them on the sofa with their books. The room goes pleasantly quiet as everyone begins to concentrate. “Ah,” you breathe, looking at their dear little knitted brows, “How civilized!”

Alas, it is a false calm, for sneaky little minds are already busily manufacturing escape routes. Within minutes, one will announce that he has to go to the lavatory. You sigh, but what can you say? Perhaps, grudgingly: “Try to be quick about it.” In a wink the boy has darted off to the bathroom. You hear the click of the lock. You notice that he’s left his school reading open on the sofa. And you realize: “Oh no! He’s got a Calvin & Hobbes in there!” So over you dash over and ignominiously rattle the handle. And while you are standing there, lecturing the child through the closed door about not getting settled into Calvin & Hobbes because what he’s supposed to be reading is –“

Well, by then the others have started acting out their books — “I’m Kiki and you’re the bad pony!” — or begun building a fort under the coffee table, or have leapt up and run outdoors to shriek joyfully at the approaching ice-cream truck. (I feel sure that these tender scenarios play out in other people’s houses, too. Don’t they?) Your children may actually rather enjoy the assigned books, but the siren song of green grass and fresh air and splashy chlorination is so much more alluring, that it drowns out the quieter appeal of reading.

And on Friday night it got much, much worse. This weekend (midnight Saturday, of course), millions of copies of — a.k.a. HP7 — poured out of bookstores and mailboxes and into the greedy hands of children. All those “reluctant readers” who have been struggling to finish A Wrinkle in Time, or Out of the Dust or Because of Winn-Dixie, fine books all of them but for school, have dropped everything, even Calvin & Hobbes, to find out How It Ends: Whether Harry manages decisively to defeat the foul Lord Voldemort, or not, and who else perishes in the process.

Children will be reading now deep into August, millions of them. Eager young bluestockings will hit the last page and turn immediately to the beginning again (I’ve seen this happen). Less frenetic types may take several weeks to get all the way through, and may stop more often to ask what certain words mean, or to confirm a plot detail from a book earlier in the Harry Potter series. But they’ll be reading: absorbedly, joyfully, incessantly, with no scolding finger chasing them on to the sofa, no hectoring to “be quick about it.” Those parents who do not disapprove of Harry Potter will be able to look on with satisfaction as their beloved charges do exactly what adults have been telling them to do all summer: read.

Soon it will be late August. And a shadow will fall across happy families everywhere, for it will occur first to one parent, then another, then to thousands of us, that no one has Harry Potter & the Deathly Hallows seen for ages that dog-eared copy of Stuart Little or The Island that a child was supposed to have read and written a book report about before school starts. Children will start to hunt madly for the books they haven’t finished, or for the reports they had only half written — not to mention the sheaves of math homework for which many children are also responsible in summertime — and then, my friends, there is going to be a mighty whipcracking across the land. Ow!

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