Lumos! How Harry Potter Switched the Light On My Reading Life by Annie McMahon Whitlock

As a kid, I literally read everything. I loved to read so much that I had no discernment. I read every single book that anyone put in front of me. Even though my high-school-English teacher-literature-loving dad hated that I spent so much time reading “junk” (his words) like Babysitters Club and Sweet Valley High, I also read what his 9th graders were reading: Romeo and Juliet, Of Mice and Men, and Sherlock Holmes stories. I read magazines that my parents received simply because they were there—anything from Better Homes and Gardens to Newsweek.

Then, suddenly, I just stopped reading so much. At the time, I attributed it to my busier lifestyle of more complex homework, bigger social circles, and extracurricular commitments. From 8th grade on, I only read what was assigned for me to read in school. Choice reading wasn’t discouraged, but it wasn’t celebrated much either. I remember giving book reports on one “choice book” a semester, which was the exact number of “choice books” I read in a semester. I turned reading for fun into an assignment.  This isn’t totally a sad story about assigned reading; I actually loved my English teachers and classes. Some of the books that were assigned to me became my favorites. I never would have read The Giver if Mrs. Schutte hadn’t made us, and it’s my favorite book of all-time of any genre. Dr. VanAntwerp assigned Taming of the Shrew, and I was entranced by how a 500-year-old story could still be so relevant. Mrs. Gillespie assigned us classics that I loved like A Separate Peace and The Great Gatsby. But for every assigned book I loved, I bought CliffsNotes for some like Huck Finn and Beloved. And I couldn’t even make it through the CliffsNotes of Moby Dick in college without falling asleep.

In the fall of 2001, in my elementary literacy methods course in college, my professor said something that stuck with me. She said that if you expect to teach reading well, then you better be a reader. She said we needed to read the books our students were into, plus more, so we could make book recommendations for them. This wasn’t an assignment, more of a general philosophy. Soon after, I was faced with a boring weekend at home visiting my parents. I had read an article in Entertainment Weekly about how this new children’s series had become popular with adults as well as kids. I went to the public library in my college town (for the first time!) and checked out the first book in the series—Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.

That weekend flipped the switch.  I happily flew through that book like I used to when I was a kid—curled up in a chair in my parents’ living room. When I got back to school, I checked out the rest of the series (which at the time was four books long) and loved each one more than the previous one. This experience fundamentally changed me. I had my reading groove back, and from then on I made reading a priority for me. Not just for an assignment or for a teaching philosophy, but for fun as well.

Harry Potter has been a huge part of my reading life since 2001. Reading the series was my first experience of reading with my friends, as a few of us bought Order of the Phoenix during a camping trip and sat on the beach all day reading it together. It was my first experience with reading events, as I stood in line with fellow nerds at a Barnes & Noble midnight party clutching my copy of Half-Blood Prince. And it was my first experience of truly feeling depressed finishing a book, as I closed Deathly Hallows. To commemorate that fall of 2001, I re-read the entire series every odd-numbered year. Often the re-read has corresponded with a new book or movie coming out. Sometimes, I re-read with friends while having Harry Potter movie marathons. Each time, I find new things I love about the series and each time I remember that amazing feeling you get devouring a great book.

My frequent trips to Hogwarts remind me that it’s not just struggling or reluctant readers that can be “switched on” to reading by a good book. It’s equally as important for getting good readers out of reading ruts, or to re-awaken a passion that may have been dormant from years of assigned reading. Now that I work with pre-service teachers, it’s important to me that I do this for them. I have a feeling many of them were like me and had forgotten what it was like to love to read. It’s important to me to light this fire underneath them, so they can pass this feeling on to their students. Then, the magic can continue…

Annie McMahon Whitlock is an Assistant Professor of Elementary Education at University of Michigan-Flint. She teaches social studies and literacy methods courses and writes about the integration of the two. Follow her on Twitter at @AnnieWhitlock and on her blog A Year of Writing (http://theyearofwriting.wordpress.com).