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Under a Wizard's Spell?

The much-heralded release of the new Harry Potter book took bookstores by storm Sunday, selling more than 8 million copies in the first 24 hours.

As a reporter covering reading/language arts for Education Week for more than a decade, I have read countless news stories about the magic spell Harry has cast on so many kids, particularly boys, who previously displayed little or no interest in picking up a book for fun. The series by J.K. Rowling has been credited with luring millions of children into the power of reading.

A story has to be pretty riveting to motivate youngsters to even pick up the hefty tomes, much less read them cover to cover, perhaps by flashlight well past bedtime.

Over the last week there have been a flurry of news reports touting the results or preliminary findings of federal studies that raise questions about just how much the adventures of the young wizard have changed children’s reading habits.

A New York Times headline, for example, claimed that "Potter Has Limited Effect on Reading Habits." The July 11 article by Motoko Rich pointed to survey data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress that show no change in the time middle school students report they spend on leisure reading.

A July 9 Boston Globe article previews results from a study by the National Endowment of the Arts that is due out in the fall. The preliminary results paint a dreary picture of adolescents’ reading habits.

“When kids hit high school, all the social pressure takes them away from reading and you see an enormous fall, to a point where most kids are almost not reading at all,” NEA Chairman Dana Gioia told the paper.

How much has Harry Potter, or other popular children’s fiction, influenced students’ reading habits? What lessons can be learned from the popularity of such trade books?

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