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A Vancouver couple dressed as Lucius Malfoy and Harry Potter flank Allan MacDougall (centre), president and CEO of the Canadian publisher Raincoast Books, at a 'Harry Potter Launch Party for Grown-ups' charity event (CP Photo/Richard Lam).
Celebrating the Kid Inside
Jessica Wong, CBC News Online | July 30, 2004

In recent years, social scientists and market researchers alike have studied the phenomenon of the "rejuvenile." Also known as "kidults" or "adultescents," rejuveniles are the typically urban, middle-to-upper class grown-ups who tottered about on scooters a few years back and pass spare time playing video games. These thirty- or fortysomethings also helped bring mac-and-cheese to fine dining menus, favour toy-like cars like the revamped Mini Cooper or Volkswagen Beatle, watch more of the Cartoon Network than they do CBC and listen to Sum 41, Coldplay or some other hot, new band also enjoyed by their kids.

Over-18 readers of J.K. Rowling's smash hit Harry Potter book series are also often considered rejuveniles. However, while the idea of reading children's books may indeed offer fun and nostalgia, fans of the multi-volume Bildungsroman see much more in Harry than a simple summer read about the adventures of the titular boy wizard.

Rowling's intricate crafting – the fact that she draws on traditions of early children's literature as well as her creating multiple layers of comprehension – puts adult reading of her books in a higher echelon than, say, adults watching the Teletubbies. The Harry Potter series has joined other ostensibly youth-targeted pop culture texts – like TV's Buffy the Vampire Slayer and The Simpsons – in amassing both an adult cult following and academic study.

Wizarding school – adults only!

As chair of the planning committee for Convention Alley, an adults-only academic Harry Potter symposium, Sheryll Townsend eschews the notion that books targeted to children or youth are "beneath" adults.

"I've read books aimed at an adult age group that quite frankly aren't worth reading," she told CBC News Online.

"When you read the first couple [Harry Potter books], you can understand why publishers classified them as children's literature," Townsend said.

She adds, however, that since the 1997 debut of Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone, the characters have matured with each new edition to the series, which has also become much darker, as Rowling promised from the beginning.

"Order of the Phoenix – c'mon, that's not a book for kids."

After a former boss introduced Townsend – a voracious reader – to the Harry books in early 2000, she was hooked. "I've never read anything that struck my heart like these books did, that made me want to go out and find other people to talk to."

After visiting several online discussion groups, Townsend instantly felt a kinship with the "100 or so" posters on "Harry Potter for Grown-ups," a forum for dissecting everything from wild theories about plots to the British foods Rowling describes in lavish detail. Harry Potter for Grown-ups now counts more than 12,500 members.

A number of the discussion group's posters assembled to host the inaugural Harry Potter convention, which took place in Orlando, Florida in 2003. Townsend and another group formed to host Convention Alley, the 2004 symposium taking place at the University of Ottawa July 30-Aug.1.

Though the original intention was to "aim it towards the fandom … the people who are online every day coming up with these theories," Townsend was pleasantly surprised when, after the initial call for papers, the first proposal came from a self-proclaimed "boring" academic.

Overall, the conference's wide range of paper, panel and discussion topics – from "Severus Snape: Romantic Byronic Hero or Unredeemable 'Greasy Git'?" to "Harry's International Readers: Global Understanding or Culture Shock?" – reflects the broad background of the participants, who are primarily drawn from the internet chat group.

"The discussion group comprises everyone from students to doctors and lawyers and professors and editors and just average people like me," Townsend said.

Pat Joyce, a third-grade teacher, was one of the first to purchase Harry Potter and The Order of The Phoenix from a Toronto bookstore shortly after midnight on June 21, 2003 (CP Photo/J.P. Moczulski).
Generally, word that uber-fans are gathering to discuss their favourite book/TV show/movie/music stirs images of people dressed as space aliens trading paraphernalia and lining up for autographs from second-string celebrities.

However, while some pop culture conferences do mix-in some fan convention aspects, there is a key difference with academic symposiums, says John Pungente, president of the Canadian Association of Media Education Organizations and an international consultant and educator on media literacy for children and youth.

Unlike the Star Trek convention he once attended, the 2004 Slayage Conference on Buffy the Vampire Slayer wasn't about dressing up and didn't revolve around the merchandising tables.

"These were academic professors from Harvard and Yale and Oxford and Cambridge delivering papers on Buffy the Vampire Slayer. It was great," said Pungente, who was a guest speaker at the conference.

"Almost 400 academic Buffy fans from all over the world gathered in Nashville. It was not 'bring your costume out.' There was one guy there who dressed as [the reformed Billy Idol-look-a-like vampire character] Spike and he stood out. Everyone was deadly serious."

The ripple effect

Harry Potter fans unanimously agree that J.K. Rowling is a great storyteller, however her skill at spinning a yarn is not the only thing that makes her series a hit. She also treads on well-worn ground, drawing on classic literary traditions in her writing, and combines a variety of techniques to enthrall audiences on different levels.

Elizabeth Galway, an assistant professor of English at the University of Lethbridge, Alberta, first encountered Harry Potter while doing her PhD in children's literature. She compares Rowling's work to that of Edith Nesbit and other classic children's writers from the mid-19th and early 20th centuries.

"One of the things that struck me reading the stories is the similarity with, in particular, Tom Brown's School Days, which was written in 1857 by Thomas Hughes," Galway said.

"I found it very interesting some of the close parallels between the story set at an exclusive boys' public school in the mid-19th century and here we have this contemporary novel from 1997 that has very similar patterns going on. That's something I wanted to explore," she said.

Pungente points to the separate world that Rowling creates through her intelligent use of "archetypes, not stereotypes," humour, controversy and clever plot devices.

"She does a magical atmosphere that makes you want to hang onto it and, at the same time, gives you a message about morality that presents you with universal values."

In Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Sarah Michelle Gellar played the 'Chosen One' who battled through monsters, demons and high school (AP Photo/The WB, R. Cartwright).
He compares Rowling to Joss Whedon, creator of TV's Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Whedon peppered the show with his own distinct brand of sometimes macabre humour, creative storytelling techniques and layered references to other pop culture works (Pungente became hooked on Buffy when, while forced to watch the series premiere, a goofy teenage character spouts a line from Ingmar Bergman's The Seventh Seal).

"The genius of the two of them is that what they write appeals to, while not all ages, most ages and I think that's really important," Pungente said.

"These people, and you can add The Simpsons to them, what they do is what a poet does," he continued. "When a poet writes, it's like throwing a stone into the lake – it brings out all those ripples. You can get as many levels of understanding of the poem as you have an understanding of certain things in your own life, of certain things you've learned."

Time to grow up?

The backlash against adult consumption of youth products has some charging that the trend "dumbs down" the culture with seemingly infantile obsessions and others calling it a sad rejection of the traditional concept of adulthood, with its connotations of being unhip or irrelevant. Still others attribute the phenomenon to increased fear in a post-Sept. 11 world.

Adult Potter fan Ruth Sexton began reading Rowling's books as an escape following the Sept. 11 attacks (AP Photo/Jacqueline Roggenbrodt).
"Nostalgia for childhood might seem innocent and fun, but it is symptomatic of a profound insecurity about the future," Professor Frank Furedi, a sociologist at the University of Kent, told the Guardian newspaper in early 2004.

"We now have a culture in which people are frightened of what the future might hold and are terrified of taking risks, so they seek refuge in past certainties – and what could be more comforting than our childhood or teenage years?"

Even academics are not exempt from patronizing attitudes.

"As a professor of children's literature, you do encounter that in general," Galway said. "You almost have to justify the area because there is this sense that if it's children's literature, it's somehow less important or not as serious."

Pungente sees nothing wrong with adults appreciating cultural offerings ostensibly created for children or youth.

"When does childhood end in us? It never ends," he said. "We're always children in some way."

Townsend, the organizer of the Convention Alley conference, offers that the situation is simply the union of a passionate group of people around a common interest.

"When you've got a book, series of books or anything that opens itself up for that much discussion among such a diverse crowd of people, it can only be a good thing," she said.

In the case of the grown-up Harry Potter fans, "let's face it, these people would never know each other if they didn't read these books and look for somewhere to talk about it. You'll have a housewife from someplace in rural America chatting with a professor in Europe and they're on the same wavelength. That can only be a good thing."

  • Adult fans of Harry Potter felt "forced" to hide their books while reading on public transit. This prompted Bloomsbury, the series' British publisher, to create "grown-up" covers. Canadian publisher Raincoast followed with "adult" covers for the Canadian editions, too.

  • Avenue Q, the cheeky Broadway musical featuring X-rated humour and puppets reminiscent of Sesame Street characters, was the upset winner of the 2004 Tony Award for best musical, as well as taking the best book and best score categories.

  • In the early 1990s, the average age of a video game enthusiast was 18. Today, the average gamer is 29.

  • U.S. children's network Nickelodeon reported in 2003 that 26 per cent of the regular audience for SpongeBob SquarePants, the hit cartoon about a jittery animated sponge who lives beneath the sea, is over the age of 18.

  • In an era of reality TV domination, "guilty pleasure" soap/drama The O.C. proved a smash hit of the 2003-2004 season, appealing to adults and teens alike with its complex storyline of a hunky boy from the wrong-side-of-the-tracks adopted by a wealthy Orange County family.

  • Philip Pullman's novel The Amber Spyglass was named the 2001 Whitbread Book of the Year, the first time ever a children's writer won the prestigious prize. Just two years later, Mark Haddon won the award for The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. Though Haddon's novel – about a 15-year-old investigating a mystery – was initially entered in the children's book category, his publishers decided instead that it had a good chance at taking the overall "Best Novel" distinction.

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    Harry Potter for Grown-ups (discussion list)

    The Harry Potter Lexicon

    The Online International Journal of Buffy Studies

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