Kansas State Professor Analyzes Harry Potter Phenomenon

Harry Potter, star of J.K. Rowling's best-selling books and the soon-to-open movie, isn't just for kids. For Philip Nel of Kansas State University, he's also the subject of serious study.

Nel, assistant professor of English, is the author of the new book J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter Novels: A Reader's Guide, released last month by Continuum International Publishing Group Inc. of New York.

Part of the publisher's Continuum Contemporaries series on contemporary fiction, Nel's book explores the language and marketing of one of the most popular series of novels in decades.

One key to the success of the books about the young English orphan and his training in sorcery may have been the simple decision by Rowling's publishers to identify her by her initials instead of her full name, Jaonne Rowling.

Nel reveals that the publishers believed the feminine name would undermine the appeal of the first book — Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone — to young boys.

"The gender of the author did not remain secret for long, however," Nel wrote. The book rose to the top of the British best-seller lists, and within a few months of its 1997 publication the author appeared on television.

Nel's guide also looks beyond marketing at the literary quality of the books.

"Readers appreciate Rowling's ability to tell a good story," he said. "She's really an efficient writer, giving enough detail to provide a vivid picture, but not too much. The pace stays quick.

"And beneath the surface there are references to other works of literature and lots of literary allusions. Clearly, there are many layers to these novels, just as much fun as the plots themselves."

Nel's specific interest in the Harry Potter phenomenon is directly tied to his professional interest in children's literature in general, he said.

"That's my job, to teach and write about children's literature," he said. "As far as Harry Potter goes, they're fun books, and just because they're entertaining, people don't always think of them as good literature, but they are."

Nel wasn't through with Harry Potter when he completed the reader's guide. On Tuesday, he delivered a public lecture at Kansas State titled "You say 'jelly,' I say Jell-O'? Harry Potter and the Transformation of Language." And next semester he will teach a course in children's literature called "Harry Potter's Library," focusing on works by other writers for young readers as well.