Harry Potter and the Charm of the Children’s Classic: A Six-Part Course with Dr. Jenny Litster

Harry Potter and the Charm of the Children’s Classic: A Six-Part Course with Dr. Jenny Litster


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At the opening of the London 2012 Olympics, J.K. Rowling read an extract from J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan. Around her, giant puppets of the Queen of Hearts, Captain Hook, and Lord Voldemort menaced the stage before being banished by a host of Mary Poppins. The ceremony celebrated the enduring cultural impact of children’s books and placed Rowling’s Harry Potter series among our best-loved tales.

The aim of this six-part course is to increase understanding of and appreciation for the Harry Potter series through close reading the books within the wider context of “the children’s classic”. We will explore recurring themes such as the quest for belonging, popular genres like the school story, and universal archetypes like the orphan. Against a backdrop of changing perceptions and depictions of childhood, of leisure, and of the imagination, this course will give you the opportunity to rediscover old book friends and meet some new ones.

Lecture 1: What makes a children’s classic?

Over 500 million copies of the Harry Potter books have been sold worldwide. So what makes us wild about Harry? This lecture will trace the evolution of children’s literature in Britain and North America, from fables and moral tales, through domestic dramas and swashbuckling adventures, to the worst witch and the boy wizard. We will examine the features that make a classic children’s book and consider what factors contribute to their longevity.

Lecture 2: The Child Who Lived

Whether their parents succumb to fever, are trampled by an escaped rhinoceros, or murdered by a wizard’s killing curse, some of the most popular heroes and heroines of classic children’s books are orphans. They travel through the world free from the interference of a mother or father but often traumatized, and searching for a new “family” to belong to. We will trace the history of the orphan trope in fiction, from Little Goody Two Shoes through Dickens and on up to explore why the orphan’s trials have proved so popular with readers.

Lecture 3: From jolly hockey sticks to jolly broomsticks

At the age of eleven, our orphan hero escapes the Dursleys tender to start his studies at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. Boarding school tales have a longstanding appeal to children eager for stories of dormitories and duffers, tuck boxes and team sports, midnight feasts, and mayhem. We will explore the school story genre, its themes, and its lessons – the power play between teachers and pupils, the sense of community and fellowship, the concept of the school as a character – and look at how J.K. Rowling adapted and revitalized the tradition.

Lecture 4: Fantastic Beasts and where to find them

A particular appeal of the Harry Potter series is the co-existence of parallel worlds, Muggle and Magical, humdrum and fantastical. Rowling’s books tap into a literary tradition of talking beasts and familiars – “students may bring an owl, a cat or a toad” – goblins, ghosts and giants, spells and time tangles. This lecture will look at the wonders of the imagination and how evoking the fantastical in stories for children signaled changing concepts of childhood.

Lecture 5: Islands of Adventure

In Paul Gallico’s Manxmouse (1968), a tailless mouse goes bravely off in search of the tailless cat he believes is fated to eat him. A favorite of J.K. Rowling, Manxmouse’s commitment to following his destiny recalls Harry Potter’s determination to face Lord Voldemort, whatever the personal cost. This lecture will place the Potter series alongside other tales of adventure – Tom Sawyer, Dorothy Gale, Frodo Baggins – to look at the quest, leaving home and coming back again.

Lecture 6: Recapturing Childhoods

The Harry Potter phenomenon is the biggest literary stories of our times, not least because the seven books have cast a spell over adult as well as child readers. The final lecture in this course will look more closely at the rise of Harry Potter and the impact of the books, movies, and merchandising, drawing parallels with other children’s characters that have transcended the page into popular culture. We will also examine literary tourism and how we can find wonderland on our travels.

Born and raised in the Scottish Borders, Jenny moved to Edinburgh in the late 1980s to study History and English Literature. She later completed a PhD on the Scottish context of Canadian author L.M. Montgomery at the University of Edinburgh, where she also taught American History. Jenny worked in adult education research and policy at the Institute of Education, London for over a decade, living in Edinburgh and traveling regularly to Europe. Her main interests lie in Scottish literature, culture, and folklore and in children’s books. She has two daughters.

How does it work?

This is a six-part series held weekly and hosted on Zoom. Please check the schedule for the specific dates and times for each lecture.

Is there a reading list in advance?

Though the course is open to participants with no background in children’s literature, there are suggested readings for further investigation. You will receive this soon after course registration.

How long are the lectures?

Each lecture is 90 minutes long with time for Q&A.

How much is the course?

The course is $210 for 6 lectures.

Is a recording available?

In general, our courses are not recorded. However, if you need to miss a lecture please let us know in advance and we can arrange for a recording for that session on an individual basis.

This course is suitable for all ages

90 minutes, including a 30 minute Q&A.

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