Harry Potter

Reading with Benefits


I like reading. I do it for fun as well as for work. I read as a reader, a reviewer, and as a writer. All different kinds of reading, and I’m told that reading decreases stress – that it enhances my wellbeing. The University of Sussex found that reading reduces stress by 68 per cent – according to cognitive neuropsychologist Dr David Lewis (2009). Of course for me personally, I wonder whether my stress at my ‘to be read’ and ‘deadline’ pile negates the positive well-being I’m supposed to derive from the actual reading?

Why do we place so much importance on our children reading? There are huge benefits to reading as well as reducing stress, including building empathy and enhancing well-being – it increases educational achievement in many areas; language development, general knowledge, grammar and comprehension, and it has positive emotional and social consequences (DfE 2012).

But what actually happens to our brain when we read? There have been numerous studies recently to try to discern this. From the researchers at Carnegie Mellon University who asked participants in their research to read a chapter of Harry Potter while hooked up to functional magnetic resonance scanning machines, to the dyslexia studies of Dr Shaywitz at Yale University, which show that readers sound out words they see even silently inside their heads – and when they can’t sound out the words their brains look different on an MRI.

At the moment UK schools tend to teach reading by teaching phonics – decoding the sounds. This triggers the ‘language’ part of the brain. But even before school, toddlers often pretend to read a story by turning the pages of a book, especially when it has just been read to them. Why do they do this? They are mimicking the action of their parents, and if the parent has read the story to them over and over – then they often learn it by rote. They are picking up the language through sight and memory already.

This works in the same way as facial expressions and speech – babies and toddlers learn through imitation. So when they learn to read, it’s actually just like talking.

Some MRI studies show that readers sound out words they see – once they progress beyond school – they still sound out the words but silently in their heads. In fact we learn to read one sound at a time – just how we talk. This is important in terms of phonics or decoding, because the English language contains only about 44 sounds, whereas there are more than 1 million words – so if you learned to read by sight memory alone it would take longer.

However, a reader has to take into account the order of the sounds – the irregularities in the English language – in fact nearly 13 per cent of English words contain ‘exceptions’ to the sound rules. It’s a wonder any of us learns to read at all!

All this decoding lights up the part of our brain that deals with language and then we commit words to our memory (the hippocampus) as we decode and comprehend them. But researchers have also discovered that what you read lights up different parts of the brain.

Studies at Lancaster University (2015) showed that with passages from Harry Potter the more emotionally arousing words that the text contained, the more the readers’ left amygdalas – the part of the brain that processes emotional responses – lit up as they read. Ie. Emotion was elicited from words and phrases within a passage rather than just building empathy over an entire narrative.

There’s a reason authors are taught to write from the perspective of all five senses – to really visualise the scene. When readers read a word such as lavender or cinnamon, it triggers the area of the brain associated with smelling, as well as hitting the language area. Likewise when a reader reads dialogue, the auditory pathways light up in the brain – as if the dialogue is really being spoken (even if the reader is reading silently on their own). This is why dull boring clichés don’t work – they don’t light up an extra part of the brain because we know the phrases so well they no longer function as metaphors or similes – our brain recognises them as just words.

Whereas if you read about a character ‘sprinting’ or ‘jumping’ or performing some sort of action, then it’s likely that the ‘motor’ part of your brain will also light up. The scientists at Carnegie Mellon discovered that when reading a passage about Harry Potter flying, the brain not only activated those parts traditionally associated with reading, such as the language compartment, but also the same brain region used to perceive other people’s motion, as if the characters were real people flying in sight of the reader.

No wonder reading teaches empathy – it’s as if we’re in the story ourselves.

In fact, some research has shown that reading ‘literature’ as opposed to ‘genre fiction’ can result in better empathy – maybe because there are more ‘sensual’ metaphors. The study of the Harry Potter readers found that those people who empathised with Harry Potter as a minority person became more sympathetic to minority groups in general.

Because reading isn’t just about decoding – it’s about comprehension. MRI scans have shown that when the brain starts to ‘sound out’ unfamiliar words, then comprehension switches off. So comprehension grows when the reader moves the word from their ‘decoding’ vocab into their ‘sight’ memory – once it is stored in the hippocampus. One problem the Literacy Trust found with their project on reading in schools is that about 20 per cent of children at each of the schools they worked with can decode but not fully comprehend – they just aren’t inferring meaning.

And only with comprehension can a reader gain those lovely benefits such as empathy and knowledge. This is why discussing books, as well as just listening to a child ‘decode’ is so important in teaching reading. ‘Listening’ to a child read means engaging with them about the text, not just hearing them decode.

I’m lucky. I read for pleasure as well as for work, so I should be empathetic and stress free. The 2009 University of Sussex study showed that reading for only six minutes slowed down the heart rate and reduced tension in the muscles. Six minutes! My problem comes when people throw these sort of statistics at me. For example, if you work out how many years you have left to live (on average) and how many books you could potentially read in a year (on average), and multiply the two – it isn’t very many. Now that’s stressful!


Children’s Literary London

My favourite activity is sitting at home in my little leafy patch of London reading a book. However, sometimes, according to my children, we have to leave the house. So here are my top tips for having a children’s literary day out in London this summer.

Lost and Found

Discover a story: The first place to grab our attention is The Discover Children’s Story Centre in Stratford, East London. Their current summer exhibition is the Wonderful World of Oliver Jeffers. You can actually step inside his books, immerse yourself in props from the illustrations, including the rocket, the penguin, the boat etc. It’s very hands-on, and it really lets the smallest children relive their Oliver Jeffers’ books obsession. There’s an outside story garden to explore too, as well as craft and story sessions.

Visit a good bookshop
: As if I didn’t have enough books already *waves from behind a towering stack* there are some beautiful bookshops to explore in London. Of course there’s Waterstones Piccadilly, the biggest bookshop in Europe – head for the second floor to find the newly expanded children’s department. I adore Daunt Books in Marylebone High Street – if ever there was a bookshop to entice you to browse this is it. Also, you can’t miss Foyles in Charing Cross Road, in its fairly new location. It’s Independent Bookshop Week this week, so for children’s books, you can try The Alligator’s Mouth in Richmond, the Children’s Bookshop in Muswell Hill, and Bookworm in Finchley Road, Tales on Moon Lane in Herne Hill, South-East London, or Pickled Pepper in Crouch End. Check them all out on Google, as they often have author events, craft sessions or storytime for children.

tiger who came to teawhen hitler stole pink rabbit

Celebrate a great author: Judith Kerr A Retrospective is currently touring England, and this summer alights at the Jewish Museum in Camden. We’ve yet to do this one – it only opens on 29 June, but I have high hopes. Judith Kerr is an author who reaches out to children of all ages, from her Tiger and Mog stories to When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit. This is an exhibition touring from the Seven Stories Centre in Newcastle, so should be a good one. Opens 29 June.

Visit somewhere that has a copy of every book printed in the UK: Anyone who loves books has to feel a bit of an affiliation with The British Library. This is definitely one for older children though. There is an exhibition on the Magna Carta until September, but their ongoing exhibition, Treasures of the British Library, showcasing the actual manuscripts of famous authors from Shakespeare to Austen, as well as the Alice in Wonderland handwritten original are enough to inspire any future budding writer, and awe literary enthusiasts.

alice in wonderland

Go to Wonderland: If you’re into Alice, you should also try Adventures in Wonderland at the Waterloo Vaults. Led through snaking paths into the labyrinth of wonderland by a guide, and entertained by actors dressed as the various characters from the story, this is a compelling piece of moving theatre. Children of all ages, including grown up ones, will love the disappearing Cheshire Cat, the bounciness of Tweedledum and Tweedledee, and be charmed by the Mad Hatter. The crew behind the show have put a great deal of creativity and imagination into creating a wonderland under Waterloo; it’s a remarkable feat and you truly feel ensconced. There’s a daytime show for children, and an evening show for adults. During the day, if you’re feeling decadent, you can also sample a real Alice Tea Party at the Sanderson Hotel in Oxford Street with their Mad Hatter’s Afternoon Tea.

the rest of us just live here

Meet an author: For teens and those into young adult literature, one of the most exciting events this summer is the YALC, which is happening on July 17-19. It is a celebration of young adult literature, brought to fruition by the last children’s laureate Malorie Blackman, and now managed by BookTrust. It takes place at the London Film and Comic Con at Olympia, and includes authors such as Judy Blume, Cassandra Clare, Derek Landy, and Patrick Ness, and there’s a Harry Potter party. You can find a full schedule of panels and workshops and events on the website, although tickets sell out fast.

harry potter

Take the Hogwarts Express: Not only can you visit platform nine and three quarters in Kings Cross Station, but you can also venture a little further away from the centre and go to the Warner Bros Harry Potter studios. Even if it’s more film than book, JK Rowling’s magic pervades the site – with the Hogwarts Express, the Great Hall and more. This summer they’re concentrating on the food in the films – you can eat Bertie Bott’s Every Flavour Beans.

The twits

Travel further and be a twit: If you’re feeling really adventurous you can leave the cosy of the city for Great Missenden and visit the Roald Dahl Museum and Story Centre – this is well worth a visit – the museum takes you through the life of Roald Dahl and then has an interactive gallery focusing on his writing, encouraging you to get creative too. You can see Roald Dahl’s writing chair, dress up, use touchscreens to tell stories, and attend a storytelling session. It’s good fun, although really for children who already have a good knowledge of his work and are happy to get involved.

stig of the dump

Learn to be an illustrator: Lastly, if you’re attracted to children’s books by the illustrations, you might want to visit Quentin Blake’s House of Illustration in Kings Cross, where there is currently a Ladybird by Design exhibition featuring nostalgic Ladybird book illustrations, or attend one of their monthly family workshops led by professional illustrators. There’s also celebration of children’s illustration at The Illustration Cupboard; their summer exhibition concentrates on the work of Edward Ardizzone (Stig of the Dump, The Little Train). Beware though, it’s very tempting in here to get swept away and want to purchase your very own children’s illustration.

Lastly, there’s a neverending stream of children’s books being turned into theatre in the capital – from Matilda and Charlie to Hetty Feather, Aliens Love Underpants, Pinocchio, Horrible Histories, The Gruffalo, The Railway Children, War Horse…to mention a few.

Or, you can just stay at home and read my book of the week. As I will be doing today….

Harry Potter Re-Imagined


How much thought do you give to the illustrations accompanying a book? How about a favourite book? In the same way as a film adaptation, it can be really irksome when a favourite character or scene isn’t portrayed how it appears in your mind. So the people at Bloomsbury had a huge responsibility when they decided to rebrand the much-loved Harry Potter books and commission a new illustrator.

This evening, at the first Harry Potter Book Night at Waterstones Piccadilly, I heard Jonny Duddle explain why he had been chosen. “We were all asked to illustrate the scene where Ron, Hermione and Harry all see Hogwarts for the first time. I think I was the only artist who had Harry facing outwards – looking at the reader – otherwise you only saw the backs of their heads.”

Surprisingly, before the call from Bloomsbury, Jonny Duddle hadn’t read any of the Harry Potter books…then suddenly he had to read all seven and draw the cover designs in the space of six months. Even armed with a wand he would have been hard-pressed.


Duddle’s favourite character in the book was Hagrid. He sketches the images, then layers them digitally. While he worked on the drawings he would listen to the audiobooks of Harry Potter, scribbling down on post-its anytime the book launched into a character description. He saved space at the top of his computer screen for the most important post-it of all – the one that said ‘SCAR’. “I was really worried I would forget to mark Harry’s forehead.”

For accuracy he used his wife, his childminder, the neighbour’s child – all to pose in certain positions so that he could get the depiction of hands, or flying capes, or wands held aloft, exactly right. For Harry’s cape in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban he bought one off ebay – “a Slytherin one though, not Gryffindor, as it was £10 cheaper.”

Jonny Duddle’s definitely funny in person, and a great character on a stage – but does his work live up to expectations? That’s up to you – to my mind, his Hagrid is exactly how I imagined on first reading – and his expecto patronus is truly majestic. Wizards’ hats off to Jonny Duddle.


See my main blog this week on why Harry Potter is still so important.

Why Does My Child Persist in Only Reading Series of Books?

Naughtiest girl series
Any marketing man’s dream, many children, particularly aged between six and 10, love to read books in series. Harry Potter, Famous Five, Rainbow Fairy, Beast Quest, Astrosaurs, Horrid Henry. The question is why, and does it matter, and what are the series doing? The ones mentioned above actually do very different things.

There are some key factors to the appeal of series books for this age group. The first is stability and familiarity. Once a child empathises with a character such as Horrid Henry, and finds them funny or interesting, they want to hear about as many adventures with that character as possible. If the setting is magical and yet comforting, such as Hogwarts, the child may wish to revisit it as much as possible. Even the setting in a series such as Famous Five allows for escapism into a time and place that’s very different from the child’s own. In terms of the Rainbow Fairy series, some children latch onto the series because they want to read the story of the fairy with their own name, and then their sister’s, cousin’s, etc. There’s also, for some, the impetus to read the whole series just because they know there are twelve titles for example, or to be in competition with their friends.

Many times I have had children ask me ‘but why did the author end it there?’ when they come to the end of a favourite book. So there is great satisfaction to be derived knowing that there is a follow-on title. Children aren’t alone in this – many adults will read as many books by the same author as possible – knowing that there is a familiarity in tone, style and sometimes even character and plot devices.

Sometimes though parents can find this worrying. I have many parents moan that their child ‘will only read Horrid Henry’, or ‘I can’t get them to read anything else but Beast Quest’, and some of these series go on and on…

It can be worrying in that with some of these books the plots and characters do not develop, eg. Rainbow Fairies, but simply shift shape slightly and there is no growth in vocabulary. Others can provide a growth – as we know in Harry Potter the characters grow older with each book, and the adventures get darker. Either way, with a series of books, two things matter here. One, that the child is reading something – and enjoying it. And secondly, to remember that the child will move on in their own time. One day they will simply get bored and pick up the next thing. What’s most important is that they are enjoying reading. From personal experience I read ALL the Famous Five books, and yet still graduated to reading George Eliot, Ian McEwan, and many many more!

For those series that don’t follow a chronological or sequential order, but just keep churning out more adventures, there can still be much to gain from. Many children adore the Horrid Henry books, starting with the Early Readers and moving onto the more advanced series. What stands out for me with Horrid Henry is that they are not unlike some of the very early readers, such as Topsy and Tim, which introduce first experiences. Horrid Henry just does this at a later stage, introducing many first school experiences for children – Horrid Henry’s Nits, Horrid Henry Tricks the Tooth Fairy,  Horrid Henry’s Sports Day (the list goes on!). It can be comforting for children starting to read independently to read about a familiar character with similar problems to their own, and of course, a character who makes them laugh.

Horrid Henry series

Other series do work in a chronological or sequential order and can be frustrating for both parents and children when the numbers aren’t printed on the spines! (Publishers take heed!). An excellent website to help you is www.childrensbooksequels.co.uk
an invaluable resource if your child is unsure which Dork Diary precedes which! One of my daughters is so enamoured with the Judy Moody series that instead of waiting for the next in the series (due out January 2015, Judy Moody, Mood Martian), she’s writing her own!

Judy Moody series

A last word of advice – if your child is obsessed with reading these kinds of series, Astrosaurs, Beast Quests etc, try to choose a completely different book to read to them. That way, you’re making sure that they can continue reading what they love, but you’re introducing different styles, formats, characters, and plots.