REPOST: Why kids should choose their own books to read in school

Joanne Yatvin writes in The Washington Post the importance of giving students the time to read independently and the choice to pick which books to read.

Leslie Mercedes, 6, reads with Cameron Lineberger, site coordinator for Reading Partners, at Brightwood Education Campus. The nonprofit group, a Washington Post Charities grant winner, provides tutoring for children reading behind grade level.
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Consumed by the urgency to raise students’ reading scores, policy makers and school officials have forgotten that children learn to read by reading. Acquiring the habit of turning to books for pleasure or to find out what you want to know does more for reading development than working on decoding words or trying to speed up fluency. Although, ideally, a fondness for books starts at home, reading can become a habit through opportunities to read self-chosen books at school.

One person who understands the importance of the reading habit is Carmen Farina, the new schools chancellor in New York City. She has long supported “balanced literacy” instruction, which includes independent reading. In many places, including New City, this approach to teaching reading has been abandoned in favor of systematic programs that promise to raise students test scores and prepare them for “college and the workplace.” According to several recent articles in The New York Times and other sources, Farina is determined to restore at least one of the key components of “balanced literacy,” independent reading, in city schools.

Back in the 1960’s and ‘70’s, daily sessions of independent reading called “Sustained Silent Reading” (SSR) were popular in classrooms everywhere. In line with recommendations from reading experts, teachers allocated 15 to 30 minutes to it every day. There were no written assignments or tests attached, just the visual and soundless evidence that students were immersed in their reading. Nevertheless, 50 years later it’s hard to find classrooms anywhere that still include SSR. To a great extent, enthusiasm for the practice was undercut by the 2000 report of the National Reading Panel, which found little evidence to support its effectiveness in the few research studies that met their criteria. What the panel did not make clear, however, was that doing research on any practice that had not been converted into a structured and testable teaching method was very difficult, and thus seldomly undertaken.

As a teacher in the heyday of SSR, I can tell you that problems in classroom implementation also undermined its popularity. The main one was that SSR cut deeply into instructional time at the high school level where classes were only 45-50 minutes in length. Ironically, time was also a problem for students, but in a different way. Many of them were irritated by having to stop reading on command just when they were at an exciting or enlightening part of their book. The third problem was a shortage of appealing books in classrooms, especially in high poverty schools where most students didn’t have the alternatives of bringing books from home or buying them.

Today, many teachers and school principals, like Farina, who know the value of the reading habit would like to revive independent classroom reading, but the term SSR is tarnished, and the problems noted above still exist.   On top of that, many policy makers are calling for a longer school day to increase formal instruction. They would certainly yell louder and longer if precious classroom time were once again devoted to independent reading.

Nevertheless, there are ways to get around the inside problems and the outside criticism if school really try. At the elementary level, where classroom time is fairly flexible, teachers can stretch the reading block and even extend independent reading into the teaching of other subjects. At one school where I was principal, teachers had their students reading two books at the same time. One book was teacher assigned and used for group instruction; the other was self-chosen. When students were not meeting with the teacher or working on assignments, they were expected to read silently in their chosen books. Also, the only homework assigned was independent reading, with different amounts of time designated for each grade.

In middle schools or high schools, the easiest path is to make independent reading at least half of every day’s homework by putting strict limits on subject matter assignments. But another possibility is for teachers of the same grade to select different days of the week for a full period of reading. Or schools that still have study hall time might decide that it would be better used for reading than for the socializing or napping that usually goes on. High poverty schools could make the same changes, but they would first have to figure out ways to get more books for students: free ones, used ones, a library grant, creating a school book exchange, or having a used book drive in the community. As someone once said, “Where there’s a will, there’s a way.”

If I were Queen of the World, I would decree that all students be given the gifts of time and books they want to read throughout their schooling, and all pre-readers would have an adult who would read aloud to them everyday. Through independent reading children gain a wealth of background knowledge about many different things, come to understand story and non-fiction structures, absorb the essentials of English grammar, and continuously expand their vocabularies. Many also remember visually how to spell words.In a nutshell, the habit of reading does as much, if not more, than Direct Instruction and the rigorous demands of the Common Core. All without boring kids to death or persuading them that they’re dumb.

My name is Jamie Squillare, an elementary school teacher who promotes independent reading to young students. For more updates on the education sector, follow me on Twitter.

REPOST: A Trailblazer in YA Dystopian Fiction: An Interview With ‘The Giver’ Author Lois Lowry

Way before The Hunger Games and Divergent series, there was The Giver. The award-winning novel tells the story of Jonas, a young boy living in a seemingly perfect world free from pain and suffering. In time for the film adaptation’s release, The Daily Beast talked to author Lois Lowry about the lasting influence of her dystopian novel.

When it comes to dystopian, young adult fiction, Lois Lowry was the trailblazer. Before Divergent, before The Hunger Games, there was The Giver. Most of us millennials remember the 1994 Newbery Medal winner as the standout book on our junior high’s required reading list.

It made us question the dangers of conformity, and whether stifling the urge to stand out from the pack was really such a good idea. In a community that honored sameness over individuality, a boy named Jonas learned the truth—and quickly became our hero. What’s more is that the story hits that sweet spot where both kids and adults can identify with its themes. One of the American Library Association’s most challenged books of the ‘90s, The Giver has become an indisputable classic.

The upcoming film touts an all-star cast. And if the trailer is any indication, Meryl Streep plays a chillingly accurate Chief Elder. But as the hype surrounding the movie heightens, many are curious about the writer behind the story. Where did the idea for The Giver come from, and how involved was Lowry in the screen adaptation? Above all, most readers have one particular concern in mind—does the film do the book justice?

Lowry was kind enough to weigh in. Read on for a glimpse of her writing process, her role in the film, and what she thinks of Jeff Bridges.

Image Source: The Daily Beast

Growing up, your books were among my favorite. The Giver was one of those books that I read as a kid and then re-read again as an adult and found that I was still just as moved by it.

I hear that often from people who read it as kids. And now sometimes they’re reading it again as adults because they have kids who are reading it. And other times, just like you, they come across it again when they’re all grown up. And they seem to get different things out of it at different ages.

No other reading affects you in quite the same way that the reading you do as a child does. As a writer writing for a younger audience, do you ever feel a sense of pressure knowing that what you’re writing is sort of shaping them?

Not pressure, but I feel a sense of responsibility. So I don’t do what I do lightly. I’m aware that it affects some kids very profoundly. But as somebody who has also written for adults, I have a greater sense of responsibility to the young reader because of how profoundly their lives are sometimes affected by what they read, which is a good thing.

When you were setting out to work on The Giver, what planted the seed for this dark, utopian society?

I never as a reader have been particularly interested in dystopian literature or science fiction or, in fact, fantasy. I had been writing for young people for a long time at that point and most of them were realistic fiction, a couple historic fiction. But what happened was that my father was very old and was beginning to lose his memory and I was thinking a lot about memory, the importance of it.

And in fact, memory is something that has always interested me, as well as something that sort of goes into the same category—and that is dreams. And I have written a book that focuses on dreaming, but in this particular instance I was thinking about memory and what would happen if we could manipulate human memory. And of course when I set out to write about that, I realized that it had to be set in the future. So that threw it into a realm of sort of science fiction, but that had never been a realm I had ever had an interest in before.

It sounds like it was more of an organic journey in terms of where the story took you. Are you a writer who sits down and outlines things beforehand? Or do you just let it take you?

I’ve never been able to do that. I know people who do that very successfully. But I find that if I outline a book and know exactly where it’s going in every chapter, which is a very orderly way to go about writing, then when I sit down to write it, I’m bored with it because I’ve already put my creative imagination into the outline.

I prefer to surprise myself as I’m writing. I’m not interested in it if I already know where it’s going. So I have only the most general sense of what I’m doing when I start a story. I sometimes have a destination in mind, but how the story is going to go from point A to point Z is something I make up as I go along.

People who have read The Giver either say it’s one of the most powerful books for kids ever, or it’s inappropriate and should be banned. How do you feel when you hear these types of things?

It’s rarely been banned. It’s often been challenged, and the two things are different. When a book is challenged that means a parent has made an objection to the book and there are procedures that one has to go through. But most often, it’s reinstated. It’s very rare that a challenge is upheld and a book is removed from a school. But in either case, I’m always still surprised by it.

How so?

Certainly now when here are, in the aftermath of The Giver, a number of dystopian novels, which involve a great deal of violence. And The Giver does not. So I think it falls into a realm that’s fairly mild in comparison to today’s literature for young people. And I think it’s less often challenged now, of course it’s been around for a long time.

But I think that people who have challenged it sometimes are kind of vague in their reasons for the challenge. But I think it probably stems from the fact of a child, a 12-year-old child in the case of The Giver, standing up and fighting the authority of the adult world. And that feels threatening to some parents, I think, that a child should take that role and challenge the authority of the adult.

With it coming to film, how long has that been in the works?

The making of the movie of The Giver has been in the works for close to 20 years, although the actual filmmaking process didn’t start until a year ago. But Jeff Bridges bought the rights to the book, I think it was 18 years ago. He intended at first to use it as a movie to star his father in the title role. His father was an actor, of course. And then his father subsequently died and time passed and it was never made, never made. And now, of course, he’s old enough to play the role himself. And he does it very beautifully.

Were you involved at all in the screen adaptation?

I was not. There was nothing in my contract with the filmmakers that gives me any control whatsoever. And so theoretically they could have gone out and made the film without ever being in touch with me. And legally, that would have been okay. However, they showed I think an enormous amount of courtesy toward me and did include me, and sought my advice again and again and again.

In what ways?

In the early days, when they were still casting it, they sent me clips of screen tests for one of the actors to get my opinion. They sent me clips of music when they were hiring a composer. And they brought me to South Africa to be on the set when they were filming. And since that time, I’ve been down in New York to the editing room and I’ve had a private screening, so those are all courtesies that they were not required to extend to me, and I’m very grateful that they have. When they’ve asked my advice, I’ve given them my opinion. And they haven’t always taken it but that’s as it should be. They’re the filmmakers, I’m not. But I’ve enjoyed the process of being able to peek in at what they’re doing.

Was that surreal to you, to see the story playing out and to see the characters with your own eyes in a private screening? What was that like?

Well, I saw a screening of the whole film [in May], but along the way before that, I’d seen it in bits and pieces and I’d seen part of the filming of it. So it wasn’t surprising. It was nice to see it all put together. And no, it wasn’t strange because I’d been part of the process for the past year, and so it was gradual.

And I was well aware that they had had to make some changes. The book is not very visual, there’s not a lot of action. And so I knew from the get-go that they would have to add action, which they have. So there are some things that are different, but the basic elements of the book are there and they’re well handled, I think. And they’ve tried very hard to represent the themes of the original book. I think Bridges himself, from the beginning, it was his kids who had brought the book to him. And he saw it for what it was and for what it meant and he’s tried to maintain that even though they’ve had to make some changes.

Jamie Squillare is an elementary school teacher and an avid reader. Learn about her favorite books by following her on Twitter.

REPOST: These Syrian children are proof that we can provide education in the midst of conflict

An aspiring school ‘timeshare’ initiative in Lebanon has made a dramatic impact on educational provisions for children in conflict by putting at least 148,000 Syrian refugees back to school. The Guardian tells us more about this life-changing project and how we could help it further its mission.

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This week 148,000 Syrian child refugees in Lebanon are back in school. This is thanks to an innovative initiative that has dramatically changed the way we think of provisions for children in conflict.

Having been deprived of an education by a war entering its fourth year, 88,000 of these children are now benefiting from a unique timeshare experiment. The local Lebanese children, who study in French and English in the mornings, are sharing their schools to allow Syrian refugees to learn in their native Arabic during a second afternoon shift. Some Syrian refugees also attend the morning school and the shift system is allowing many more children to be educated.

In one pilot area in Akroum, northern Syria, a Scottish charity is providing the funds for Syrian volunteers and Lebanese teachers to work together. Over the past few weeks an idea that was once merely a concept has been debated by international organisations and turned into reality. The project has got off the ground thanks to aid given by 10 donor countries, allowing Unicef and the UN high commissioner for refugees (UNHCR) to mobilise and work in partnership with the Lebanese government.

This month in New York I was able to report to the UN secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, that the idea of education without borders is coming alive in one of the most dangerous areas of the world. This is thanks to the efforts of the UN voluntary organisations and aid agencies that have now pledged approximately $100m to make the initiative work.

The education of Ban Ki-moon himself is testimony to what can be achieved when international organisations are determined to provide education in the midst of conflict. The secretary general was educated under a tree during the 1950s civil war between North and South Korea. He benefited from a unique scheme under which Unesco and Unicef provided aid for the child refugees of that country’s devastating war. He told me that the books he used were received thanks to Unesco and that printed on their back cover was a message from the UN. It said: “Work hard and you will repay your debt to the United Nations.” This is something Ban Ki-moon did many times over as he rose to become the first secretary general of the United Nations who was brought up in the midst of civil war.

But 60 years on we have yet to establish the principle that even in the throes of conflict children will be provided not just with food and shelter, but with education. And we have yet to persuade aid donors that the one thing that education can provide is the vital ingredient of hope: hope that there is a future worth preparing and planning for.

Today more than 20 million of the 57 million children who are not in school are denied education because they are victims of war. And while the Red Cross long ago proved that healthcare can be provided even in the most difficult and turbulent of wars, we have not yet made sure that schooling can continue uninterrupted. As a result of our failure, children who should be at school are often involved in child labour, begging on the streets, condemned to early marriage, trafficked, or even recruited as child soldiers and trained to kill.

Now Lebanon can become the country where we achieve for education in 2014 what was achieved for health a century ago. We can give education to every one of the 435,000 child refugees and vulnerable children.

The provision of education beyond borders is not just a concept. It is coming alive in the most difficult of conflict zones, but it will take a demand from the public to persuade governments to do what is necessary to maintain support over the coming years. We must make sure the right of every child to go to school – in war as well as in peace – can become a reality.

My name is Jamie Squillare, a literature teacher. I believe that providing education in the midst of conflict can be challenging but possible. Governments and citizens needed to do what is necessary to maintain support over the coming years, especially for the hard-to-reach conflict zones. Visit my blog to read more tales of achievements in the education sphere.

REPOST: Anti-testing groups form alliance to bring sanity to education policy

Education groups who opposed the high-stake use of standardized tests have formed an alliance called Testing Resistance and Reform Spring to support a wide range of initiatives aiming to stop the use of standardized test scores as key measure of educational achievement. The article below contains the names of individuals and groups who have joined the alliance.


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With resistance to standardized test-obsessed school reform growing around the country, three dozen local, state and national organizations and individuals have now banded together in an alliance to expand efforts to bring sanity to education policy.

The alliance, which is called Testing Resistance and Reform Spring, will support a range of public education and mobilizing tactics — including boycotts, opt-out campaigns, rallies and legislation — in its effort to stop the high-stakes use of standardized tests, to reduce the number of standardized exams, and to replace multiple-choice tests with performance-based assessments and school work. The alliance will help activists in different parts of the country connect through a new Web site that offers resources for activists, including fact sheets and guides on how to hold events to get out their message.

The emergence of the alliance represents a maturing of the grassroots testing resistance that has been building for several years locally in states , including Texas, Florida, New York and Illinois.  Though many supporters of Barack Obama expected him to end the standardized testing obsession of George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind when Obama was first elected president, many now say that the Obama administration has gone beyond the excesses of NCLB to inappropriately make high-stakes standardized tests the key measure of achievement by students, teachers, principals and schools.

Assessment experts say that standardized test scores are not a reliable or valid way to make high stakes decisions about the effectiveness of teachers or the achievement of students, but education policymakers have ignored these warnings for years. This has led to situations that are nothing short of preposterous, such as teachers being evaluated on the test scores of students they never had. Meanwhile, the emphasis on testing has led to an explosion of tests being given to kids; for example, fourth-graders in the Pittsburgh Public Schools have to take 33 standardized tests mandated by the district or state this school year. It is this reality that has fueled the resistance.

The founding members of the alliance are the Center for Fair & Open Testing, or FairTest, as well as Parents Across America, United Opt Out, Network for Public Education, and Save Our Schools.

Prominent educators, activists and bloggers who are partners in the alliance are:

Wayne Au, associate professor, University of Washington
Anthony Cody, teacher, blogger
Nikhil Goyal, student, activist
Jesse Hagopian, teacher, Garfield High School, Seattle, Washington
Deborah Meier
Diane Ravitch
Angela Valenzuela, professor, U-Texas, Austin
George Wood, superintendent, Federal Hocking Local Schools, Stewart, Ohio

Organizations that are alliance partners are:

Coalition for Essential Schools
K-12 News Network
National Latino/a Education Research and Policy (NLERAP)
Rethinking Schools

State and Local
Change the Stakes (New York)
Chicagoland Researchers and Advocates for Transformative Education (CReATE)
Citizens for Public Schools (Massachussetts)
Jefferson County Teachers Association (JCTA) (Kentucky) (North Carolina)
More Than a Score (Chicago)
New York State Allies for Public Education (NYSAPE)
Opt Out Orlando (Florida)
Parents United for Responsible Education (Chicago)
ReThinking Testing Midhudson Region (New York)
Social Equality Educators (Seattle)
Students 4 Our School (Denver)
SWside Parents Alliance (Chicago)
Teacher Activist Group – TAG Boston
Texas Center for Education Policy
Time Out from Testing (New York)
Youth Organizers for the Now Generation (YOUNG) (Boston)

More news on education and literature are found on this on this Jamie Squillare blog.

The importance of YA books to society

When was the last time you saw a high school student truly invested on the curriculum’s required reading materials? If you ask the regular high school literature teacher, the answer is, not often enough. Did you really read To Kill a Mockingbird in high school or just read Spark notes? I think our sheepish answers to these questions are where YA books come into play as a helpful educational tool.

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Do not get me wrong, I believe reading the classics is like discovering a treasure trove, but how do you make youth appreciate the classics when they resist getting to know unrelatable characters whose adventures are narrated in such an archaic manner. Indeed, most of the youth think the classics could very well be foreign language treatises.

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The key element of YA books is what makes it relevant to society: their intended audience falls in the 12-18 age range. YA books capture the interest of teenagers, making reading less of a chore and more enjoyable. They make students less resistant and more curious, therefore increasing literacy and awareness of proper grammar for a generation DAT WRITES LYK DIS.

YA books also make hard-to-deal-with issues digestible for teenagers. Want teenagers to understand death and cancer? Make them read John Green’s The Fault In Our Stars. How about coping with the loss of a loved one through suicide? A book from the same author, Looking for Alaska, might be the best psychological voice to intervene.

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I’m Jamie Squillare, a literature teacher from Boston, Massachusetts who aspires to make her students love reading outside the classroom. For similar articles about encouraging reading, visit this blog.

REPOST: Neil Gaiman: Let children read the books they love

Who doesn’t love Neil Gaiman, right? I stumbled on this article in The Guardian that discusses the famed author’s view on why and what children should read. Believe me, you will love Mr. Gaiman more after reading his explanation below.

Neil Gaiman believes well-meaning adults can destroy a child's love of reading by giving them 'worthy-but-dull books'.  | Image source:
Neil Gaiman believes well-meaning adults can destroy a child’s love of reading by giving them ‘worthy-but-dull books’. | Image source:

Children should be allowed to read whatever they enjoy, the author Neil Gaiman has said as he warned that well-meaning adults could destroy a child’s love of reading for ever.

Gaiman was delivering a lecture on Monday night about the future of books, reading and libraries to an audience of arts and literary figures. In a wide-ranging speech he said the rise of ebooks did not mean the end for physical books and made an impassioned plea to stop library closures.

Gaiman, who has written books for children and adults, warned of the dangers of trying to dictate what children read at the second annual Reading Agency lecture, inaugurated last year by Jeanette Winterson.

He said: “I don’t think there is such a thing as a bad book for children.” Every now and again there was a fashion for saying that Enid Blyton or RL Stine was a bad author or that comics fostered illiteracy. “It’s tosh. It’s snobbery and it’s foolishness.”

He added: “Well-meaning adults can easily destroy a child’s love of reading. Stop them reading what they enjoy or give them worthy-but-dull books that you like – the 21st-century equivalents of Victorian ‘improving’ literature – you’ll wind up with a generation convinced that reading is uncool and, worse, unpleasant.”

Gaiman revealed that he too had been guilty, once telling his 11-year-old daughter that if she loved Stine’s horror books, she would absolutely adore Stephen King’s Carrie: “Holly read nothing but safe stories of settlers on prairies for the rest of her teenage years and still glares at me when Stephen King’s name is mentioned.”

Gaiman said physical books were here to stay. He recalled a conversation with Douglas Adams more than 20 years ago in which Adams said a real book was like a shark. “Sharks are old, there were sharks in the ocean before the dinosaurs and the reason there are still sharks around is that sharks are better at being sharks than anything else is. Physical books are tough, hard to destroy, bath-resistant, solar operated, feel good in your hand – they are good at being books and there will always be a place for them.

Earlier Gaiman said most of the publishing industry was trying to figure out what is going to happen in five or 10 years. “None of them know. All of the rules have changed … they are just making it up as they go along.”

Gaiman said reading fiction was one of the most important things people can do and he was passionate in his defence of libraries, the closure of which was stealing from the future, he said. “It is the equivalent of stopping vaccination programmes. We know what the results are. In order to remain a global power, in order to have a citizenry that is fulfilled and fulfilling their responsibilities and obligations, we need to have literate kids.”

Gaiman now lives near Minneapolis in the US and said the same debates were taking place there, although places in the US “were closed with less pride” than they are in the UK.

The Reading Agency’s director ,Miranda McKearney, said the lecture was part of what is “an urgent debate about how to build a nation of readers and library users” and cited OECD figures that showed Britons aged 16 to 24 ranked 22nd of 24 countries in terms of literary skills.

Hi there! I’m Jamie Squillare, an elementary school literature teacher from Boston. If you also believe that we should encourage kids to read books they love, let me know on Facebook. I love hearing from other like-minded individuals.

REPOST: Harry Potter’s new image revealed

Thanks to Bloomsbury and illustrator Jim Kay, a new breed of readers will get to experience the magic of JK Rowling’s expansive wizarding world anew through the September 2015 release of a fully-illustrated version of the Harry Potter books. This article from The Guardian has the scoop on the commissioned book illustrations, which will see Harry looking more like Daniel Radcliffe, the actor who played Harry in the movies.

New spells… Jim Kay’s fresh version of Harry Potter
Image source: The Guardian

JK Rowling’s bestselling boy wizard is due for a makeover, with the launch of award-winning illustrator Jim Kay’s fully-illustrated edition of Harry Potter in 2015.

The first in the series, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, is slated for publication in September 2015, and publisher Bloomsbury will release each of the subsequent titles annually, re-creating the original publishing schedule which started in London in 1997, and so successfully developed readers as they, and Harry and friends, grew older together.

Illustrator Kay has reimagined Harry for a new generation of readers, in a style that nods to Daniel Radcliffe’s portrayal of the boy wizard in the film versions of the novels, and captures the character of Harry in the books.

Kay, who won the Kate Greenaway Medal for his illustrations of Patrick Ness’s A Monster Calls in 2012, said “the commission of a lifetime” brought “an explosion of delight, followed instantly by an implosion of brain-freezing terror”.

‘The most expansive fantasy world in children’s literature’… Hogwarts as imagined by Jim Kay
Image source: The Guardian

“To design the characters, the clothing, the architecture and landscapes to possibly the most expansive fantasy world in children’s literature, well let’s just say I’m extremely excited about it,” Kay said. “However, I am also mindful of the huge responsibility this represents. I want to make sure I do the best job I possibly can.”

The artist described picking a favourite character from Rowling’s universe as “like trying to choose the shiniest object in Aladdin’s Cave; you pick up one treasure, and another gem catches your eye”, adding that his imagination is captured at the moment by building a Hogwarts “supported by magic – it’s harder than you’d think”.

For Kay the starting point for such a commission is the obvious one: the text. “The story is everything,” he explained, “and so I want to bring what I can to really show the depth of Rowling’s stories, to their best.” A Potter fan himself, Kay came to the books through Stephen Fry’s reading of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. Rowling’s creation of an entire world is a bit like magic, he continued. “It’s like a spell that jumps from person to person, recasting itself as it goes. I want to keep that spell going, perhaps adding my own little twist, if possible. I hope over the years we will see lots of different illustrators having a go, in the way that Alice in Wonderland has inspired artists for over a century.”

Bloomsbury is working with publishers of Harry Potter all around the globe in an attempt to schedule simultaneous global publication of the series. The Harry Potter novels have sold 450m copies worldwide and have been translated into 74 languages.

The Harry Potter books are a shared favorite among elementary school literature teacher Jamie Squillare and many of her young students. Visit this blog for more of her thoughts on primary school education and literature.