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Rereading Harry Potter: Nostalgic Literacy

by Spencer Salas |

[This post contains spoilers for the Harry Potter series]

It’s July here in Charlotte, North Carolina. This week we’ve had a series of evening thunderstorms which are always welcome in the summertime when everything slows down in the heat of the day and the red clay soil of the Piedmont is tired and thirsty. During one of these heavy downpours, I started channel surfing from my living room couch and came across Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. Released on 15 July 2009, it’s the one when Dumbledore dies at the wand of Severus Snape. I took my eight-year-old young son to see the movie in a local theatre many years ago.

There’s a certain nostalgia whenever I see a Harry Potter film. I watched Harry, Hermoine, and Ron grow up across the eight installments and I watched my little boy and his best friends grow up, too. Maybe that’s why I still like to watch the reruns. They remind me of my son and his red hair — a darker color than Ron Weasley’s — and the other children he played with and their friendship.

This got me thinking about rereading in general and why people take up books that they’ve already read again and again and again.

Young children sometimes read a book so many times that they learn it by heart. My go-to book when I was six years old was a worn hard back copy of Dr. Suess’ Green Eggs and Ham. I remember showing off my skills to visiting relatives and how one uncle slipped me a one-dollar bill as a reward! I still know the words:

Do you like
green eggs and ham?
I do not like them, Sam-I-am.
I do not like
green eggs and ham.

Actually, there’s a substantial body of scholarship about rereading and its benefits for young learners:

    • Rereading increases vocabulary.
    • Rereading strengthens phonemic awareness.
    • Rereading develops a deeper connection-making with a story’s character(s) or message(s).
    • Rereading builds reader confidence.

These were all true for my six-year-old self — that’s for sure.

In contrast, for adolescents, the benefits of rereading, per the research, are less clear. Some studies have demonstrated that simply having high school students read a text multiple times won’t necessarily increase their original understanding of the text or raise a test score. That said, sometimes rereading fiction is a curricular tradition. I must have read Homer’s Odyssey no fewer than three times during my high school and college years — and the same for various Shakespearian plays. I think my teachers just wanted to make double-sure that we read them because they valued those texts so much.

For a middle-aged parent like me, rereading a favorite novel (or rewatching a Harry Potter movie) is a deliberate choice. Some scholars describe the psychological effects of rereading as a “mental transportation” that allows us to “leave” our current space and enter the familiar world of a favorite story or film or song. It’s comforting. It takes us back and slows us down. The British author of The Chronicles of Narnia, C. S. Lewis, famously compared rereading fiction to sitting down with an old friend: “I’d never be satisfied to limit myself to just one experience each with my favorite people.” Watching Harry Potter reruns feels like that to me, too — like visiting with old friends.

I’ll end here with a couple of questions to think about on a rainy summer afternoon when maybe you’re channel surfing or browsing through a shelf of some old books that you’ve never let go of:

    • What’s a text (a book, song, film) that you take up again and again — like an old friendship?
    • Where does that rereading transport you?
    • What memories does it conjure?

About the author

Spencer Salas

Spencer Salas, PhD, is a professor in the Department of Middle, Secondary, and K–12 Education at The University of North Carolina at Charlotte where he leads the PhD in Curriculum and Instruction Urban Literacies/TESL subconcentration. An award-winning District of Columbia Public School ESL teacher (1994–2001), he has been a Fulbright Fellow to Romania (1998), Guatemala (2007), and South Africa (2013); and, a frequent U.S. Department of State English Language Specialist (2003–present). His scholarship focuses on Black and Brown teachers’ lives and the potential of humanizing dignity and care as K–16 best practice.

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