For all of the Harry Potter clubs, Internet groups, and book release parties, the fanfare surrounding the popular book leaves something to be desired – from the perspective of a high school English teacher, that is. Readers may be gushing about ideas for alternative endings and character motivation, but interpretations of the book’s themes and symbols are virtually non-existent.

Reading is losing ground to computers, iPods, and video games, so it's not surprising that discussions about Harry Potter books focus on the plot, since it's the easiest and often considered the most interesting topic. But the plot is just the tip of the iceberg when discussing literature. With a large fan base in eighth through twelfth grade, Harry Potter, or really any book your child likes, presents a unique educational opportunity to teach your student to think beyond a book's plot.

 When your student starts high school, teachers have higher expectations for reading, writing, and the critical thinking skills. And teachers have a right to think students should improve. Recent studies indicate that the frontal lobe, the area of the brain responsible for the reasoning skills that enable critical thinking, undergoes development just prior to puberty. That means that ninth and tenth graders are moving from the black-and-white world of concrete thought into the shades of gray that define upper-level English studies. Instead of only identifying literary terms, such as similes and metaphors, students start to interpret what those techniques and devices mean. Essays replace book reports and arguments, also called thesis statements, take the place of plot summary. However, not all ninth graders arrive armed and ready for literary analysis.

Parents can encourage the growth and development of critical readers and writers just by having a focused discussion. Here are some pointers:

  • Whether capitalizing on the popularity in Harry Potter or focusing on virtually any chapter book, shift the discussions from the plot to the themes, images, and symbols. 
  • At the core of this discussion is the central question: fame and money aside, why did J.K. Rowling write this book? 
  • What does this book, and perhaps J.K. Rowling, say/argue/suggest about any of the many themes it raises, such as power, people, life and death?

Have your child support her answer with a few examples or, even better, quotations from the text.

Even with guidance, critical thinking and literary analysis aren't easy, they are skills that require consistent, careful practice to build. But popular books like Harry Potter can make the process that much more palatable, relevant, and, dare I write it, fun. All we have to do is treat them seriously enough to discuss – in the classroom and at the dinner table.