Derek Gunther, 13, of Redwood City, with his round glasses and shaggy hair, looks a bit like the young wizard Harry Potter from the series of fantasy novels that he and millions of others worldwide have devotedly been reading the past several years.

On Thursday, at the Barnes and Noble bookstore in San Mateo, Derek and his mother picked up the latest — and last — J.K. Rowling offering, "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hollows."

"I like it because it's about kids and stuff," Derek said of the series. "I started reading it when I was 6 years old."

But other than Harry Potter and books required for school, "I don't read a lot," he said.

Indeed, while librarians and educators believe the Harry Potter craze has inspired legions of youngsters to seek out books for fun, studies indicate that Rowling's wizardry hasn't changed youth reading habits much.

Even in the era of Harry Potter, the research shows that the numbers of youth reading for pleasure still decrease considerably as they grow older.

"Regardless of the Harry Potter phenomenon, these declines do exist," said Sunil Iyengar, director of research and analysis for the National Endowment for the Arts in Washington, D.C.

"It might require more of a cultural awakening — not just one particular book or author — to activate people's reading habits.


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In the fall, the agency is expected to release a report on leisurely reading and its relation to literacy and society, Iyengar said.

He declined to release specific numbers, but said the findings so far include a significant drop-off in reading among youth, starting roughly in their early teens and going into late adolescence.

For instance, 17-year-olds are reading less than 13-year-olds, he said. Also, today's 17-year-olds are reading less than those the same age 10 years ago, which is around the time the first Harry Potter book came out.

Iyengar partly attributed that reading decline to living in the technology age.

"There are so many more competing options — electronic media and entertainment like the Internet and video games" drawing children's attention, he said.

A recent New York Times article pointed out that, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a series of tests given every few years to a sample of students, the rate of children who read for fun almost daily went down from 43 percent in the fourth grade to 19 percent in the eighth grade in 1998. The results were identical seven years later.

Redwood City children's librarian Cristina Thorson has heard about such findings and is not going to dispute them, she said.

Still, Thorson sees Harry Potter as a "tool that refocuses people on reading," she said. "Harry Potter is a doorway for kids into that thing that is reading and that connection with books."

Thorson has seen an increasing number of children dropping by the library over the span of the Harry Potter series, she said.

"I think it's getting more kids into reading," she added. "I see them recognizing Harry Potter and realizing they can read a book in a sustained fashion and do that with a different book."

She said the library is trying to take advantage of the Harry Potter interest and turn children to other books by creating a list of publications similar to Rowling's series that the youngsters can explore.

The New York Times article noted that, according to a study commissioned last year by Scholastic Inc., the publisher of the seven Harry Potter novels, 51 percent of the 500 children ages 5 to 17 polled did not read books for fun before they started on the fantasy series.

Slightly more than three-quarters of them indicated they became interested in reading other books because of Harry Potter.

Many of teacher Stephanie Dunn's students at Abbott Middle School in San Mateo have the new Harry Potter book.

"They try to find time during lunch or before school to read it," said Dunn, who teaches language arts and writing.

She said that Harry Potter has influenced students to read more. 

"The story is quite captivating," she said, "and the excitement and anticipation of reading the next book in the series has allowed kids to become vested and excited at the prospect of reading a new book."

At the same time, educators and parents can use the series "as a springboard to expose kids to classic books that have a similar idea as Harry Potter: a main character who must overcome challenging situations and who learns lessons and grows wiser by facing the challenges," Dunn said.

Then again, encouraging children to read more doesn't necessarily make them better readers, said Michael Kamil, an education professor at Stanford University.

Reading stories is important, Kamil said, but children also need to learn how to read information or text that conveys certain facts.

"If you combine all that reading with instruction, they can get better," he said. Youngsters can then develop critical thinking and decide "whether or not the information is useful."

Outside the Barnes and Noble in San Mateo, Derek's mom acknowledged that reading is not her son's favorite hobby. But Harry Potter does get him "to pick up a book," Deborah Gunther said.

It has also helped him expand his vocabulary, she said.

"Sometimes you have to look one or two words up in the dictionary," Derek said.

The boy said he's not sad "Deathly Hollows" will be the final Harry Potter book. He's actually still working on the previous novel. "We're not done with it yet," he said.

Staff writer Neil Gonzales covers education. He can be reached at (650) 348-4338 or ngonzales@sanmateocountytimes.com.