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What Can We Learn from Harry Potter? by Karen Finneyfrock

Posted Tue, 9/10/2019 - 9:41am by  |  Category: , , ,

It was July 2007 and I was in line outside the bookstore at quarter to midnight.

I was in Maryland and the mosquitos were still biting and the heat of the day clung to the sidewalk. I was only a little embarrassed to be one of the adults who wasn’t accompanying a yawning child in pajamas, holding a wand.

The final book in J.K. Rowling’s record-breaking series, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hollows, would be released in fifteen minutes. I drank coffee to stay up and read as many chapters as possible that night, already planning to reread them in the morning. That was before I had found a publisher for my own Young Adult novels, before I had even written one. But already, I was in love with the genre and in love with the way the genre made me feel. How did J.K. Rowling do this to me? How did she do it to so many readers?

Over the last twenty years, J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series has changed the publishing industry, created a generation of young readers, and helped build a market for KidLit that still thrives today. How?

For years I have wanted to take out the tools I have gained as an author and teacher and take apart Harry Potter. What makes these books tick? This year, I’m finally doing it. I’m offering a new kind of Yearlong class at Hugo House starting in September.

Over the course of the academic year, I will work with a cohort of students to dissect the series, note the mechanisms Rowling uses, and then try them out in our own YA/MG novels. Using elements of craft to guide our discussion, we will examine the series through the lens of character, voice, pacing, story, world building, arc, and conflict.

The idea for a Harry Potter Yearlong came to me after almost a decade of teaching at Hugo House. Through my many courses on the genres of Young Adult and Middle Grade, I’ve been a bit challenged to find texts that spoke to many students. Young Adult and Middle Grade are genres that contain other genres. Novels for young readers might be literary, speculative, fantasy, romance, or horror, and Hugo House students are writing in all those forms. To solve the problem, I’ve always used short sections of a variety of texts while yearning for the chance to closely read one common work.

That’s the reason I dreamed up What Can We Learn from Harry Potter? In this class, we will do a deep dive into the series and ask the collective question, what can my book (whatever kind of book it is) take from this wildly successful story? 

Some of the things I think we can learn from Harry Potter:

  • Voice. There is an intimacy between storyteller and reader in the series, a voice that feels simultaneously amused and unflinching.
  • Pacing. Rowling gets the story moving and keeps it moving at a pace that is almost surprising in its quickness.
  • Mystery. The hints and clues the author places provide just enough to keep a young reader interested. Learning when and how Rowling inserts bits of mystery will benefit every KidLit writer.
  • Character: Rowling’s ability to populate her stories with memorable characters, even a school full of secondary students, is worth practicing.
  • World Building: Arguably Rowling’s greatest achievement is creating a world that readers yearn to revisit so steadily that a theme park had to be created.

As with my previous Yearlong courses, the class will combine lecture, in-class exercises, and group workshop to provide students the chance to work in a focused way, over the course of an academic year with the same cohort. We will investigate the first ten pages of each book and compare them against our own first ten pages. We will work as a cohort, providing constructive, useful critique in a uniquely supportive atmosphere.

In past Yearlong classes, these are the things students have found most helpful:

  • Consistent, weekly accountability on their writing progress
  • In-class exercises designed around craft elements
  • Group critique of their pages in a supportive, creative atmosphere
  • A community of writers working toward the same goals

Get our your dissecting tools and join us! This is your opportunity to dedicate one academic year to your project while learning from a veteran teacher and an unparalleled text. Don’t miss the train to Hogwarts.


 Karen Finneyfrock‘s debut young adult novel, The Sweet Revenge of Celia Door, was published by Viking Children’s Books in 2013. Her second book of poems, Ceremony for the Choking Ghost, was released on Write Bloody press in 2010. She is a former Writer-in-Residence at Richard Hugo House and teaches for Seattle Arts and Lectures’ Writers-in-the-Schools program. A member of four National Poetry Slam Teams, Karen traveled to Nepal as a Cultural Envoy through the US Department of State to perform and teach poetry and in 2011, she did a reading tour in Germany sponsored by the US Embassy.