Alice's Academy

Caroline Jones, editor

Reading the Reading Girl: From Frances Hodgson Burnett’s Little Editha to Hermione Granger and Her Fans

Caroline McAlister

Caroline McAlister has a Ph.D. in English from Emory University.  She is an instructor at Guilford College in Greensboro, North Carolina.  She has published two picture books for children, Holy Mole! and Brave Donatella and the Jasmine Thief.  Her research interests include Milton, Shakespeare, and Children's Literature.

Our New Media article opens, perhaps counter-intuitively, with Lady Macbeth, followed by a classic nineteenth-century story of a precocious and adorable reformer, followed by a mid-twentieth-century protagonist of prodigious intellectual potential. These formidable female heroes (or anti-heroes, as the case may be) offer precedent and foundation for the primary focus of Caroline McAlister’s article: Hermione Granger and the Reading Girl. Using all of these “reading girls” as lenses for her study, McAlister explores the intersections between the ostensibly passive activity of reading and the active worlds of creation and engagement, offering an unprecedented nuance to Barthes’ idea of writerly text. Editha, Matilda, and Hermione all approach their worlds primarily through the book, but none of them stays securely within that textual space. Each is called out of the text to make changes in the people and institutions of her world; just as each is called, of course, each calls to her readers to make active spaces for themselves in their own worlds. Of course, this engagement is most clearly evident in the character of Hermione, and the richly complex world of fan fiction and activism that Harry Potter readers of myriad ages, nations, and genders have constructed for and around themselves. Using classic female characters from generations of reading, McAlister brings her readers into the age of New Media in a way that gives writerly texts a whole new dimension.

Caroline Jones, editor - Alice's Academy


When Lady Macbeth wants to humiliate her husband, she tells him that the terror Banquo’s ghost arouses in him is not real.  It is, she insists, like the fears aroused by “A woman’s story at a winter’s fire,/ Authorized by her grandam” (Shakespeare, Macbeth 3.4.65-66).  Lady Macbeth associates stories with women, with the hearth and fireside, with the domestic realm of inaction that she leaves behind when she unsexes herself.  The social construction that she asserts, at the same time that she rebels against it, has endured through the centuries.  Jane Austen’s Emma and Flaubert’s Emma Bovary both exemplify women trapped by fantasies that result from their sentimental reading.  “Real men” don’t enter imaginatively into fictional worlds.  They take action in the real world.  “Real women” engage emotionally with fictional realms and as a result, they are passive, inactive in the public world.  In this essay I will explore the ways that this social construction plays out in children’s fiction.  I am interested, in particular, in the stock character of the girl with glasses, the bookworm heroine who both grows out of this construction and contests it.  I will explore the connection between reading and action for girls, for both fictional girls in fictional worlds and for real girls out in the real world from the 1880’s until today, and I will examine the impact of new technologies on that connection.

The girl reader first became a stock character of children’s literature with the explosion of female authored and female centered domestic fiction in the late nineteenth century.   In the sentimental story, “Editha’s Burglar,” written in 1880, Frances Hodgson Burnett characterizes the little heroine Editha primarily as a reader.   Her habit of reading comes from her isolation from the world, a matter of health as well as gender. 

She was not a strong, healthy little girl, and had no sisters or brothers, or companions of her own size, she was rather old-fashioned, as her aunts used to call it.  She had always been very fond of books, and had learned to read when she was such a tiny child, that I should almost be afraid to say how tiny she was when she read her first volume through. (2186)

But if her reading is the result of her isolation from the world, it is also her way back into it.  The narrator explains, “She was very fond of the newspapers, because she found so many curious things in them—stories, for instance, of strange events which happened every day in the great city of London, and yet never seemed to happen anywhere near where she lived” (2186).  The newspapers belong to her father and his world of public affairs.   They prepare her for her encounter with a burglar, in which she transcends boundaries of class as well as gender and age.  

Of course, traditional gender roles are confirmed when she becomes the innocent angel who transforms the heart of the hardened criminal bound for Australia.  She does not challenge the oppressive penal system that sends him to another continent, but her reading does make her wonder about the lives of people outside of her privileged realm.  She says to her father: “Perhaps that is the way with burglars, papa,--perhaps they have never had any advantages,--perhaps if they had had advantages they mightn’t have been burglars” (2187).  Here is the empathy that Martha Nussbaum has argued comes out of a habit of reading and may lead to active citizenship.  She explains:

Narrative imagination is an essential preparation for moral interaction.  Habits of empathy and conjecture conduce to a certain type of citizenship and a certain form of community: one that cultivates a sympathetic responsiveness to another’s needs, and understands the way circumstances shape those needs.  (90)

Children learn habits of empathy and conjecture, she argues, by reading and listening to stories.  Nussbaum elaborates, “And the conclusion that this set of limbs in front of me has emotions and feelings and thoughts of the sort that I attribute to myself will not be reached without the training of the imagination that storytelling promotes” (89).  Editha makes conjectures about the life of someone radically different from herself because she has been trained in the narrative arts.  To actually move from empathy to action in the world, however, requires a heroine of a longer, novel length work possessing greater powers than little Editha. 

Roald Dahl’s updated twentieth-century precocious reader, Matilda, possesses just such powers.  Like Editha, she is portrayed as diminutive in contrast with the large volumes that she devours: “Over the next few afternoons Mrs. Phelps could hardly take her eyes from the small girl sitting for hour after hour in the big armchair at the far end of the room with the book on her lap.  It was necessary to rest it on the lap because it was too heavy for her to hold up, which meant she had to sit leaning forward in order to read” (9-10).   As with Editha, Matilda’s books allow her to journey out into the world: “The books transported her into new worlds and introduced her to amazing people who lived exciting lives.  She went on olden-day sailing ships with Joseph Conrad.  She went to Africa with Ernest Hemingway and to India with Rudyard Kipling.”  This journeying is, of course, only metaphorical, as Dahl adds, “She travelled over the world while sitting in her little room in an English village” (15).  A powerless child, Matilda is stuck with tacky parents and mean teachers, and books at first can only offer escape, not action, not empowerment.

Empowerment comes when she changes from being a passive reader to an active writer.  Matilda’s attachment to her teacher, Miss Honey, is an extension of her attachment to the world of books.  Miss Honey lives in a cottage that is, as the narrator explains, “straight out of a fairy tale. [. . .] It was like an illustration in Grimm or Hans Andersen.  It was the house where the poor woodcutter lived with Hansel and Gretel and where Red Riding Hood’s grandmother lived and it was also the house of The Seven Dwarfs and The Three Bears and all the rest of them” (180).  Miss Honey has found refuge from the ogre Trunchbull in her fairy tale cottage, but, lacking courage, she is stuck there. 

Matilda’s magical powers, which she uses to free Miss Honey, are intimately connected to her reading.  She feels her powers gathering in the same part of her that she has used to travel to distant realms, “The feeling was mostly in the eyes.  A kind of electricity seemed to be gathering inside them.  A sense of power was brewing in those eyes of hers, a feeling of great strength was settling itself deep inside her eyes” (158).  She is able to make something happen when the power from her eyes moves out towards objects in the world; “ it felt as though millions of tiny little invisible arms with hands on them were shooting out of her eyes toward the glass she was staring at” (159).  Significantly, she fells the powerful Trunchbull once and for all not by simply moving objects, but by writing a message. “Things had come bursting out of her eye-sockets and then the piece of chalk had lifted itself up and had begun to write” (219).  The written message is magical not just because the chalk seems to move on its own, but because it changes the ending of Miss Honey’s narrative.  More powerful than any knight in shining armor, the brainy girl frees the captive princess with her clever plot twist and they live together happily ever after.

Together Matilda and Miss Honey form a new/old kind of family.  Unmarried, without children of her own, and until recently dominated by the Trunchbull, Miss Honey is not fully an adult.  In her fairy tale cottage, deprived of her wages, she had lived apart from the modern world of buying and selling.  Girl and girl/woman, they protect each other from the modern, adult world of motor cars and commercialism represented by Matilda’s more conventional, but frightening parents.  She thinks, “If only they would read a little Dickens or Kipling they would soon discover there was more to life than cheating people and watching television” (23).  Matilda, of course, saves Roald Dahl as well as Miss Honey.  She is his ideal child reader.  She saves his books from a society that does not care about children or literacy, but is attached to television and making money.  

Matilda uses her precocious literacy to save the world of books, but not to save the world.  For a heroine who uses her literacy to save the world we must wait for Hermione Granger, founder and president of SPEW, the Society for the Promotion of Elvish Welfare.  Hermione, like Editha and Matilda, is a precocious reader.  When she first meets Harry in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, she has already encountered him in books: “I know all about you, of course,” she says.  “I got a few extra books for background reading, and you’re in Modern Magical History and The Rise and Fall of the Dark Arts and Great Wizarding Events of the Twentieth Century” (HPSS 106).  Neither of her male counterparts can keep pace with her voracious consumption of texts.

Hermione’s reading, however, is of a different order from Editha’s and from Matilda’s.  While they read literary works that encourage identification with others and a habit of empathy, Hermione reads textbooks to collect information.  She reads to get good grades.  She is the quintessential grind, the exemplary researcher.  Even in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows when she reads the more literary Tales of Beedle the Bard, she does not identify emotionally with characters, but rather reads the stories as puzzles or codes full of clues to the location of the horcruxes.  Dumbledore leaves her the book, not because she can relate to characters and recognize familiar narrative patterns, but because she can decipher runes. 

Nevertheless, Hermione, more than any of the other characters in the Harry Potter series, is able to recognize the humanity of others, even when they are radically different from herself, even when they are something she herself could never become. [1]  Harry feels deeply for Ron when he is tormented by Malfoy for being merely middle class with his large family, housewifely mother, and used robes.   Both Ron and Harry empathize with the stumbling Neville when he is humiliated by Snape in classes.  Hagrid empathizes with a whole menagerie of magical creatures including a nasty and dangerous baby dragon.  But only Hermione is able to imagine herself in the position of the house elves. Compare her reaction to Harry’s and Ron’s when they are first confronted by Winky’s extreme abjection in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire first, Ron and Harry: 

‘So that’s a house-elf?’ Ron muttered.  ‘Weird things, aren’t they’
‘Dobby was weirder,’ said Harry. (HPGF 99) 

Now, Hermione:

‘You know, house-elves get a very raw deal!’ said Hermione indignantly.  ‘It’s slavery, that’s what it is!  That Mr. Crouch made her go up to the top of the stadium, and she was terrified, and he’s got her bewitched so she can’t even run when they start trampling tents!  Why doesn’t anyone do something about it?’(HPGF 125)

To Ron and Harry, house-elves are “things,” set completely apart from them and other magical creatures.  To Hermione, they are creatures capable, just like her, of feelings of terror and helplessness.  Therefore, they deserve consideration; they have rights.  The first name she tries out for SPEW is significantly “Stop the Outrageous Abuse of Our Fellow Magical Creatures and Campaign for a Change in Their Legal Status” (emphasis mine, HPGF 224). 

The question remains, where does Hermione’s empathy come from?  Is it a result of her hyper literacy?   Is it the result of gender? Or is it connected to both?  And if it is connected to her gender, is Rowling recycling old worn--out gender roles for her 21st century readers? At least one scholar has suggested that Hermione’s empathy marks her as stereotypically feminine; “Notice that Hermione is not disgusted by Winky’s disheveled appearance and does not ignore the poor house elf as others do,” Rivka Temima Kellner argues. “Rowling depicts Hermione as a sensitive and motherly figure; this is a capitulation to male chauvinist stereotypes” (380).  Another has maintained that Ron’s ridicule of SPEW mark[s] Hermione’s “desire for justice as silly and irrational. . . He positions himself as a man of reason.  Together Hermione and Ron enact the binary of male/female and of rational/ irrational” (Cherland, “Harry’s Girls” 279). 

Yet I would like to return to the last sentence of Hermione’s emotional speech about Winky, “Why doesn’t anyone do something about it?”(HPGF 125).  Rowling puts the “do” in italics.  Rowling’s portrait of the sensitive girl reader differs from the earlier tradition specifically by her emphasis on doing, on action, and action that is real and not fantastical despite the magical setting.  Hermione resorts to spells and the invisibility cloak to get Ron, Harry, and herself out of numerous scrapes, but she uses decidedly non-magical politics and legislation to save the house-elves and in doing so creates a powerful, positive subject position for Rowling’s female readers to identify with.  Indeed from the very beginning of the series, Hermione is portrayed as active.  When people laugh at her plans for SPEW, she does not give up or become self conscious.  Quite the opposite:

His and Ron’s lack of enthusiasm had done nothing whatsoever to curb Hermione’s determination to pursue justice for house-elves.  . . . If anything they seemed to have made Hermione more vociferous.  She had been badgering Harry and Ron ever since, first to wear the badges, then to persuade others to do the same, and she had also taken to rattling around the Gryffindor common room every evening, cornering people and shaking the collecting tin under their noses.  (HPGF 238-9)

Hermione is anything but a shrinking violet here.  She is the active, empathetic citizen outlined by Martha Nussbaum.  And her reading, rather than providing a refuge from the world, becomes a powerful tool in her fight for justice.  She researches the history of the house-elves and is struck by their virtual invisibility. “Not once, in over a thousand pages,” she announces with outrage “does Hogwarts, A History mention that we are all colluding in the oppression of a hundred slaves!”(HPGF 238). 

Kellner has argued that the house elves in the Harry Potter books are a kind of metaphor for traditional women in patriarchal society, house wives if you will, relegated to a life of invisibility and unpaid, unappreciated domestic labor (369-70).  Rowling uses this round about metaphor, Kellner argues, rather than confronting women’s issues head on, because of her conservative ambivalence towards feminism.  However, Kellner’s analysis ignores the very British context of the novels, the long tradition of a bifurcated society of upstairs gentry served by the downstairs domestic staff, both male and female.  Rowling’s House Elves, both male and female, would seem to resemble those in service more closely than they do housewives.  They also resemble the colonized subjects of the British Empire.  In Order of the Phoenix when Dumbledore explains, “Kreacher is what he has been made by the wizards, Harry,” the head of Hogwarts resembles no one more than that other archetypal British magician, Shakespeare’s Prospero, admitting that he has colluded in making Caliban into what he is: “This thing of darkness, I /acknowledge mine” (The Tempest 5.1.275-6).   House Elves can  and do represent a variety of oppressed peoples, but as a British writer, Rowling would seem to be most concerned with those systems of power that have characterized British culture: service and colonialism.

Martha Nussbaum’s educated citizen is gender neutral.  Until Ron becomes empathetic towards house-elves, the binary gender roles of active, unempathetic male and passive empathetic female that extend all the way back to Macbeth are not undone.  During the battle of Hogwarts, Ron finally comes round to Hermione’s point of view:

‘Hang on a moment!’ said Ron sharply.  ‘We’ve forgotten someone!’
‘Who?’ asked Hermione.
‘The house-elves, they’ll all be down in the kitchen, won’t they?’
‘You mean we ought to get them fighting’ asked Harry.
‘No,’ said Ron seriously, ‘I mean we should tell them to get out.  We don’t want any more Dobbies, do we?  We can’t order them to die for us—‘ (625)

Hermione’s empowerment as an agent of change is not complete without a change in her male counterpart.  Not until Ron becomes empathetic and Hermione becomes active do we achieve a model of humanity that offers gender neutral subject positions for readers and undoes an ancient gender construction that is devastating to both women and men.

Through the authoritative voice of Dumbledore, Rowling encourages the reader not to take the mocking attitude of the pre-battle of Hogwarts Ron and his twin brothers vis à vis the house-elves.  Instead, she encourages readers of both genders to deconstruct the invisible power relations of the Wizarding world.  And it appears that they have.  Because of the online fandom phenomenon, Rowling’s readers and their interpretations, as Catherine Tosenberger has pointed out, are accessible in a way that previous children’s authors’ audiences were not (“‘Oh My God’” 200). If Roald Dahl had to create his own fictional ideal reader, Rowling’s actual readers have taken over, creating their own vast, unbounded, ungainly corpus.   Through the fantasy play of its readers, and primarily its female readers, the original canon of seven books has been augmented by an ever-expanding apocrypha of thousands of fan authored works.  At the time of this writing MuggleNet has 9,503 Harry Potter fanfiction stories and 3,843 registered authors. has 74,000 stories.  Other sites, and have thousands more. Who are the girls and women engaged in this writing community?  What kinds of stories are they writing?  Are they retreating to a fantasy world and reaffirming the binary opposition of passive women and active men, or do they, as Henry Jenkins argues, gain agency through their participation in fandom?

It is hard to make generalizations about such a large group, but a pattern emerges from the posted bios.  Many fans begin writing and posting their stories around age fourteen or fifteen, when they are in their early teens.  They describe how a particular story initiates their involvement, causing them to become, well, fanatical.  A MuggleNet fanfic author who goes by the name of Annie explains, using the third person:

Once upon a time, an innocent high school freshman stumbled upon something called fanfiction while browsing MuggleNet's news archive. Having been a fan of the Harry Potter series since the first book was released, she decided to get to know this curious subculture of fandom. One particular Remus/Hermione fic called "Before the Moon Rises" later, she was hooked for life. (Annie) [2]

“For life” may be hyperbole, but characteristically the serious fan remains involved for years, from early adolescence through college, professional training and on into her mid-twenties.  Queen of Serpents apologizes for having been absent while studying for the MCATS and tells her readers: “I know many of you wonder why I'm in top lists even though the stories don't seem to be the high quality that you'd expect. I wrote these when I was 14-16 years old and I had a lot of fun writing them” (Queen of Serpents). Annie and Queen of Serpents are not women trapped in lowly office jobs, fantasizing a more exciting life, but bright, ambitious girls on their way to becoming professional young women. [3]   Harry Potter fandom has given them a space in which to develop their emerging identities, a kind of vast green world, in which they can exercise their imaginations freely, unmonitored by the parents and teachers, who exercise control in their offline lives. 

Because of the immense size of the fanfiction corpus, it is perhaps even more difficult to generalize about the kinds of stories posted than about who is writing.  Stories are catalogued on the fan websites according to which “ship,” fan-fiction slang for relationship, they develop; for example, Ron/Hermione, or Harry/Ginny.  As this special fan language and cataloguing system suggest, Harry Potter fan-fiction  has evolved to a large extent as part of what Meredith Rogers Cherland has described as “the discourse of feeling,” a discourse focused on relationships and emotions rather than on plot, political structures, imaginary worlds and their rules (Private Practices 138).   As such, it follows a very traditional female way of reading.  This focus on relationships and emotion raises the question of whether the girls and women engaged in these activities have become what Lady Macbeth despises—women telling stories by the fire, passive and inactive in the public world. Yet, as many academic critics of fandom have observed, these relationships often playfully contest the original canon and in doing so, they challenge the dominant power structures in the young authors’ real lives. 

Henry Jenkins has coined the term “refocalization” to describe how in fandoms “some writers shift attention away from the programs’ central figures and onto secondary characters, often women and minorities” (Textual Poachers 165).  An interesting example of refocalization would be the charming fanfiction story, “Killer Instincts,” by a writer from India who uses the penname Ginny Weasley Potter.  Ginny Weasley Potter has expanded the role of Parvati Patel, and begins with the decidedly non-canonical marriage of Parvati to Harry.  Here is her description of Harry decked out as a Maharashtrian bride-groom:

Harry too, like Ron, was dressed in a sherwani, though it was white. A thin red dupatta patterned with blue squares and trimmed with gold dangled lankly from the man’s neck and a sort of headband made of jasmines decorated his forehead, two rows of flowers hanging down his temples. With these Maharashtrian wedding clothes, Harry looked somewhat like an Anglo-Indian, what with his stunningly green eyes and jet black hair. (Ginny Weasley Potter)

Ginny Weasley Potter thus foregrounds the culture of South-East Asians who are present but marginalized in the original canon of the Potter books.  The reviews she has received indicate that she is not the only Indian reader eager to see her own experience accorded more attention in the books.  Sudeshna2kool4u offers the following:  “i really, REALLY like ur story. Being Indian, it kind of gives me a sense of happiness to see our culture reflected in something that is read by thousands all over the world. Great job.”  JeeviS writes: “That was a great story... fr the first time im reading someone who wrote a fanfiction that was related to indian culture:D and im happy about that!!”  These responses from readers confirm her agency.  She has altered the Potter books’ ideological focus on the dominant Anglo culture, and she has had an impact on actual readers.

Also contestatory of the dominant culture are the slash stories featuring same sex couplings.  Numerous critics have discussed how slash offers writers and readers, who are most often straight girls and women, an opportunity to envision and articulate an ideal relationship without the power imbalance that is part of heteronormative romance.  A quirky subgenre of slash that has received less attention from scholars is mpreg in which one of the male partners actually becomes pregnant and gives birth.  Marksmom writes: “I have this thing about mpreg stories, don't know why. Probably because my pregnancy was just awful, so I want to have men go thru that. :)”.  Mpreg challenges even biological inequities. Annie, whose bio is quoted above, is quite sophisticated in explaining, again in the third person, her own attraction to slash narratives:

She pays no mind to those who preach strict adherence to canon ships, believing instead that if one examines the slashy undertones of the texts carefully enough, one might find that the sexual chemistry between Harry and Draco is undeniable. Thus, opening people's eyes to the exciting world of HP slash has become her main purpose in life for the moment. (Annie)

Catherine Tosenberger has described slash fandom “as a space for savvy, subversive women, engaging in creative—and very adult—ways with media texts” (189).  Annie is clearly very intentional in her subversive approach; she is not just a reader, and not just a writer, but a knowledgeable critic in her stated desire to change the way others interpret the original Harry Potter books.  That she is able to do this should not be surprising given the rest of her bio.

Currently, our heroine is studying psychology and screenwriting at the University of Southern California. She hopes to someday follow in the footsteps of her idol, J.K. Rowling, and become a successful novelist. Until then, she will be content to satiate her love of reading and writing with HP fanfiction.  (Annie)

Her stated desire to follow in Rowling’s footsteps may not be an empty fantasy.  At least one fanfiction author has successfully transitioned from posting on Mugglenet under the penname of Maya to publishing a novel with McElderry Books under her real name, Sarah Rees Brennan (Schaffner 618).  Like Queen of Serpents, Ginny Weasley Potter, and Annie, Brennan’s apprenticeship in fanfiction was a long developmental process resulting in a prolific output.  She posted 2000 pages as Maya before obtaining her contract with McElderry.  In addition to offering a space for teenage girls to develop their imaginations and identities, Potter fandom also offers a space to develop considerable writing skills.

Which brings up the question of whether Potter fandom can rightly be said to belong to the fictional world or to the public world.  Naturally the books themselves and ever growing fanfiction corpus that has morphed around them are fictional.  But when writers post stories, they gain real readers and real responses. The power of the internet is its explosion of an old binary. To write a story and have no one see it, is to be passive, but to write a story, post it, receive reviews and correspond with other writers, is to be a part of the world, a part of a community; it is to be an active citizen.  When OkiBlossom explains in a review that she views fanfiction as practice writing, hestiajones responds:

Mmm...while I do think fanfiction is a form of "practice writing", I wouldn't described it in that way alone. :D The thing is, I love writing fanfiction, not merely to hone my skills, but because it gives me a lot of happiness and allows me to indulge a bit more in my favourite fandom. :) Plus, I've got so many new friends because of it (although that is a different story).  

Potter fandom constitutes a community.  Membership in a community that shares knowledge and shares communication, John Dewey reminds us, is crucial to the development of public participation. [4]  Thus participation in fandom facilitates the development of young women’s community building skills as well as their writing skills.

But to repeat Hermione’s question, what does Potter fandom do out in the world besides tell stories?  After all, even Lady Macbeth’s old women around the fire had audiences for their stories and presumably they participated in communities, but they were excluded from the larger political structures of their world.  Harry Potter fans, too young to vote, female and not particularly powerful, were similarly separated from the world of politics and civic engagement until The Harry Potter Alliance provided the all important bridge between fandom and activism. [5]  Created in 2005 by Andrew Slack, then in his twenties, the Harry Potter Alliance is an NGO dedicated to harnessing the power of on-line Harry Potter communities for social change.   The mission statement explains that the alliance wants to “empower our members to act like the heroes that they love by acting for a better world. . . . Our goal is to make civic engagement exciting by channeling the entertainment-saturated facets of our culture toward mobilization for deep and lasting social change” (“What We Do”). By any standards the Alliance has been fabulously successful.  Most notably, the Alliance facilitated sending five cargo planes to Haiti with relief supplies after the earthquake in 2010.  It also became involved in the 2009 Maine Campaign to stop a ballot initiative attempting to repeal same sex marriage.  Courtney E. Martin reports that:

The Maine campaign, called “Wrock 4 Equality,” featured a “wizard rock” concert followed by a day where local fans canvassed while those watching via livestream phone banked.  The lobby day was cast as a “House Cup Competition,” in Harry Potter parlance, where participants could earn points for their preferred House at Hogwarts.  The group made over 3,500 cold calls in a day.

The playful use of Harry Potter language, characters, and plot points and their application to an actual political situation is typical of the Alliance.  As the website announces on its home page, “The Harry Potter Alliance Fights the Dark Arts in the Real World by using parallels from Harry Potter” (“What We Do”). [6] Andrew Slack describes this overlay of real world problems onto Potter characters and the Hogwarts setting as “cultural acupuncture,”  “finding where the psychological energy is in the culture, and moving that energy towards creating a healthier world.” [7] Such cultural acupuncture allows the Harry Potter Alliance to side-step the traditional institutions of US and indeed global politics that can be alienating in their language and dismissive of the young.  What fans will not find on the Harry Potter Alliance website are any references to political parties, Republicans, Democrats, Libertarians, or to interest groups like labor unions.  In their bios, the staff all begin by describing their first encounter with the Harry Potter Books as the catalyst for their entrance into a life characterized by social activism as well as fandom.   Their allegiance is to story rather than to political party.

Story returns us to reading, imagination, and empathy.  J. K. Rowling, in her remarks at Harvard’s graduation ceremonies in 2008, applauded the powers of the human imagination: “Imagination is not only the uniquely human capacity to envision that which is not, and therefore the fount of all invention and innovation. In its arguably most transformative and revelatory capacity, it is the power that enables us to empathize with humans whose experiences we have never shared” (“Fringe Benefits”).  She sounds remarkably like Martha Nussbaum here.  Significantly, she is not describing her imagination which enabled her to create the magical world of Hogwarts but rather the imagination of those who work at Amnesty International, making change in the real world.  Her address continues:

Amnesty mobilizes thousands of people who have never been tortured or imprisoned for their beliefs to act on behalf of those who have. The power of human empathy, leading to collective action, saves lives, and frees prisoners. Ordinary people, whose personal well-being and security are assured, join together in huge numbers to save people they do not know, and will never meet.

Rowling’s speech has given to the Alliance new tools and energy beyond the Harry Potter canon.  Slack quotes Rowling’s speech on the Harry Potter Alliance mission page and has taken a phrase from the speech to name the HPA blog, “Imagine Better.”  

In the age of new media the old paradigm of stories and imagination as a refuge from action in the world is out of date.  In the second decade of the twenty-first century, the power that Matilda felt radiating from her eyeballs is now at the tips of young reader/writer/critic/activists’ fingers.  Reading begets fandom which begets activism.  As Henry Jenkins has argued, the significance of popular fiction “lies at the intersection between what the author wants to say and how the audience deploys his creation for their own communicative purposes” (“Avatar Activism”).  Rowling has written a series that is peculiarly adaptable to young activists’ purposes.   While she could not have anticipated the fandom and its extension into fan activism, it would not have happened if she had not written a story with a girl reader named Hermione at its center, one who takes action, who does something in the public, political world. Now, when the real world girl reader combines her imagination, her empathy, and her tech savvy, anything is possible.  In the twenty-first century, stories have real power in the real world, and that is magical.


Works Cited

Annie.  “About Me.” MuggleNet Fan Fiction. 6 Jan. 2007. Web. 10 Feb. 2010.

Burnett, Frances Hodgson.  “Editha’s Burglar.”  The Norton Anthology of Children’s Literature.  New York: Norton, 2005. 2186-2195. Print.

Cherland, Meredith.  “Harry’s Girls: Harry Potter and the Discourse of Gender.” Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy 52 (2008): 273-282. Print.

Cherland, Meredith Rogers.  Private Practices: Girls Reading Fiction and Constructing Identity.  London: Taylor and Francis, 1994. Print.

Dahl, Roald.  Matilda. 1988. New York: Puffin Modern Classics, 2004. Print.

Ginny Weasley Potter.  “Killer Instincts.” MuggleNet Fan Fiction.  3 Oct. 2010. Web. 15 Feb. 2012.

Hestiajones. “Reviews for ‘Always . . . But Not Who You Think.’” MuggleNet Fan Fiction.  19 March 2010.  Web. 15 Feb. 2012.

Hinck, Ashley.  “Theorizing a Public Engagement Keystone: Seeing Fandom’s Integral Connection to Civic Engagement through the Case of the Harry Potter Alliance.”  Transformative Works and Cultures 10 (2012). Web. 19 June 2012.

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1. In “Harry Potter and the Other,” Jackie Horne has argued that Hermione’s empathy is related to her experience of racism as well as to her habit of reading.  She explains that while Harry enacts a multicultural approach to anti-racism in the series, Hermione’s more active social justice approach comes out of her own experience of racism as a mudblood, a child of one magical and one muggle parent.

2. I have requested permission to quote material from the fanfiction authors I quote and discuss in this paper.

3. Anne Kustritz describes slash communities devoted to TV shows such as Star Trek and Starsky and Hutch as being made up of “overeducated but underemployed heterosexual women who are oppressed not only by patriarchy but by their employment status” (376).   I would argue that the Harry Potter fan community is younger and less oppressed than the communities described by Kustritz.

4. See Ashley Hinck’s discussion of fandom and civic engagement.  She explores “how the HPA is able to construct an environment that invites fans to see themselves as citizens” using the theories of John Dewey, Peter Dahlgren and Doug McAdam.

5. In her article “From Young Adult Book Fans to Wizards of Change” Courtney E. Martin quotes Henry Jenkins’ explanation of fanactivism as a mechanism to:  “take kids who are culturally active and build a bridge for them to become politically active.”

6. Courtney E. Martin, the author of Do It Anyway: The Next Generation of Activists, noted in The Huffington Post that such playfulness is characteristic of the next generation’s activism in general: “To be an activist these days does not mean being a martyr.  We’re putting joy, spontaneity, and creativity into our good works.”

7. Also see Henry Jenkins’ theorization of  “cultural acupuncture” in his article, “‘Cultural Acupuncture’: Fan Activism and the Harry Potter Alliance.”


Caroline McAlister

Volume 16, Issue 1, The Looking Glass, September/October 2012

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