Parents shouldn't judge a book by the way it's covered, says Ken Tucker

Is the new ”Harry Potter” too much for kids?

Here are my ”Big Brother” questions for the day: If the 10 goofballs in CBS’ camera-filled house were smuggled in a copy of ”Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire” and began taking turns reading chapters to each other aloud, how long would it take for them to finish the 752 page book? And would it increase ratings (because viewers would be caught up in J.K. Rowling’s thrilling writing and not have to listen to the housemates’ banal conversation) or decrease the ratings (because viewers, unaccustomed to the sight of someone on television reading a book, would, thoroughly unnerved, switch channels)?

Actually, this is not a ”Big Brother” column; it’s a ”Harry Potter” column, but I want to follow up on this fact of the book’s length, because there’s one aspect of it that’s got me royally cheesed off. ”Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire” is finally in bookstores, and although the hype surrounding the fourth volume of the young English wizard’s adventures was inevitable — the TV reports about midnight bookstore openings; the efforts of stupid adults to secure first editions of the book (as if anything issued in numbers like this — 3.8 million U.S. print run alone — will be worth anything over its cover price for at least another generation); the understandably intense speculation about the movie version of ”Potter” — one aspect of ”Potter” coverage makes me heartily sick: the advance ”reviews” and commentary about Rowling’s writing.

Typical is Gail Collins’ recent column on the Op Ed page of the New York Times. Collins moans that ”Goblet” is ”longer than ‘The Brothers Karamazov’ and way, way longer than ‘Moby Dick,’ even if you don’t skip over the parts about how to prepare whale blubber.” Collins, in sentiments similar to many other commentators, has accused Potter creator Rowling of being ”a famous celebrity… and clearly no longer a person to whom an editor can suggest that 734 pages is a little over the top.”

OK, first of all, let me suggest the obvious: Maybe J.K. Rowling is such a compelling writer, she’s created a big, thick book that contains no whale blubber — that is, no fat, no extraneous padding. Second, this ”Will kids read a long book?” thing is a question only idiots who don’t read much themselves would ask. Kids will do anything they enjoy doing for long periods of time, whether it’s play videogames, endure multiple-day soccer tournaments, or read about characters and adventures that enthrall them.

Yes, it’s unusual for one piece of children’s literature to be this long. But put it in context: The Potter books are a series, and kids for many years have been reading series literature that can total thousands of pages. I’m thinking of everything from the utter garbage of R.L. Stine’s innumerable kiddie-horror novels to great stuff like C.S. Lewis’ ”Narnia” chronicles, Edward Eager’s ”Magic” series, and E. Nesbit’s ”Five Children” books.

Read or ignore the ”Potter” publicity as you wish. But don’t tell me we need to fret that our kids are in over their heads, or that Rowling should be criticized for pursuing her muse and unexpectedly becoming rich in the process.” She may be British, but that’s the American way, isn’t it?

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire
  • Movie
  • 157 minutes