Wausau prof is a Harry Potter scholar

One University of Wisconsin professor’s decades-long appreciation for J.K. Rowling is helping keep the magic of Harry Potter alive in Wausau.

Holly Hassel is a professor of English and women’s studies at the UW Marathon County. She is also the co-author of “The Critical Companion to J.K. Rowling” and is co-director of the Wizarding Academy, a summer youth learning program hosted by UWMC. It’s that expertise, on one of children’s literature’s most beloved series, that is in many ways responsible for fueling local fans interests in the books. And it’s an interest that is sure to peak as Rowling fans across the nation prepare for the release of the newest Harry Potter book, “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child” a couple nights from now.

Her own interest in the Potterverse didn’t happen overnight, though. Hassel’s relationship with J.K. Rowling’s magical universe actually began back in the late ’90s after the then-Ph.D. candidate spotted the first two installments on an Amazon best sellers list.

“I started reading it when I was a graduate student,” Hassel said. “I then had a colleague here on campus who had also been into Harry Potter, and she had the idea of starting the Wizarding Academy camp. I was like ‘Great, I’m totally into Harry Potter, let’s do that!’ That was an opportunity to sort of bring that out to the community, followed by other projects including the critical companion book.”

The initial appeal was heavily influenced by how differently she could engage with the story versus her own academic work.

“Obviously being an English professor, I’ve always been a reader and been influenced by fantasy and other kinds of novels when I was a kid, so I’ve always had a spot in my imagination and heart for those kinds of works,” Hassel said. “I think I was just longing for some of the joy of reading literature instead of doing comprehensive exams and dissertation writing. It kind of reignited this passion I had for a narrative, and so from there I followed it really intensively.”

Hassel’s dive into the series saw her joined by many of her fellow graduate students, and helped her realize how Rowling’s story was appealing to more than its intended audience. Hassel credits a lot of the series’ enduring power to the “Harry Potter” author’s ability to “reach across really different readerships” and “remind people of other series they loved.”

Hassel says the books’ use of universal themes like coming of age and the power of love are what give the story its multi-generation appeal.

“So much of children’s literature reflects and speaks to the challenges of coming of age. That development process of both encountering the world differently and also coming to a stronger understanding of yourself,” she said. “(Harry’s) arguably in an abusive environment; he finds out that he’s been chosen, and that there’s this other reality. Regular life is boring, but there’s this entirely other magical world — one where he also struggles to develop his identity and to be part of his environment. I think that’s something that really appeals to readers about the Harry Potter series. It dramatizes in a fantasy realm the same set of experiences everyone has just growing up.”

This article first appeared in the Wausau Daily Herald on July 29, 2016.

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