Hempfield High grad turns her passion for Harry Potter into a doctoral dissertation and a book

It’s been 20 years since the first of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books, “The Sorcerer’s Stone,” hit the shelves, quickly becoming one of the most successful book series of all time.

Like many others around the world, Lancaster County native Christina Phillips-Mattson, as a teenager, enjoyed reading the Potter series.

For her, however, it quickly became much more than a childhood pastime.

July 31st marks J.K. Rowling and Harry Potter's birthday. To celebrate, a Lancaster County native published her Harvard dissertation, which focuses on Harry Potter.

Phillips-Mattson, after graduating from Hempfield High School, first went to Bucknell University, where she did her undergraduate studies, and in 2007 went to Harvard University, where she earned her master's and doctorate degrees. She studied comparative literature with a focus in comparative children’s literature.

Phillips-Mattson, who lives in Mount Joy Township with her husband Eric Mattson and her son James, earned her master’s degree in 2010 and her Ph.D. in 2015. Phillips-Mattson believes that children’s literature often doesn’t get the scholarly attention it deserves.

“The books that you read as a child impact you in a way that no other literature in your life does,” Phillips-Mattson said.

When it came time to choose her dissertation topic, Phillips-Mattson’s adviser encouraged her to choose something she would enjoy researching. She thought of Harry Potter.

“It was really interesting, I studied the books, I studied other children’s literature, I tried to situate Harry Potter within the history of children’s literature and literary criticism,” Phillips-Mattson explained.

She wound up turning her dissertation into a book, “Children’s Literature Grows Up: Harry Potter and the Children’s Literature Revolution,” which she published independently this summer.

Potter classes

Phillips-Mattson also has taught classes about Harry Potter at Harvard. She says that within the field of children’s literature, the series is unique because Harry Potter fans span multiple generations.

“The reason I chose to study it is I think J.K. Rowling is abolishing the divide between children’s literature and adults,” Phillips-Mattson said. “With the fairy tales, mythologies, legends, and histories that she weaves into her texts, Rowling incorporates previous defining characteristics of children’s fantasy literature and taps into our cultural memory; with her technical skill, she gives us the realism and verisimilitude that attempt to portray all the varieties of human experience which has become the adult novel’s defining feature.”

In this way, Phillips-Mattson believes that Rowling has started a “children’s literature revolution.”

“She’s completely changing the way that children’s literature has been written and received,” Phillips-Mattson said. “She unapologetically embraces both realism and the marvelous, making real things incredible and fantastic things realistic.”

Closer look

In the book, she explains more about the changing nature of children’s literature, while also taking a closer look at various aspects of the Harry Potter series.

“I wanted to create something that was really interesting to a Harry Potter fan,” Phillips-Mattson said, “but I also wanted to create something from a scholarly perspective.”

One of the book’s chapters is on spells. It turns out, there is a specific meaning behind the pronunciation of each spell.

“When Harry says a spell like ‘Expelliarmus,’ there is a reason that that spell is his signature spell; whereas Voldemort uses the ‘Avada Kedavra’ spell, which is from an African sadiki dialect,” Phillips-Mattson said.

“Avada Kadavra,” the so-called killing curse that is used frequently by Voldemort, comes from the word “abracadabra,” which means “I will create with words.” Rowling turned the “b’s” into “v’s,” which changes its meaning to “I will destroy with words.”

“Voldemort uses destructive language; Harry, as his opposite, he uses defensive language,” Phillips-Mattson said.

Harry’s selflessness and determination to defend his loved ones are traits which Phillips-Mattson hopes to teach her own son, James.

She has decorated a bookshelf in his nursery with Harry Potter picture books, spell/potion books, chocolate frogs, a wand, and even a small pair of the iconic Harry Potter glasses.

She’s been reading the Harry Potter books to James since before he was born.

“I want him to value integrity and courage and kindness especially, and to have empathy for other people, and to have social responsibility,” Phillips-Mattson says.

Phillips-Mattson’s book is available at amazon.com