Newswise — Harry Potter mania will take the nation again this summer, as fans flock to bookstores for the final installment of the popular series. And hot on the trail of Harry's broomstick will likely be renewed controversy from conservatives who accuse the books of encouraging an interest in the occult.

But the popular fantasy series actually casts a positive spell on children, say three researchers at Saint Joseph College in West Hartford, CT, based on research they published in 2005 and a new study that they have just completed.

"The Harry Potter novels teach lessons of courage and friendship " not black magic," says Dr. Mary Whitney, assistant professor of psychology at Saint Joseph College and one of the authors of the 2005 study, "Children's Moral Reading of Harry Potter: Are Children and Adults Reading the Same Books?" .

The four-year study, published in the Journal of Research in Character Education, examined both child and adult readers to dispel the myth that the novels confused children and led them to the dark arts.

"Specific questions about magic, as well as interview notes and follow-ups found no evidence that reading the Harry Potter books was leading the children to the occult or confusing them about the use of magic," says Dr. Elizabeth Vozzola, professor of psychology at Saint Joseph. "In fact, the research supported teachers' and librarians' contention that the moral messages children are actually taking away from these books are lessons about courage and friendship."

When Vozzola and Whitney began their research, with colleague Dr. Joan Hofmann, there was no serious literature on children's responses to Harry Potter books. "Conclusions were being drawn without solid knowledge of what children were actually getting from the books," says Whitney. "Supporters and foes alike agree that Harry Potter sends a powerful moral message. But now we can say that it is an overwhelmingly positive one."

Vozzola, along with then-student Amie Senland, followed up the research with an examination of Bible-believing families and Harry Potter. That new study, now under review, is the first stage of a larger research project looking at how perceptions of the Harry Potter series vary depending on whether one identifies with a liberal, mainline or conservative church.

"Some biblical families feel a deep sense of moral obligation to protect their children from the magic depicted in Harry Potter, even if it is fantasy," says Vozzola. "However, current findings suggest that children from Bible-believing families are not being led to an interest in the occult by reading Harry Potter, but appear to filter their understanding of the plot, themes and characters through what they have learned through their churches and through their families."

"Rather than learning to break rules, children are assessing the value of rules and concentrating on the theme of friendship and courage," she says. "By reading the series with children, concerned biblical families can guide children in processing moral messages, as well as help them learn how to evaluate popular culture through the lens of faith."

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Journal of Research in Character Education