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Hogwart's Smarty Pants
Helena Morris keeps all the Harry Potter books by her bedside, but the most dogeared page is probably Page 216 of the third book, "Prisoner of Azkaban," in the English edition.
It's when the hateful Draco Malfoy insults the beloved teacher, Hagrid, and the bookish, conscientious, rule-loving - at least until this point - Hermione Granger smacks Malfoy across the face. Her friends Harry and Ron Weasley are as stunned as Malfoy.
"It's very gratifying," says Morris, of West Simsbury, 18, who has been reading the J.K. Rowling series since she was 9. "It's such a gratifying moment - for all the times I wanted to smack someone ... It shows the magnitude of the moment."
For girls who are the bookworm sort - and any true devotee of the often 500-page-plus Potter books probably qualifies as one - Hermione is the kind of heroine who gives flight to their imaginations, who inspires and serves as a role model.
"I guess I would have been a good student either way," says Morris, who believes she shares some of Hermione's qualities. "But it's nice to read about such a positive girl. She's not afraid to speak up and say what's on her mind. She's very strong academically. She doesn't hold back and take a back seat to the guys in her class. She doesn't take a back seat to anyone."
Samantha Morrow, 19, of Hebron, says Hermione is her favorite character "because I see so much of myself in her. ... She doesn't care what she looks like. She cares about learning. She's a strong female."
When Hermione took the O.W.L. (Ordinary Wizarding Level exams) and didn't do quite as well in one section, Morrow says she reacted just as she would have. "She's such a perfectionist - like me."
Indeed, a four-year study done on the series by Elizabeth Vozzola, a psychology professor at St. Joseph College in West Hartford, Connecticut found that Hermione was perceived as "the most positive character" by the four age groups interviewed - from elementary-school children through postgraduates. Nearly ninety percent or more of each age group found her courageous, hardworking, respectful, helpful, responsible and concerned about others.
"She has all the virtues that you would want in a person," says Vozzola, whose study published in the Journal of Research in Character Education examined both child and adult readers and found that the novels did not confuse children nor lead them into the dark arts, as some have contended. "In some ways she's very stereotypic," says Vozzola. "She's that female smarty pants."
But for girls who have ever felt like social outcasts because they were a little too nerdy, the story of Hermione is especially encouraging because she evolves from that library-haunting brainiac who really gets on her classmates' nerves - always hand up, always with the right answer - into an action figure who doesn't abandon her bookishness but uses it regularly to save the day.
Along the way she also becomes well-liked and admired; she leads a human rights movement of sorts for "house elves" and yes, perhaps in a bow to adolescent dreams, Rowling has the bushy-haired, big-toothed, reportedly "plain" Hermione turn swan when she attends the Yule Ball with quidditch star, Viktor Krum.
By the way, Samantha Morrow admires Hermione's restraint when it comes to boys: She likes Ron, but she doesn't chase him. "She's waiting for him to tell her," said Morrow. "It's old-fashioned, but I think girls need to have that message reiterated to them."
At the beginning of the first book, Hermione really isn't very well-liked by Harry or Ron. In fact, she can be downright obnoxious. She's right all the time, a stickler for the rules and bossy. When the three of them get into some trouble one night, she tells them: "I hope you're pleased with yourselves. We could all have been killed - or worse, expelled."
Her transformation occurs when she encounters a 12-foot mountain troll in the girls' bathroom, and she is saved by Harry and Ron. It is a distinctly unfeminist moment for Hermione - she has to be saved by the boys to be accepted by them? - but it does open her eyes to the complexities of life when a short while later, the boys are chastised by Professor Minerva McGonagall and others. Out of loyalty and gratitude to the boys, Hermione steps forward and lies to protect them and shield them from punishment.
The ordeal seals the trio's friendship, but from thereon, friendship and loyalty become Hermione's main motivators and she uses her brains for these reasons, rather than simply to be right all the time.
Says Vozzola, "She evolves exactly into that kind of `spunky girl' that readers have always liked. She's a spunky girl that resonates."
Who are other such spunky heroine/role models? There's Pippi Longstocking, who survives by her wits; Laura Ingalls Wilder of the Little House series; Nancy Drew, of course; perhaps Alice in Wonderland; or Harriet the Spy; and those Babysitter Club girls.
April Masini, author and originator of www.AskApril.com, says in an e-mail that "Hermione is a godsend in the world of Melissa de la Cruz books that tweens are reading, with titles like ``Hot Au Pairs.'"
"Ms. Hermione is a gutsy girl who learns to figure out her way around boys and society in a private school ... She learns to use her intelligence - and learns how and when to use it."
Unlike Harriet, the spy, Hermione is not a loner but is "part of a social group - a healthy developmental step in relationships and individuation. And unlike the Judy Blume characters, the Rowling characters are not all about puberty, physical changes, sex and sexuality," Masini says.
For bookish kids, Hermione is their ideal because she often finds the answers in studies and even in the library. "In `The Sorcerer's Stone,' [the first Potter book] she finds the identity of the person who created the stone by using the restricted part of the library," says Terri Goldich, curator for the Northeast Children's Literature Collection at the University of Connecticut. "As a librarian, I thought that was cool."
Her overachieving habits save the day, particularly in one instance. She is given a specialized time-travel device because she wants to take so many classes it requires her to be in two places at once. She uses the time-turner with Harry to travel back in time to rescue Sirius Black and Buckbeak, Hagrid's pet Hippogriff.
Perhaps it is because she is a "mud-blood" - born of ordinary parents, not wizards - and therefore subject to some derision, that Hermione also assumes a leadership role when she starts an organization to help the "house-elves" whom she sees as exploited.
As Potter-lovers anticipate the release of the seventh and final volume in the series at midnight Friday and debate about which characters might die - two are expected to meet that fate - Samantha Morrow is hoping it won't be Hermione.
"I'm going into library science and I'm a history major. We're so much alike, which is why I'm going to cry if Hermione dies at the end of the seventh book," says Morrow. "I'm encouraged by her character every time I read the books."
-Kathleen Megan, the Hartford Courant