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Young Potter readers need to talk, grieve

As she was leaving for summer school Monday morning, the day after she had finished ''Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince," 14-year-old Chelsey Bowman of Newton asked her mother, ''Will you be here when I get home at 1 o'clock? I don't want to be alone."

The neediness took June Bowman by surprise. Not only is it unlike her daughter to be frightened, it's also unlike ''Harry Potter" to cause that degree of intensity.

Less than 24 hours after the book was released last weekend, readers who had already finished it were seeking solace in a chat thread on

''Is anyone else in complete and utter shock about who just died and how, or am I the only one?"

''I am in shock. OMG, I can't believe what I just read. I spent like the last three chapters bawling my eyes out. I'm just in shock, pure utter shock."

We won't be the spoiler here, but it's no secret that a much-beloved character dies in this sixth book in the series by J.K. Rowling. What do you say when your child has been up all night reading, and her eyes are red and swollen from crying?

For sure you don't say, ''Oh honey, it's only a book."

Children's literature specialist Masha Rudman of the University of Massachusetts at Amherst says, ''That's like saying, 'Oh, it's only one stick of dynamite.' " In other words, she says, ''Stories have power."

''Harry Potter is not just a book, it's an entire world that becomes very real to you," says 15-year-old Sara Sokolove, also of Newton. ''People use Harry Potter books as a distraction to their own lives. To escape. You can't do that with this one because it's so depressing." Sara's mother, Ann, was distressed by how disturbed her daughter was. ''Her reaction was so strong. I could see it in her face before she even said a word."

Is that a reason for some children not to read this much-anticipated book?

Probably not.

Rowling's series has dealt with weighty issues all along: love, loss, good, evil, death, trust. Although ''Half-Blood" is darker and scarier and has the potential to tap into deep, sometimes upsetting feelings, that's not necessarily bad, says child and adolescent bereavement specialist Heather Servaty-Seib, a professor at Purdue University and an avid Potter fan.

''Talking about fiction is a safe way for children to talk about real life. The book can be a catalyst for important conversation," she says.

''For me, this book is all about trust," says Hilla Rogel, 15, of Brookline. ''Who can you trust? Are my parents sometimes wrong? Can you depend on anyone besides yourself?"

''After I finished, I lay awake and went over and over it in my head until morning," says Eli Dreyfus, 14, of Newton. ''My life is parallel to Harry Potter's. It made me feel really vulnerable. What would I do [in similar situations]? Am I ultimately alone, too?"

Rogel, a counselor in training at Creative Arts at Park, a summer program at the Park School in Brookline, and Dreyfus, a camper there, were among 16 readers who finished the book and gathered to talk about it Tuesday morning. It was not an upbeat discussion. They used words like ominous, intense, hopeless, and dark to describe it, along with touching, sincere, and exhilarating. That's a sharp contrast to previous Harry Potter books, which they describe as mostly leaving them feeling high and excited.

''It's the first book to make me think more about what I just read than to just be looking forward to the next one," says Raanan Sarid-Segal, 14, of Newton, another Park camper.

Only one reader described it as hopeful.

''You have to kind of turn things around to get [to the hopefulness] 'cause it really is frightening to think that we all really are on our own," says Emma Frank, a 17-year-old counselor-in-training from Brookline. ''But that can be a lovely and hopeful message, too: that you have to take responsibility for yourself sooner or later." She stayed up until 2 a.m. to finish the book and sobbed through the ending.

Cambridge Hospital psychiatrist David Jones, a Harry Potter aficionado who begged his wife to give him a break from parenting responsibilities on Sunday so he could finish the book, says younger readers will tend to take the book literally and be frightened.

Indeed, Sarid-Segal felt paranoid when he finished: ''I went around the house three times, checking to make sure it was safe."

Nina Blass of Arlington, also 14, says, ''It's not a kid's book anymore. It's much too scary." She's worried about her 8-year-old sister reading it by herself.

Jones urges parents whose children are 9 or younger to read the book to them. ''Kids are egocentric. They blame themselves when bad things happen, like death or divorce. Seeing Harry feel so guilty may make them think, 'Gee, I must be right to feel guilty for what happened in my life,' " Jones says.

Servaty-Seib is concerned that young children will connect death to evil. She tells parents, ''The message to convey is that death is a normative part of the human experience."

With older children, read it yourself at the same time. Making it a shared experience is comforting. Blass read through the night with two friends, stopping to talk about it at the end of some chapters. ''We finished at 8 a.m," she says. ''We collapsed on each other. We cried. Then we fell asleep."

The 14- to 19-year-old reader is emotionally vulnerable because her thinking is more abstract and metaphysical. Celeste Hughey also had a group read. A 19-year-old counselor at Park, she was the first of her three friends to finish. ''I watched them close their books. They kind of curled up into a ball. You feel numb, let down, wrung out," she says. She's anxious for her mom to finish the book so they can talk about it. ''I want to say to her, 'I'm so glad I still have you,' " Hughey says.

Servaty-Seib says it will be hard for a reader of any age not to feel grief. For those who have experienced loss in their own lives, including a pet's death or having a best friend move away, it may stir up feelings they didn't know they had.

Park camper Rosa Zedek, 12, of Brookline attended her grandmother's memorial service over the weekend, then came home to read ''Half-Blood." The timing was unfortunate. ''It's left me kind of numb," she says.

Even if a child is temperamentally vulnerable or prone to depression, child psychiatrist Michael Jellinek says, ''I'm not sure that [reading it] is necessarily bad," but a parent should absolutely read it as well and initiate conversation. ''All of us get some emotional relief or satisfaction from sadness on the screen or in books or fairy tales," he says. ''It's catharsis. It helps us relate and think through our own lives." Jellinek is president of Newton-Wellesley Hospital.

Most children will bounce back from any sadness within 24 hours. If not, or if their reaction to the book is extreme, consider it a tip-off that the book is stirring some deeper feelings. Jellinek says, ''I'd ask, 'You seem really sad. Is something bothering you? Is there something about this story that's making you sad?' "

Sophie Lazar of Jamaica Plain, a 12-year-old at Park who has reread each of the previous Potter books as many as three times, isn't so sure she'll reread ''Half-Blood." ''Way too scary and sad, and disappointing," she says. ''I liked it better when Harry, and Ron and Hermione just had adventures."

E-mail Meltz at

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