NEW CANAAN, Conn. – Fifth-grader Bianca Schultz was eager to discuss “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince” after she finished reading it in a marathon seven-hour session.
She didn’t have to wait long. The next day was the start of a popular summer camp run by the school district and modeled on Hogwarts, the magical boarding school Harry and his wizard friends attend.
“I’m such a big Harry Potter fan,” said Bianca, who was thrilled to learn about the camp. “It’s just amazing because you actually do things like in the book. I get to talk to people my age who are just like me.”
The camp, like dozens of others across the country, was more popular than ever this year because it coincided with the release of the sixth book in author J.K. Rowling’s seven-book series. About 9 million copies of the book sold in the first 24 hours it was available.
Although they’re muggles – nonmagic folk – the day camp students immerse themselves in Hogwarts’ fictional world, donning capes and pointed hats, mixing potions and playing Quidditch, a favorite sport in the books.
“I’ve always loved the Harry Potter books, so it’s a lot of fun to pretend to be some of the characters and dress up and do some of the stuff they would do,” said Heather Sabel.
The fifth-grader was taking a break from potions class in a school science lab, where students dipped gummy frogs in chocolate and dropped antacid tablets in water to create “emergency distraction capsules.”
Mark West, an English professor specializing in children’s literature, ran a similar camp at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte for several years.
Rowling “so thoroughly and creatively develops her world that you really can feel what it’s like to be at Hogwarts,” West said. “For the kids who get into the stories, it’s fun to kind of imagine that you are at Hogwarts, that you have those special abilities.”
Enrollment in New Canaan’s “Hop on the Hogwarts Express” program has doubled to 120 students over the past six years. The camp is set up in South Street Elementary School, and campers are divided into four Hogwarts houses, but the names were changed because none of the kids wanted to be in Slytherin, made infamous in Rowling’s books.
The houses spend time in different parts of the school – they play Quidditch in the gym, for example.
The biggest challenge this year was keeping campers who had finished the new book from revealing the ending to those who hadn’t.
“We knew the book was coming out in July, but what we didn’t realize was the book was going to come out two days before camp started,” coordinator Karen Scalzo said.
Campers were required to sign an oath swearing they would talk about the newest book only with those who had finished it. Anyone who violated the oath would find his or her house docked 1,000 points, a major setback in the quest to win the House Cup awarded at the end of the program. Points were awarded for costumes, good behavior and participation.
The dozen or so who had read “Half-Blood Prince” were so excited that coordinators established a discussion group where they could talk about the book out of earshot of those still reading.
“They’re very sophisticated readers, and they’re aching to talk more,” said teacher Judy Bosworth, who was surprised to find second- through eighth-graders discussing character development and dissecting the plot.
Another logistical challenge was how to run a real-life game of Quidditch, played in the book on flying broomsticks.
In the camp’s first year, the children used actual brooms. No one was injured, but coordinators decided the game would be safer with softer balls thrown by hand. The result is a complicated cross between dodge ball, soccer and basketball.
On the final day of camp, the four houses face off in a Quidditch tournament, followed by a feast.
Campers said they appreciate efforts to make things as much like Hogwarts as possible.
“I really like the books, and they don’t exactly come to life here, ‘cause it would be really hard to make them come to life,” said seventh-grader Samantha Kaseta, “but it is pretty close.”