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By William Lee Adams
July 18, 2005
At the stroke of midnight on Friday, Harry Potter fanatics will descend on bookstores to claim "Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince," the sixth installment of J. K. Rowling's best-selling series. Although Ashley Bernard, 12, says she has read the first five books "at least 15 times each," she will not be among the midnight crawlers. Blind from birth, she has always faced a torturous delay of at least three months to get a Braille edition. "I don't like to be kept waiting," she says, worried that her friends, who chatter ceaselessly about the book, might give away its ending.
Ashley won't have to avoid her pals for long. Thanks to the National Braille Press (NBP), a nonprofit publishing and printing house based in Boston, blind children across the country will receive Braille editions only three days late. Scholastic, the publisher, agreed to give NBP the precious text early this time; last week the press - with all 51 staffers and 23 volunteers began working round the clock to complete the Braille edition. The text must be transcribed into Braille, printed on special paper, proofread twice and then collated by hand to protect the delicate script. Printing a single Braille version costs $62, but it will sell for the standard retail price of $29.99 ($17.99 for preorders). NBP estimates it will lose more than $32,000 after its first press run of 700 copies. "This isn't about charity, it's about parity," says NBP's Tanya Holton. "It's our job to make up that difference." Local businesses help. The largest donor, Lumber Liquidators, a hardwood-flooring retailer, donated $100,000 to fund the Braille "Harry Potter" series earlier this year.
A cultural phenomenon like "Harry Potter" can go a long way to improve literacy among blind children. According to Diane Croft, NBP's vice president of publications, only 20 percent of blind children can read Braille by the fourth grade. "If you tell a good story, the readers will come - and that goes for blind children too," she says. They also learn to read faster due to the length of the "Potter" books. Because Braille text is large, it takes four pages of Braille to cover the same material as one page of print. The Braille "Half-Blood Prince" will run 1,100 pages - in nine volumes that will weigh at least 11 pounds altogether.
Connie Bach, 15, has to carry the 13 volumes of "Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix" in a small suitcase. Still, she prefers the Braille books to compact audio versions. "If I get confused, I have to rewind and try to find the spot," she says, "but with Braille I can just go back and reread." Besides, she says, a reader's inflection can color her interpretation, making it hard "to form my own images." She can't wait for those wizards to tell their story - and now she doesn't have to.