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Harry Potter and J. K. Rowling

Harry Potter and J. K. Rowling

In the closing years of the twentieth century, few books for children enjoyed as much success, scrutiny, or controversy as the phenomenally popular Harry Potter novels. Part British school fiction, part mystery, part conventional fantasy, J. K. Rowling's planned, seven-part series concerns a boy named Harry who discovers that he was born a wizard and that a secret society of witches and wizards exists beneath the noses of the Muggle (or non-wizard) world. Orphaned under mysterious circumstances and branded with a strange lightning bolt on his forehead, Harry grows up with his neglectful relatives the Dursleys. On his eleventh birthday he is visited by Hagrid, a friendly, giant caretaker of Hogwarts Academy, a school for wizards that Harry is called to attend. There, he quickly becomes close friends with a bookish girl named Hermione and a comical friend Ron, as well as the enemy of a rich student named Draco. Through a number of noticeably darker adventureseach of Rowling's books describes one year at the schoolHarry discovers not only the deeply held secrets of the magic world, but also the facts of his own past, including the death of his parents at the hand of an evil wizard named Voldemort.

The novels are marked by increasing sophistication, depth, and length; the fourth book, one of the best-selling children's books in history, is nearly 800 pages. Packed full of mythic references and names, not to mention a broad cast of well-drawn characters, these smart books are noted for their complex mysteries that revolve around even the smallest detail. They feature clever objects and spells, fabulous creatures, secretive adults, a Gothic-style castle for a school, and a soccer-like sport called Quidditch that is played on brooms. Rowling frequently deals with such themes as prejudice (against those of mixed parentage), class (through the different dormitories one is assigned by The Sorting Hat), and adolescence (as the young protagonists learn to control their powers).

By word of mouth and clever marketing, the first three books in the series, Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone (1997), Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (1998), and Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (1999) spawned a number of fan clubs and websites, filled up the best-seller list, and became a favorite of adult readers as well. Critics argued whether Rowling was merely rewriting old conventions in a new guise. Faith-based groups, meanwhile, challenged the novels' emphasis on witchcraft and the occult, making the first three titles the most frequently banned books of 1999. By the time the fourth book, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (2000), was released, midnight sales and a rash of marketing had made Harry Potter a global phenomenon and a merchandising goldmine. The books, with an enticing world of flying brooms and invisibility cloaks, seemed to echo this drive for marketing. Yet Rowling's books are noticeably moralistic, often discouraging temptation by showcasing a number of alluring objectsa mirror of desire, a stone that gives eternal lifethat are never fulfilling for the main characters.

Christopher Columbus's blockbuster film of the first book (2001), one of the highest grossing films in history, featured a near literal translation of the book to screen, employing an almost entirely British cast and a group of unknowns to play the three child leads. Its success guaranteed a franchise of films from the books. The fifth book, meanwhile, delayed by Rowling's own decision to spend more time with her family and to craft the plot, became a highly anticipated event. Scholastic capitalized on such reader anticipation with two supplementary books, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (2001) and Quidditch Through the Ages (2001), both marketed as textbooks from Hogwarts.

A former English and French teacher, born in 1966 in Chipping Sodbury near Bristol, England, Rowling wrote the first books primarily in cafés, while her infant daughter slept. Conceiving the series on a train ride, she formulated the plot

of all seven books at once, in a burst of creativity, imagining full lives for all of her characters. Initially rejected by several publishers, the first book was eventually released in England, before being purchased by Scholastic in America. It was slightly revised, as the "Philosopher's Stone" of the original title was changed to the more fantastical "Sorcerer's Stone" in American editions, and some British slang was taken out. It was also eventually translated into nearly thirty languages. The books remain a publishing phenomenon and a significant touchstone of contemporary children's literature.

See also: Children's Literature; Lord of the Rings and J.R.R. Tolkien; Series Books.


Fraser, Lindsey. 2000. Conversations with J. K. Rowling. New York: Scholastic.

Natov, Roni. 2001. "Harry Potter and the Extraordinariness of the Ordinary." The Lion and the Unicorn 25: 31027.

Pennington, John. 2002. "From Elfland to Hogwarts, or the Aesthetic Trouble with Harry Potter." The Lion and the Unicorn 26: 7897.

Routledge, Christopher. 2001. "Harry Potter and the Mystery of Everyday Life." In Mystery in Children's Literature: From the Rational to the Supernatural, ed. Adrienne E. Gavin and Christopher Routledge. New York: Palgrave.

Shafer, Elizabeth D. 2000. Beacham's Sourcebook for Teaching Young Adult Fiction: Exploring Harry Potter. Osprey, FL: Beacham Publishing.

Zipes, Jack. 2001. "The Phenomenon of Harry Potter, or Why All the Talk?" In his Sticks and Stones: The Troublesome Success of Children's Literature from Slovenly Peter to Harry Potter. New York: Routledge.

Chris McGee

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