Lockerbie, Catherine. "Just Wild About Harry," The Scotsman, July 9, 1998

CONSIDER the following curious picture. The rotund businessmen of the local Rotary Club earnestly discuss the relative merits, not of their Rovers, but of their racy new models of broomstick. The football terraces are forsaken in favour of Quidditch - an airborne wizardly game of terrifying speed and skill.

Cool twenty-somethings out clubbing sport lightning flashes on their foreheads - not in belated tribute to Ziggy Stardust, but in emulation of a bespectacled little boy by the name of Harry Potter.

Such a cultural shift may seem a mite unlikely. It is, however, hardly less likely than the scarcely credible story of a first children's novel by an unknown author so seizing the imagination of the reading public that it knocks Jeffrey Archer and John Grisham off the top of the bestsellers list.

The rise and rise of Harry Potter has by now been well documented.

Single mother JK Rowling famously created her orphan hero while scribbling in Edinburgh cafes as her baby slept in her pushchair alongside. The first novel, Harry Potter and The Philosopher's Stone, published last year by Bloomsbury, attracted attention and advances hardly dreamed of for a first children's book. It sold superbly, won the Smarties Prize and entered playground lore.

The ordinary small boy who soon discovers he is a wizard, and is packed off to the highly unorthodox Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry has been embraced by the nation's children with joyous passion. (This in itself is an utterly heartening indication that books alone can still excite the media -bombarded young.)

The eyebrow-raising new evidence is that the passion is shared by adults. The second novel, Harry Potter and The Chamber of Secrets, has leapt to the top of the hardback bestseller lists, overtaking adult works with all the elan of a gracefully speeding broomstick. Certainly, young readers have been clamouring for the next instalment of Harry's funny, scary, magical life. Certainly, it is the book which will keep the beloved offspring quiet for substantial segments of the summer holidays. Yet adults, not all of them teachers or parents avidly curious to learn what has so enthralled their children, are it seems almost equally allured by Harry's escapades at Hogwarts.

This is as it should be. The great children's books have always transcended petty boundaries of age. Many classics, indeed, from Gulliver's Travels to Round The World In 80 Days, were never written for children in the first place, and have merely been bowdlerised, abridged and prettified for the impressionable young. The appeal of Harry Potter to adults, however, works powerfully against a prevailing cultural norm in which children's works are seen as lesser in every way: less mature, less profound, less worthy of informed adult interest, respect and enjoyment.

Lindsey Fraser, the chief executive of Scottish Book Trust, comments: "The perceived wisdom is that children's books are things to teach you to read and that you grow out of. Most adults don't usually touch them with a barge-pole."

Clearly, the humour, excitement and endlessly inventive fantasy of Harry Potter have touched resonant chords in older readers.

A happy concatenation of circumstances has catapulted our hero out of the pleasant ghetto in which children's books customarily languish. The news stories which accompanied Rowling's debut and dizzying advances; the enthusiasm of buyers in bookshops, displaying the book at the front of shops as well as in the cosy children's corners at the back; and the irreplaceable marketing tool of excited word of mouth have all contributed to young Harry flying daringly into wider consciousness.

Rosamund Walker, the sales and marketing manager at Bloomsbury, tirelessly proselytises for the books well beyond the call of duty.

"All of us loved the book passionately for itself. I personally am almost pathetically obsessed with it. All my friends, in their mid-twenties, have read it, and they're all going to join the fan club. It's a real cult thing."

Responding to this surge of interest, and to the arid climate in which reading children's books may be seen as terminally uncool (pace the Teletubbies and an acid-generation edition of The Adventures of Dougal of Magic Roundabout fame), Bloomsbury plans shortly to bring out an adult edition of the books, with a less specifically child-like cover.

It has happened before that a book ostensibly for children has effortlessly danced over age delineations. Lord Of The Rings, after all, is pored over by children and gleaming-eyed grown-ups alike. The powerfully mythic novels of Alan Garner nourish the starving imaginations of young and old. It is notable that neither Tolkein nor Garner ever considered they were writing for children in the first place. Nor did either author anticipate that fantasy, or the inclusion of magical creatures and child protagonists, are swiftly labelled the sole preserve of children - the same oddly arid stereotyping which saw the dark and bloody fables of the Brothers Grimm repackaged as suitable fare for sweet babies in the nursery.

Joanne Rowling, too, did not at any point consciously write for children. (This alone marks her out as a true and proper writer.

Real artists rarely have specifically defined target audiences in mind.)

"It struck me as patronising to try to write for children - the tone was all wrong. So I just wrote for me. I think the response from children proves that you don't need to pitch things too low - I'm vindicated in not dumbing down."

Citing the humour, tight plotting and more complex issues which the book contains as appealing more directly to adults, she welcomes the breadth of readership for what was once her own, obsessively visualised private world. "The sole ambition I had for these books was that as many people as possible would read them."

As in all the best children's stories, Joanne Rowling's most dearly held wish appears to be coming spectacularly true.

Copyright 1998 The Scotsman Publications Ltd.