Move aside, violent videogames, J. K. Rowling's 'Harry Potter' has cast a best-selling spell over kids and parents the world over.
Judging by the millions of readers he's bewitched so far, Harry Potter is indeed a very powerful wizard. The entire Newcombe family, for example, lies under Harry's spell. Lizzie and Laura, 8-year-old twins, listen to their parents read from J. K. Rowling's books about the bespectacled sorcerer's apprentice every night. After they've gone to bed, their brother, Jimmy, 10, grabs the book and reads himself to sleep. Catie, their mother, thinks Harry and his fictional friends make excellent role models. And Jim Newcombe, an advertising executive, is such a fan that he couldn't wait for the third installment, "Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban," to be published in this country early next month. So, like a lot of other Potterites, he ordered the book on the Internet from England, where it appeared last month. And for his 44th birthday, he took the whole family to their local library in Lake Forest, Ill., for a book-group meeting that focused on Harry's exploits at Hogwarts School for Witchcraft and Wizardry. "Just when I thought I needed something with a microchip to entertain my children," says Newcombe, "along comes Harry Potter."
The creation of Edinburgh author J. K. Rowling, this 13-year-old English orphan with a knack for sorcery is the star of three of the most well-thumbed novels ever written--for children or anyone else. The books have been translated into 27 languages in 130 countries, and Rowling's currently outselling other quality best sellers like Tom Wolfe.
Even if a lot of Harry's fans are small, the 5 million books in print worldwide testify that they are a fanatic lot, although anyone who's read the stories can see why. Firmly in the eccentric tradition of the English children's story, Harry, like Peter Pan and Mary Poppins, can fly. Like Tolkien's Bilbo Baggins, he is surrounded by fantastical creatures. His boarding school is full of dotty profs and snobby brats, but it is also a world where owls deliver the mail and instead of chemistry and gym they study potions and transfiguration. Over all this lies the dark shadow of Lord Voldemort, Harry's archenemy and a villain so bad the other characters are scared to call him anything but You-Know-Who. Guess who wins?
But Harry's appeal is greater than the sum of these parts--or certainly more subconscious. Rowling nails it when she says, "Harry is smart and good at sports and a lot of things that other children would like to be, but children feel for him because he's lost his parents. If an author makes a character an orphan, few children will want to be an orphan, too. But it is a freeing thing, because the weight of parental expectation is lifted."
Harry's adventures have children reading them six and seven times apiece. Kids put on plays and make up games based on the books. They decorate T shirts, mount puppet shows, give readings. One 11-year-old boy even printed up "educated at Hogwarts" business cards to hand out to friends. It is commonplace for Potter fans to read one of Rowling's books in a single sitting, a remarkable fact given that each of her books is more than 300 pages long. Even Rowling is amazed. "I met a boy at a school in England who recited the first page of the first book to me from memory," recalls the 33-year-old author. "When he stopped, he said, 'I can go on.' He continued reciting the first five pages of the book. That was unbelievable."
But no more unbelievable than Rowling's own Cinderella story. An unemployed, unpublished divorced mother with a tiny daughter, she wrote a lot of the first Harry book in longhand, sitting in a coffee shop while her toddler napped. Something about Harry's pluck inspired his creator to think big. She envisioned an epic in seven parts, one for each year of Harry's stay at Hogwarts. "When you dream," she says, "you can do what you like. And I always thought seven was a good number."
Rowling's American publishers at Scholastic know all about numbers. They published R. L. Stine's Goosebumps series and Ann M. Martin's Baby-Sitters Club. But they cheerfully throw up their hands when asked why Rowling's books are selling as fast as they can print them. "You can say that Harry is a great character or that Joanne Rowling is a really promotable author," says Michael Jacobs, Scholastic's senior vice president for marketing, "but there are no models, no rules for children's books or adult publishing that explain this."
The first and second Harry books each sold more than a million copies in the States, and there is every sign that the third book will do even better. When this installment went on sale in England in early July, it sold 68,000 copies in three days and has since sold 440,000 copies.
Lately even adults without children are buying the books in large numbers. Bloomsbury, Rowling's English publisher, even went so far as to print up separate dust jackets, one for kids, one for adults, to spare adults the embarrassment of toting a kid's book around. So far the "adult" version of "Sorcerer's Stone" has sold 30,000 copies. That doesn't surprise Rowling. Before she sold the first manuscript, she says, "I wasn't really aware that it was a children's book. I really wrote it for me, about what I found funny, what I liked."
True enough. Rowling never condescends to her characters or her readers. And she works very hard to give her readers a superbly constructed story in every book. As a bonus, she's funny: the list of things Harry is asked to bring to school includes "three sets of plain work robes (black), one plain pointed hat (black) for day wear... Please note that all pupils' clothes should carry name tags." Anyone who reads these novels can't help but come away with a high standard for what a good story should be--and the knowledge that a good story doesn't need a movie or a lunch box to make it better.
Alas, the action figures are coming. Warner Brothers bought the merchandising rights along with the film rights for seven figures. When the movie comes out in a couple of years, you'll see the Harry Potter broomsticks and videogames. The funny thing is, a lot of Harry's fans don't care. "The books are enough," says Wendy Beauchamp, a children's bookseller in Boston. "If you're reading them nine times, chances are you're not going to be thinking of action figures." Now, that's magic.