There exists a two-word antidote to the endless parental hand-wringing
about book-phobic, mouse-fondling modern kids.
Harry Potter.Yes, the character who sprang full-blown into the mind of Scottish writer J.K. Rowling. The young wizard who stars in three novels:
- Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone (more than 1.6 million copies in print).
- Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (more than 1.8 million in print).
- Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, which hit bookstores around the country Wednesday (1.5 million in print, thanks to overwhelming advance orders).
This summer, Rowling's first two hardcovers have logged time at the very summit of the weekly USA TODAY Best-Selling Books list. During the weeks the books were No. 1, they outsold every other book -- adult and juvenile, hardback and paperback -- in the country.
Juvenile fiction has always had its multimillion-copy phenomena, from the Nancy Drew series to Ann M. Martin's Babysitters' Club and R.L. Stine's Goosebumps.
But the Harry Potter books aren't just popular. They are being called instant classics. On par with J.R.R. Tolkien's Middle Earth tales and Walter Brooks' Freddy the Pig sagas.
It all started on a train from Manchester to London in 1990. According to Rowling, reached at her home in Edinburgh, Scotland, the character of Harry Potter captured her imagination. By the end of the encounter, Rowling had mentally mapped out the seven books she intended to write -- and never expected to publish.
A delightful interviewee, Rowling has tired a bit of the publicity that focuses on her unmarried motherhood and on the detail that as an unemployed French teacher she wrote much of the first book in coffee shops while her baby napped. (Her daughter is now 6.)
Much interviewed by the press, she prefers to talk to children on her book tours now.
"It's a real joy," Rowling says. What she loves most about her young fans is that they ask questions as though the world of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry truly exists.
For example, a boy asked her to define the difference between transfiguration and charms.
"He was really thinking about this very logically," Rowling says. (She has worked out exactly the intricate laws governing Harry's magical universe in her head.)
She is still astonished that her internal world now is shared by people around the world.
Rowling believes that her hero's immense popularity stems from children often identifying with Harry's bewilderment. "It's very difficult to admit you don't get things," she says.
She admits that her memories of childhood are vivid. "Children are incredibly powerless," she says. "I worried myself sick about things."
The idea of being a wizard and having magical powers "strikes a deep chord in children."
Unlike Harry, Rowling did not attend boarding school.
A writer since the age 6, when she announced to her parents that she had written a novel, Rowling has suffered writer's block only once -- right after the success of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone. She was two-thirds into writing the second book, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, when "I had an extended panic attack," she says. Suddenly, "it was all worthless."
An avid reader, Rowling nonetheless has little appetite for novels about
fantasy and imaginary worlds, a la C.S. Lewis and Tolkien. A lover of
Jane Austen, Rowling cannot choose between Emma and Pride and Prejudice.
She also admires Irish writer Roddy Doyle.
And much to her young fans' despair, Rowling does not believe in magic, witches or wizards.
Rowling is working with a screenwriter on a Harry Potter film. Presented with several offers, she chose the company that made The Little Princess and The Secret Garden.
Rowling expects to publish the fourth Harry Potter during the summer of 2000. (The U.S. and British editions will come simultaneously, eliminating the controversy over Americans ordering the book on Amazon.com.uk before it becomes available in the USA.)
As the story progresses, Harry and his friends wrestle with issues of good vs. evil and death itself. Rowling goes where the plot takes her, but she doesn't like the idea of "reducing children to tears." She considers the books to be most appropriate for children ages 9 and up who can cope with the material.
And the most important child in her life has heard not one word of Harry Potter. Rowling has not read the series to her daughter.
"She has a very vivid imagination."
It must run in the family.