British publishing sensation J. K. Rowling gave a spirited defense yesterday of her prize-winning, globally popular Harry Potter series, describing the books as grounded in centuries-old folk tales and mindful of the nobility of youth.
At book signings that drew thousands of fans, in interviews and on a radio talk show, Rowling said she is still amazed at her success, is determined to remain true to her rich retinue of characters, and rebuked critics who would remove her books from public libraries and schools.
"If we ban every children's book that makes mention of magic or witches or wizards, we are going to be removing three-quarters of the children's classics from the bookshelves," she told listeners yesterday on a radio talk show here after book signings Tuesday that consumed more than six hours.
Rowling, a 34-year-old former schoolteacher and single mother who lives in Edinburgh, Scotland, is at the center of a 3-year-old publishing phenomenon that has placed some 12 million copies in print worldwide of her three mystical and wizardly Harry Potter stories.
At one point, the three book- length stories topped the first three rungs of the New York Times best-seller list. Internet orders for the books are forcing precedent-changing alterations in the international commerce of book selling.
The success of the books also has attracted criticism, though, mostly from parental groups who have asked for the books' removal from public spaces because of their deep involvement with fantasy, tales of witchcraft and mystical deaths.
The books, which Rowling said eventually will include seven volumes, track the maturation and education of a mistreated orphaned lad, Harry Potter, who gradually learns details of his parents' murder and of his own powers as a wizard.
"I'm not driven by the need to teach children anything, although things come up naturally in the stories, which are quite moral, because it's a battle between good and evil," Rowling said.
"But I do think to present to children that life is sanitized and easy when they already know .*.*. that life can be very difficult, it's not a bad idea that they can [read about] a character. "Harry is a human boy. He makes mistakes, but I think of him as a very noble character, a brave character. He strives to do the right thing.
"To see fictional characters dealing with those sorts of things, I think can be very helpful."
Rowling (pronounced Rolling) was temporarily unemployed, on public assistance and devoted to a young daughter from a failed marriage when the rights to her first Harry Potter book were sold in 1997 to a London publisher for $4,000.
She envisioned the Potter character in full on a train ride to London in 1990, she said, adding of her fame, "I would have to be crazy to expect this."
"I thought I was writing a little book that a few people might quite like."
Stern in her defense of her books, laughingly dismissive of any notion that she believes in witchcraft, and dutifully attentive to her admirers, Rowling said she is nearly finished with a fourth book and that all seven volumes have been plotted out in detail for years.
"I'm just not going to say," she answered repeatedly yesterday when asked about possible love interests of Harry's, about goings-on at Hogwarts School for Witchcraft and Wizardry or about the future of Voldemort, a figure whose evil pervades Harry's life.
Her book tour, which moves today to Atlanta and ends in this country Nov. 1, is drawing thousands of admirers, many of them costumed and almost all of them with lightning bolts tattooed to their foreheads in the manner of their young hero.
"Yes, this is the first time I've worn a lightning bolt," said 74- year-old Anne Greene, who joined her two granddaughters and a serpentine crowd of more than 1,400 at a Border's Book Store book signing Tuesday night in Fairfax County.
"They're wonderful," Greene said of the books. "I'm only sorry they didn't have them when I was a kid."
Granddaughter Alison, who is 12 and recently returned to the United States from Prague with her parents, who are in the foreign service, said Harry Potter is more thrilling than frightening.
"Especially when compared to Prague, where you run into Kafka all over the place," said her father, John Beyrle.
Rowling has got book signings down to an art, although her tired eyes and head-bowed determination recall one of her character's references to fame as something that takes "a long hard slog."
"She's incredible," said Potterhead Colleen Blessing, who watched Rowling signing through a window as she and her children waited in line.
"I counted 480 autographs in 32 minutes, which works out to 15 every minute, and that meant we were going to get a book signed.
"It's been fun," she said. "We found friends, food and wands."
Spokesmen for school divisions, bookstores and libraries in the Richmond area say that interest in the Potter books is unprecedented. They were unaware of any complaints.
"If anything, we're getting requests for more copies of the books," said a spokesperson in Powhatan.
At the Barnes & Noble Booksellers store on Huguenot Road, a Harry Potter party is scheduled Nov. 20.
"At our store, like everywhere else, the Potter books are selling one, two and three," said June Stephenson, community relations director at the Huguenot store.
As the muggle, or nonmagical world, catches up with Rowling's fascinating language, her twisting plotlines and thinly veiled references to legends reaching from King Arthur to King James, the demand for more books is mounting and even television viewing is diminishing.
"I've stopped watching it," said 11-year-old Megan Kelly in Fairfax. "Except for Xena," she added with Potterlike honesty.
Rowling said by the time she finishes book seven, "I will have spent 13 years with Harry Potter. There will be a period of bereavement, a sense of loss for me."
At the Buffy and Doug Harwood home in Richmond, where 8-year-old Ethan has read all three volumes to his 6-year-old brother, Zach, just getting book four will do for now.
"Ethan said the other night if it doesn't hurry up and get here, he's going to write it himself," said his mother.
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