Branson, Louise. "America's just wild about Harry's charming creator." The Scotsman, 22 October 1999

THE crowds gather in hordes outside the bookstores, waiting for hours for a glimpse of her. The networks have all "done" her. "Tomorrow, we will get our interview," announced CNN. "Move Over Pokemon," cajoled a typical newspaper headline, referring to a current American children's toy craze, "Harry Potter is Here."

But you'd be better off reading that as "JK Rowling is Here." For, on a whirlwind tour of the United States, she is being greeted and feted with the kind of all-American enthusiasm that must feel to her like being lapped to pieces by a giant stars-and-stripes labrador with a very wet tongue.

The Washington Post said the reception being accorded to her was of a kind you might have expected to be meted out to a "Literate Spice". JK Rowling - or Joanne Kathleen Rowling - is becoming almost as much of a cult figure on her sweep across the States as her famous character Harry Potter, hero of the three books that currently sit at numbers one, two and three on the New York Times best-sellers list, with more than 8.2 million books in print in the country.

Media stories have been marvelling with typically stateside overkill at her rags-to-riches tale, and how she struggled to write the books in Edinburgh cafes while her baby daughter slept.

American children thrust books at her to sign and say the kind of things she has become familiar with. Like: "When I read your books I have, kind of, like a video playing in my head. I can see the characters." Or: "Your books are magic." JK Rowling, invariably, looks genuinely moved. "Gosh," she replies with sincerity. "That's the nicest thing anyone's said about the books." Parents, too, repeat such familiar things as, "Brad never read before he began reading your books and now that's all he wants to do."

"I'm absolutely thrilled," replies the author, as if hearing such exuberant endorsement for the first time. Rowling said she had a gratifying surprise in Washington, embodied by a little girl who came to a book signing dressed as Hermione. Many other girls told her Hermione was their favourite character. Yet Hermione, she said, doesn't go down that well in Britain and elsewhere.

"I'll always think of Washington and love Washington for that," Rowling confesses. Why? Because Hermione is "a loosely-based caricature of what I was like at 11 ... always raising her hand with an answer to the teacher's question. At that age, I was irritating. I stood out."

But not all of America adores JK Rowling or, for that matter, young Harry Potter himself - perhaps to be expected in a country of such extremes, including a giddying spectrum of beliefs. One of Rowling's most terrifying characters is the sinister sorcerer Voldemort. He is the embodiment of pure evil. For some parents, he is too scary. They are concerned that Rowling is promoting witchcraft.

In South Carolina, the Board of Education is discussing whether the books are appropriate for school students. Elizabeth Mounce represents those hoping to restrict the books. "We're not trying to ban the book," she says, somewhat defensively. "We just felt there was a lot of evil in them, a lot of violence." Mounce said the sorcery and gore were too much for her 11-year-old son.

Rowling charmingly, but firmly, defends her books when the charges are mentioned - as of course they are, in every interview. "If you ban all books with witchcraft and the supernatural, you'll ban three-quarters of children's literature." She produces examples of gory stories and death from the original Grimm Tales to back up her argument. And if parents don't want their children to read the books, she says, there is a simple solution: don't let them read them.

That criticism, though, is dwarfed by the broad spell which Rowling has cast on the rest of America. Most Americans shrug and place the opposition to the book in the same category of wackiness as the Kansas Board of Education's decree that the Bible story of creation should be taught in its schools, rather than the theory of evolution. Worthy of note (and of sympathy for the poor children involved) but misguided nonsense all the same.

Not that the enchantment is completely seamless. "I heard that you said you felt you had to kill off someone in Book Four," one caller to a phone-in show on National Public Radio told Rowling. "Why do you have to do that? Isn't that bad and unnecessary to have people getting killed?"

And a more fundamental concern has begun to bubble up slowly, but with increasing volume. Rowling has just sold the Harry Potter film rights to Time Warner. Is he about to become another Disneyfied commodity, with tie-in toys at McDonalds, video games, T-shirts and mugs?

One teacher read a lengthy plea on public radio. His 11-year-olds, he said, had been sitting spellbound as he read them a Harry Potter book. But when he suggested they draw a picture, they recoiled in horror. "I have a picture in my head of Harry Potter and I don't want it spoiled," said one, as the others agreed. "Please, Miss Rowling," the teacher implored, "don't undo your magic."

Rowling admits to being "nervous", but she said she had kept final script approval. "I think Warner are the best people to make the film. They consult me a lot and there is a wonderful script-writer." One of the main reasons she was excited, she said, was that she has long had a picture in her head of the game Quidditch, played on broomsticks at the Hogwarts School of Wizardry. And she is just dying to see it played on the screen.

That might be fun. But there are many people out there fervently hoping that the most potent of the magic spells which Rowling has cast in this TV age - getting kids to read, even, wonder of wonders, in America - will not be broken.