Farber, Celia. "Harry Potter's Toughest Foe," Sunday Herald (Glasgow), October 17, 1999

THE gaggle of pre-adolescent girls waited impatiently in the New York book store. "There she is," one of them shouted, pointing towards a staircase. Screams pierced the air. Hundreds of girls clenched their fists and just screamed straight out, jumping up and down, trying to climb on to the stairwell where a trim, blonde author began signing the first of some 2,000 books.

"Oh my God! Oh My God!" One of the girls screamed, while another turned around and fell to her knees, hollering, "She smiled at me. JK Rowling smiled at me!" Paul McCormick, an employee of the book store, Book Revue, the largest independent bookstore in New York state, watched bemused.

"This is like Beatlemania," he said, as he begun to usher kids and parents up the staircase. Those at the very front of the line had in some cases slept in their cars outside the bookstore in Huntington, New York. Others had shown up at dawn, even though the store doesn't open until 9.30am, and the author who created Harry Potter wasn't scheduled to appear in the store until 7.30 pm.

By late afternoon, the line outside stretched for several long city blocks, with hundreds and hundreds of people bundled up in heavy coats to stay warm in the windy, cold October night.

Rowling and Harry Potter have become something of a publishing phenomenon in the United States, which is why the author is embarking on a gruelling promotional tour. The New York store was one of three she was due to visit that day, which also included a spot on the network Rosie O'Donnell chat show. But the success - five million books sold in America so far, millions more almost certain to follow - attracted controversy in the country's heartland and in the south, where Rowling's themes of paganism, wizardry, and blood-drinking are not going appreciated.

The Potter craze has stirred up a deeply embedded divide, between, essentially, the Christian right and liberal mainstream of America.

It began in South Carolina, where parents last week asked the board of education to remove the books, about Harry's adventures at the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry from the classroom reading list due to their "violent and occult" themes. Similar protests were heard throughout the week from Minnesota, Georgia, and even California.

"The books are written in a very amusing way," concedes David Williamson, the South Carolina father of a nine-year-old boy, who started the protest movement against the books. "But those underlying tones of death, murder, and the occult is what scares us. Especially here in the States with all the violence we've had in our schools. A lot of that has been linked to kids getting involved in the occult."

Williamson's son, he said, used his own money to buy his first Harry Potter book, and one night while he was sleeping, his parents got a call from some friends who wanted to alert them to the book's contents. They got the book from his room, read it, and were horrified.

"It's too violent," says Williamson. "There were parts that really scared us, and we didn't want him to lose his innocence." Williamson cites a few details that particularly disturbed him, such as one character in the book saying that death, to the organised mind, is "the next great adventure". "There is a character introduced as 'Nearly Headless Nick', a ghostly entity covered in blood and people drinking unicorn blood. It just continues on and on and on. We are not asking for this book to be banned. I don't mind if it's in the library. I just don't want the teacher in the school to be reading it to my son."

Williamson asked both the teacher and the principle of his son's school to stop reading the books in class, which they refused to do, saying that would be unfair to the other children. Instead, the boy now leaves the classroom and sits in the library while the Potter books are being read aloud. And he's not alone. "We had 12 to 18 parents go to our meeting with the state board of education," said Williamson, "and I know of at least five or six children who are leaving their classrooms at this time, while the Potter books are being read."

Rowling herself refuses to apologise for the content of her books. "I have yet to meet a single child who's told me that they want to be, you know, a satanist, or are particularly interested in the occult because of the book," she said.

American publishers are, perhaps unsurprisingly, supportive. "There are five million Americans who have bought these books and obviously love them," said John Mason, associate director of marketing for scholastic books. "We're sorry that there are a few people that don't like them. That is obviously their right."

MANY of the children at the Huntingdon store signing were sporting lightning bolt tattoos on their foreheads, and others were dressed in wizard costumes. The store's owner was personally walking around the endless line, trying to convince people to go home, since there was no way Rowling would get to everybody, especially not those at the end of the line. But nobody budged. Instead they took turns going to a nearby deli and buying cups of hot chocolate to stay warm.

It was the same scene earlier in the day at a Manhattan bookstore, and then again at a small bookstore in Port Washington, New York. Hundreds and hundreds of people lining the streets, clutching their books. "This is hot stuff," one mother gushed outside the Dolphin bookshop in Port Washington. "You've got parents fighting with their own kids over whose turn it is to read the books. Kids love it, parents love it. It's amazing."

Johnny, an 11-year-old resident of Port Washington, has read the three books a total of 25 times, and says coolly that Rowling has replaced his previous favourite author, Roald Dahl. "She is much better," he says. "She is much more creative than Dahl."

"My son turned off the TV so he could read this book," said another mother of an 11-year-old boy. "That is unheard of."

Outside the Port Washington bookstore, the cultural divide was palpable between the people in the queue and the religious parents who want the books banned. There was not a single protester in sight.

"This whole row is completely ridiculous," scoffed Annabelle Clayton, who reads the books together with her eight-year-old daughter.

"We belong to a Baptist church, but this kind of stuff is part of childhood. It's part of our heritage, these kinds of mysteries, and it goes back way before Christianity."

"There are states in this country where they don't teach evolution anymore," one father muttered. "Somebody's always upset about something in South Carolina," said Rob Ginsberg, a father of two. "I've not met a single parent who doesn't love these books. How could you not love a series of books that have your kids reading for hours on end?"

Lenora Heller, a mother of three standing outside the Huntington bookshop, agreed: "Look, this book is all about good against evil. Harry Potter represents all that is good. It's as simple as that."

Her nine-year-old daughter chimes in: "I'm reading a book about dragons. They're not real. And I don't think they're real."