Jones, Malcolm. "Why Harry's Hot," Newsweek, 17 July 2000

With the sweep of a wand, 'Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire,' is the fastest-selling title in history. Behind the frenzy and the more enduring question of what makes a classic

J. K. Rowling swears she never saw it coming. In her wildest dreams, she didn't think her Harry Potter books would appeal to more than a handful of readers. "I never expected a lot of people to like them," she insisted in a recent interview with NEWSWEEK. "Well, it turned out I was very wrong, obviously. It strikes a chord with an enormous number of people."

THAT'S PUTTING IT mildly. With 35 million copies in print, in 35 languages, the first three Harry Potter books have earned a conservatively estimated $480 million in three years. And that was just the warm-up. With a first printing of 5.3 million copies and advance orders topping 1.8 million, "Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire," the fourth installment of the series, promises to break every bookselling record in the book. Jack Morrissey, 12, of Wellesley, Mass., plainly speaks for a generation of readers when he says, "The Harry Potter books are like life, but better."

Red-eyed and rumpled, I cast my vote with Jack. The highest compliment I can pay "Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire" is to say that from beginning to end, it made me want to stay up all night - or as long as it took to finish it. Rowling has gotten better with every book, and this time things move so smoothly that the story doesn't seem written so much as it seems to unfold on its own. Each of the books in the projected seven-volume series follows Harry through an academic year at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. But this time Rowling has tossed in so many new elements that you never stop to hear the formula's gears grinding away behind the scenes. After a splendid set piece near the be-ginning when Rowling sends everyone off to the Quidditch World Cup (box), the real plot kicks in with the Triwizard Tournament, to be held among three schools of wizardry, including Hogwarts. Meanwhile, Lord Voldemort, an evil wizard who killed Harry's parents when Harry was a baby, is once again on the prowl. Amazingly, Rowling keeps her several plotlines clear of each other until the end, when she deftly brings everything together in a cataclysmic conclusion. For pure narrative power, this is the best Potter book yet.

Title: Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone

Publication Date: 1998

Plot: Meet Harry, the scarred orphan forced to live under the stairs with relatives who detest him. The adventure starts when Harry turns 11, and letter-carrying owls deliver him an invitation to study at the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. There he discovers that his parents did not die in a car accident, but were killed by the evil sorcerer Lord Voldemort. Harry himself is a legend in the wizard world for having survived the attack--but another showdown with his parents' attacker is unavoidable.

Memorable Moment: The magical jelly beans which come in flavors ranging from strawberry to sardine to...ear wax.

Title: Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets

Publication Date: 1999

Plot: Who - or what - is turning the Hogwarts students into petrified statues? And what ghastly secret is hidden in a chamber that was supposed to be sealed for eternity? In the second of the series, Harry has to confront these mysteries to save his friends--and himself. Luckily, our hero also still has time to play Quidditch, learn new spells and crash a flying car into the irascible Whomping Willow.

Memorable Moment: Encounters with Moaning Myrtle, the tearful ghost that lurks in the pipes of the girls' bathroom.

Title: Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban

Publication Date: 1999

Plot: Harry's in his third year at the magical Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry - and this time he's facing the threat of Sirius Black, a murderer who has escaped from notorious Azkaban prison. The wizard world doesn't know how Black evaded the Dementors, his faceless guards whose kisses deliver a fate worse than death, but they do believe that Harry is in mortal danger from the man said to be the heir of He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named. A twisting tale of werewolves, secret passages and pet rats that aren't all they seem.

Memorable Moment: Horrible Aunt Marge inflating like a monstrous balloon and floating up the ceiling for saying nasty things about Harry.

When the book finally went on sale at 12:01 a.m. Saturday, thousands of children in Britain and North America rushed to claim their copies. Bookstores hosted pajama parties, hired magicians and served cookies and punch, but nobody needed to lift the spirits of these crowds. At The Book Stall in Winnetka, Ill., customers made such a big, happy noise that neighbors called the cops. At a Borders in Charlotte, N.C., Erin Rankin, 12, quickly thumbed to the back as soon as she got her copy. "I heard that a major character dies, and I really want to find out who," she said. But minutes later she gave up. "I just can't do it. I can't read the end first."

All in all, a pretty impressive level of excitement for a mere book. But at the same time it seemed somehow so anticlimactic, because months of planning by Rowling's publishers had laid the groundwork for this moment. In a campaign carried out with a level of secrecy sufficient to make Operation Overlord's commanders envious, the publishers succeeded in keeping the contents of the fourth book almost entirely under wraps. Even the title was closely guarded until just before publication. Printers and binders were sworn to secrecy. Booksellers had to promise not to open the boxes containing the new novel, which came stamped Harry Potter IV, not to be sold before July 8, 2000.

That quibble aside, Rowling's novels are probably the best books children have ever encountered that haven't been thrust upon them by an adult. I envy kids reading these books, because there was nothing this good when I was a boy - nothing this good, I mean, that we found on our own, the way kids are finding Harry. We affectionately remember the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew, but try rereading them and their charm burns off pretty quickly. Rowling may not be as magisterial as Tolkien or as quirky as Dahl, but her books introduce fledgling readers to a very high standard of entertainment. With three books left to go in the series, it's too early to pass final judgment. But considering what we've seen so far, especially in the latest volume, Harry Potter has all the earmarks of a classic.

With Ray Sawhill in New York, Carla Power in London, Karen Springen in Chicago, Andrea Cooper in Charlotte and Hope White Scott in Boston