Like Magic

The whimsy and wizards of the Harry Potter series tickle the imagination of boys and girls around the world. And its sales have made grown-ups take notice.

August 04, 1999|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,Sun Foreign Staff

LONDON -- Literary agent Christopher Little recalled the moment four years ago when he plunged into Harry Potter's world.

On his way to lunch, Little picked up an unsolicited manuscript that was buried in a pile, read one page, and then another, and couldn't stop, as he was transported to a fantasy world filled with wizards, broomsticks and wonder. When he arrived at the restaurant, he was so distracted that a colleague asked him what was on his mind.

The agent talked about the manuscript and finally said, "This is a big one."

And the rest is now publishing history.

The tale of the orphaned child wizard, Harry Potter, and the British author, J. K. Rowling, is perhaps the literary phenomenon of the 1990s.

Rare is the children's book that sells a few thousand copies, let alone millions.

But the Harry Potter series is a worldwide best seller, and his creator, Joanne Rowling, has reaped financial riches, in stark contrast to her days as a struggling author and divorced mother on welfare who typed two copies of her first manuscript to send to publishers and agents.

The first two books in the series, "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone" and "Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets," are American best sellers.

But over here, kids and their parents are flocking to bookstores for "Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban," the third installment of the projected seven-part series that is due to take the character through the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, a fanciful, high-flying boarding school.

The new book will be launched next month in the United States by its American publisher, Scholastic Press. But the Bloomsbury Publishing British edition is already a U.S. best seller via the Internet.

Coming to Baltimore

And Rowling's autumn American book tour is eagerly awaited, with a Baltimore appearance scheduled in mid-October.

In an age of video games and cable television, those who have shepherded the series from its infancy are taken aback by its world-wide success. The conventional wisdom that children, especially boys, don't read for pleasure has been turned on its head by Harry Potter.

Boys aged 9 to 12 can't seem to get enough of their favorite character. The same with girls. Even adults are reading the books.

Now, there are Harry Potter books in 25 languages. And Warner Bros. has scooped up options on the first two books, with the series likely to hit the big screen early next century.

"Kids are finding it exciting for their own imaginations to be released," Little said.

At heart, Harry Potter is just an old-fashioned British boarding school yarn, with kids making their way through the world. Good and evil, life and death, and just growing up, are among the challenges and subjects dealt with. And there is darkness, too, since Harry's parents were murdered by the dark prince Voldemort.

There's plenty of fun and excitement, also, as Harry rides his Nimbus 2000 broomstick to play the aerial sport called Quidditch, and goes on adventures with his best friends, Ron and Hermione.

Colum Fraser, a 9-year-old from Scotland, best sums up the lure of the books, when he says, "They're exciting, they're funny, they're action-packed and sometimes a little bit scary."

Colum's aunt, Lindsey, couldn't agree more. As head of Scottish Book Trust, a group that promotes readership, Lindsey Fraser is on the front lines of encouraging children to read for pleasure.

She read the first Harry Potter book in manuscript form, and couldn't get enough of the story.

"It's quite sophisticated," Fraser said. "There is something about it that moves the children forward. They'll read it at age 7, come back at age 9. Although it is fantasy and completely wacky, the central point is the friendship of the three main characters, Harry, Ron and Hermione. Children instantly recognize that friends fall out and fall in. And from that, this fantastic world can be created."

An author's tale

Rowling's tale to fame and fortune is perhaps equally improbable. She got the idea for Harry Potter while riding on a Manchester to London train in 1990. But it would take her a few years to turn her idea into a best seller. In the meantime, she went to Portugal to teach English, got married, and then divorced, and wound up in Edinburgh, living on public assistance in a dingy apartment and caring for her infant daughter.

With half a suitcase full of Harry Potter stories she wrote while in Portugal, Rowling set about completing her work, rocking her child to sleep and fashioning her manuscript over cups of coffee in an Edinburgh cafe.

In a July 1998 interview with the Telegraph of London, Rowling detailed the secret of her literary success: never underestimate children.

"It annoys me that people think you have to `dumb down' to children," she said.

Among her favorite authors are Jane Austen and Roddy Doyle. And Rowling said she retained a vivid memory of her mother and father reading aloud "Wind In the Willows."

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