Getting to know our favorite kid wizard

Reading: J.K. Rowling's books cast a spell on Elizabeth Schafer, who examined every possible issue in her guide to the wizard's story.

September 14, 2000|By Athima Chansanchai | Athima Chansanchai,SUN STAFF

For those who've read all 1,819 pages of Harry Potter's story so far and still have questions, there are now answers. Or at least there will be tomorrow.

If you skimmed over the connection between Hogwarts and British boarding schools or missed the explanation of the Chamber of Secrets' importance, you'll find them - and a lot more - in "Exploring Harry Potter," Elizabeth Schafer's 479-page guide to all things mystical and mysterious in the popular J.K. Rowling series.

"I'm hoping it could guide [readers] to find out what inspired the different events of the novels. They could learn about so many different subjects," says Schafer. "I'm hoping people will use it as a reference, so that they can flip right to the section they need."

"Exploring Harry Potter" is a thinking person's Cliff Notes, an accessory that goes beyond the lingering questions that remain in the wake of reading the four installments in the seven-part series. Schafer fills in holes and provides doors that open other doors, laying out information, activities, discussion questions and reading recommendations that encompass the range of subjects upon which the series touches.

"Reading the Harry Potter books, I realized how clever it was," recalls Schafer. "In my mind I was making lists that fell into place naturally."

The result is a comprehensive compendium where chapters on characters and themes, geography, food, sports, history, science and (of course) magic and witchcraft help readers peer behind the scenes. In another section devoted to educators and ways to teach Harry are overviews that develop critical thinking skills for each book.

Begun as a shorter piece of literary criticism for "Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults," a reference encyclopedia she contributes to, it kept growing until Schafer finally had to approach her publisher, Walton Beacham, about it. "I told him, `There's so much more here.' I was already at 50 pages - it was only supposed to be 10 - and he told me to go with it," Schafer says.

And she did.

"I thought I had another `Goblet' on my hands it was so big," she says of her original 700-page manuscript. Beacham weighed in at that point and scaled it back to a more digestible 479 pages. But it still packs a wallop. "Exploring Harry Potter" will be the first in a series of sourcebooks for teaching young adult fiction by Beacham Publishing. A Web site acts as a constantly updated complement to the book (

Schafer researched and wrote the book with a scientist's and historian's inquiring mind, posing hypothetical and open-ended questions. She chose not to contact Rowling about her assertions, and although the British author's agent and American publisher, Scholastic, were sent drafts, neither responded.

"Nothing objectionable is in this book," says Schafer. "I tried to be sensitive and careful about her life and biographical details."

Trusted author

Publisher Beacham also had a world of faith in her. "I had enormous trust in her sensibility and sensitivity to what Rowling was trying to accomplish," he says.

Schafer repeatedly comments on Rowling's intelligence and cleverness, wondering "how much of this she purposely did. That's what I'd ask her if I ever got a chance. She seems to be very aware of history. These are, to me, intellectual stories for children," she says. "Rowling was well-schooled in classical literature. It's clear to us that Rowling taps into basic myths that have been with us for so long. She's able to recreate Harry in the image of those predecessors."

Schafer's dual nature as a skeptic and as a believer - as well as her expertise - expands and sharpens her extensive array of theories and facts. She is a scholar with a doctorate degree in the History of Science and Technology from Auburn University. But these same strengths could also be weaknesses in other areas.

"I have real mixed feelings about the book. It reads more like a dissertation than a book children could use," says Margaret Hutson, children's books specialist and manager of Timonium's Book Rack. It also seems that Schafer's enthusiasm is the driving force for connections she makes between characters and their alleged mythic origins.

"I did feel that her parallels with mythology are a bit of a stretch," says Hutson. "At the same time, I was knocked out by her research."

Hutson says the text is rife with opportunity to revisit chapters in the ongoing Potter saga. Readers who want to unearth the finer points of the novels will not be disappointed.

"I loved the `While You're Waiting' section," she says. "I liked her selections and how she documented why they were good selections." Hutson could see it being used as a springboard for teachers who want to incorporate this literary marvel into their lesson plans. She adds, "I really liked the timeline."

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