Aside, perhaps, from that lightning-bolt-shaped scar on his forehead, Harry Potter will seem familiar to anyone who has ever read a decent fairy tale. Harry, 11, is an orphan who lives with his aunt and uncle, Petunia and Vernon Dursley, and their son Dudley. Is it worth pointing out that the Dursleys are as dreadful as one might expect of people named Dursley--they make that step-family of Cinderella's seem merely ill-tempered by comparison--and that young Dudley is a fat, spoiled bully who keeps breaking Harry's glasses?
Happily, a few chapters into J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, which Scholastic Press published last September, our hero receives a letter via owl informing him that he is, in fact, a famous wizard and has won a place at the prestigious Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. And with that, the reader and Harry together are plopped down into a world every bit as fantabulous and vividly original as those created by C.S. Lewis, Roald Dahl or, for that matter, George Lucas.
The completeness of Rowling's vision may explain Harry Potter's stunning popularity. First published in Britain in 1997, the book has scooped up an assortment of prizes. Scholastic paid $105,000 for the U.S. rights, and it has so far been on the New York Times best-seller list--adult best-seller list, that is--for 15 weeks. The sequel, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (which will be out in the U.S. in June), has hit No. 1 on British best-seller lists, and some impatient U.S. fans have begun ordering copies through the British subsidiary of Amazon.com. Warner Bros. has optioned the film rights to what is planned as a sequence of seven books (one for each year Harry spends at Hogwarts).
First-time English author Rowling--Jo to her friends--has conjured up a magical, self-contained parallel universe that looks a lot like a British boarding school except that Harry takes classes in potions, poltergeists patrol the halls, and Harry gets to show his true mettle. "I know far more than the reader will ever need to know," says Rowling, an elfin-looking 33-year-old. "I know the names of all the Quidditch teams." Quidditch, for the uninitiated, is sort of like soccer, but it is played in the air on broomsticks, and some of the balls attack the players.
Rowling, a single mother who wrote part of the first Harry book while on the dole, feels she has slid right down the rabbit hole into Wonderland. The daughter of middle-class parents near Bristol, she began writing secretly when she was six, and after university took a series of jobs, mainly as a teacher. But she never considered writing for children until one day in 1990, when "Harry just strolled into my head fully formed." That same year, however, her life fell apart. Her mother died of multiple sclerosis at 45, and Rowling was both burglarized and fired from her job. She moved to Portugal to teach English. While there, she met and married a journalist and had a baby. The marriage soon fell apart, and Rowling took her four-month-old daughter Jessica to Edinburgh, where they still live.
Rowling found herself in the classic single-mother trap. She could not afford child care, so she could not go to work, and when she tried to put Jessica in state-funded care, she was told she was "coping too well." For almost a year, until she found teaching work, Rowling lived off public assistance. Every day, to escape her damp, unheated flat, she'd take the baby to the nearest cafe and write away, nursing a cup of coffee. In 1995, after she found an agent in a writers' directory, a British publisher offered her a tiny advance of around $4,000. "I'm lucky by anyone's standards, not just single-mother standards," Rowling says. "The crucial thing is, I had a talent you need no money to pursue."
Rowling believes Harry has become a crossover hit because she never wrote with a "target audience" in mind. The books certainly work on several levels. They are filled not only with characters familiar to most kids but also with clever jokes about garden gnomes and wizard chess--played with living pieces ("They kept shouting different bits of advice at him, which was confusing: 'Don't send me there, can't you see his knight? Send him, we can afford to lose him'"). As Rowling puts it, "If it's a good book, anyone will read it. I'm totally unashamed about still reading things I loved in my childhood." The Wizard of Oz just may have to make a little space on the shelf for the wizards of Hogwarts.
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