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Anyone for quidditch? When Sarah Mayor Cox started reading the Harry Potter stories, she forgot she was a lecturer on children's literature. What's so special about this series ...

If you don't have children and don't read the literary pages then chances are you've never heard of the Harry Potter phenomenon that is sweeping the world.

Penned by JK Rowling, a 31-year-old graduate of Exeter University, the books concern a boy on the verge of adolescence struggling to discover who he is. Harry Potter lives with his cruel aunt and uncle, whose hatred of him is fuelled by their fear of his true identity. Then, on his eleventh birthday, Harry is accepted by Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry and finally learns that he is a wizard whose parents were killed by the evil Lord Voldemort. Harry's escape as a baby from death at Voldemort's hands has made him a hero in the `Wizardin' world'.

Each book in the series (there will be seven in all) tells of Harry's successive years at Hogwarts. Readers will be correct in their assumption that Voldemort is still lurking, slowly building his army of followers, and has neither given up on killing Harry nor on bringing the Wizardin' World under his control.

The first book in the series, Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone (Bloomsbury, London, 1997) was written when Rowling was a penniless single mother living in Edinburgh. Her own story includes writing the book in cafes while her three-month-old daughter was asleep; not having enough money to photocopy the manuscript to send off to publishers; and being turned down by Penguin and Harper Collins. She put all that behind her when the rights to her first book were sold in America for [pounds sterling] 100,000--an unprecedented amount. (Most British childrens' writers can count on about [pounds sterling] 2,000 a year from their books.)

By July 1999 sales of her first two books had topped 750,000. The Philosopher's Stone stayed in the top half of The Times of London's bestseller list for over 14 weeks. In Britain, book three (The Prisoner of Azkaban) was embargoed on its day of release until 3.45pm so that children did not miss school to buy it. 16,853 copies were sold within three hours! It went on to win this year's Whitbread Children's Book Award, with some demanding that it should have won the overall prize. The fourth book now tops's ongoing bestseller list even though it won't be published until July 2000.

I love books. They bulge out from the overstocked shelves in our house and cover every horizontal surface. I read them for pleasure and I also earn my living from them. The sheer number I have to read and the way I have to read them often compromise my spontaneous enjoyment of them. So I was astonished by my reaction to the Harry Potter phenomenon.

One night, two books into the series, my son aged three pulled Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets out of my hand and said in a very firm tone, `Can't you get your nose out of those Harry Potter books?' He had been primed by his father, but he was right--I had spent every available minute glued to one of the Harry Potter books.

For the first time in years I had read something without my filter of reviewer, academic or critic on. At the end of book three I thought, `Now I must start to critically evaluate these books in the light of what I know of quality literature'. But that was my logical head. My heart just wanted to read the next book in the series.

Not everyone loves the Harry Potter books, however. In eight states across the USA they have been branded as handbooks for `witchcraft and violence', although Chuck Colson, a Christian evangelical preacher and former Nixon aide, says the magic is `not occultic' and comments on the `enormously inventive' nature of the first book. The list includes: the school train to Hogwarts which leaves from platform nine and three quarters at Kings Cross Station, school lists which instruct `first years are not allowed their own broomsticks', and the game Quidditch (a version of football played on broomsticks with four balls).

Critics are also divided. Some, like the reviewer from The Scotsman, have raved about its `unassailable stand for the power of fresh, innovative story-telling in the face of formula horror and sickly romance'. Others like Judith Ridge from Australia have labelled them as `superficial and derivative ... carelessly executed' and offering `troubling ideologies'.

Some of the literary outrage may be well founded. Writing in Viewpoint Ridge argues that Rowling has broken the most important rule in fantasy writing: that a story must `follow its own internal logic which allows readers to suspend their disbelief of what could not be true in the "real world"'. She claims there are `many examples of laziness and poor planning in the plotting'.

Critics need to remember these are first novels--each is better than the last. In a way it's a shame that Rowling's first book was not a stand-alone novel, where she could have honed her craft and let the story die a quiet death. Instead she has been catapulted into stardom from the very beginning. Her writing has tightened. Prisoner of Azkaban is her best yet.

Rowling is the last to claim she's written masterpieces. In the fourth book she has promised to tackle the tricky questions of Harry's hormonal changes in an honest way. And she's acknowledged that some of the characters will have to die in their battle against Lord Voldemort.

As an educator I am ecstatic that books can generate so much excitement in children. After all, is this not the age of the computer, the internet and drugged-out teenagers? Hooray that something as old-fashioned as a book can generate so much emotion. I do however agree with Philip Hensher's opinion in the London Independent that success and appeal to children should not be confused with literary merit.

Although a little light in parts--`Magic Lite, Disney magic' as Judith Ridge puts it--Rowling's books are rather moral. Matthew Fort of the Guardian, London, even goes so far as to suggest that Harry Potter is `alarmingly old-fashioned. He is not post-modernist, ironic, sophisticated, slick, hip or street-smart. He is cheerful, decent, kind and brave, loyal, good at games and rather moral'.

And maybe that is why Harry Potter has become such a phenomenon. There is a little bit of Harry, his friends, and the predicaments they get themselves into in all of us. We respond to the longing he feels for his dead parents, our skin creeps as he faces the evil Voldemort, and ultimately we all want reassurance that who we are and the decisions we've made are OK.

But don't just take my word for it--read the books for yourself, discuss them passionately with others, make up your own mind about Harry Potter and then wait for the next great literary controversy to hit.
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Author:Cox, Sarah Mayor
Publication:For A Change
Date:Apr 1, 2000
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