Books

Just wild about Harry

The Harry Potter series casts a spell over millions

Brian Bethune November 22 1999
Books

Just wild about Harry

The Harry Potter series casts a spell over millions

Brian Bethune November 22 1999

Just wild about Harry

The Harry Potter series casts a spell over millions

Three blockbuster novels later, the saga of Harry Potter and his creator has almost reached the status of myth. The orphan boy who learns he is a wizard, and J. K. Rowling, the single mom on welfare who wrote the first story in a Scottish café with her baby on her lap, are familiar icons to millions of readers on both sides of the Atlantic. The success of the books has probably never been equalled in children’s literature. Best-seller lists such as The New York Times, which include kids’ tides, consistendy list Harry’s adventures in the top three spots.

Since 1997, sales have exceeded five million hardcover copies in the United States. And in Canada, which the 34-year-old author, a former teacher, has never even visited, more than 700,000 books have been sold at $19.95 apiece. A happy Allan MacDougall, president of Vancouver-based Raincoast Books, which publishes and distributes the novels in Canada, expects that total to reach one million by Christmas. “The rest of our business is fine,” he says, “but Harry Potter has put us way beyond fine.” Harry’s appeal extends to adults, many of whom are fans, too. Each endlessly inventive novel takes place over an academic year at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, with its eccentric masters and courses in potions and transfigurations. They feature the vividly realized friends and enemies Harry makes there, his skill at the spectacular school sport of Quidditch (a soccer-like game played in the air) and his battles with the evil Lord Voldemort, the killer of his parents. “They are very attractive narratives, capturing magic, aspects of growing up, school and school relationships—things both scary and familiar at the same time,” says David McDerby, manager of the Nicholas Hoare bookstore in downtown

Montreal. McDerby, like other book-trade insiders, also sees factors beyond literary

rit at play. “Of course, there is the huge snowball effect, too,” he says. “The Potter series moved from being just books to being news, and when that happens in our business, all hell breaks loose.” That may be true, but among children, who find the novels utterly absorbing, they have worked something else, something perhaps too elusive for adults to grasp. The books strike as deeply as the most timeless fairy tales. Harry and his friends seem intensely real—parents report a frequent refrain of “they’re just like us.”

It is, in fact, the magical pull of the books, as much as their magical content, that has provoked a backlash against Harry. In school districts scattered across the United States, Christian organizations and individual parents have denounced what they see as an evil celebration of the occult. But in Canada, publisher MacDougall notes, there has been no trace of such a reaction, and even in America the critics have made little impression on a Potter-mad reading public. Harry Potter lives a charmed life indeed.

Brian Bethune