"He'll be famous — a legend — every child in our world shall know his name." J. K. Rowling couldn't possibly have known how prophetic those words would be when she put them in the mouth of Dumbledore, the headmaster of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, in the first chapter of this book. But as we all know by now, unless you've been living in a cave on Pluto for the last few years, the Harry Potter series, first scribbled out on scraps of paper by a Scots welfare mom, has become a bonafide publishing as well as cultural phenomenon.
Are they the greatest kid's books ever written? Maybe, maybe not. I seem to recall enjoying The Phantom Tollbooth and The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe and From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler and A Wrinkle in Time a lot more when I was fourteen — but the passage of twenty years can do things to one's memory, I concede. I have an equally strong feeling that if I were to go back and re-read those books now they might not hold up as well for me. But beyond the practical concerns of storytelling merit, which seems to be an area where Rowling has little trouble excelling, what makes Pottermania great is that it has brought the kids of the PlayStation age — and gazillions of 'em — back to books as a form of entertainment.
Not only that, but the seven-volume Potter saga has redefined conventional publishing wisdom concerning kid's reading. These are honest-to-goodness novels. Prior to this series' success, most publishers liked kid's books to be little more than pamphlets ('cos kids have no attention span due to a lifetime of televisual brain-numbing, you see), 120 pages or so on the outside. No Harry Potter novel is less than 300 pages in length, and the fifth entry Order of the Phoenix tips the scales at over 800! Now young adult fantasies of a 400+ page length are a commonplace.
The plots are admirably complex. Rowling has a knack for springing clever little surprises on you when you aren't looking for them, adding more and more details to the narrative, yet still tying up loose ends satisfactorily by the book's end. In short, she refuses to talk down to her young readers. She respects an audience of kids as though they were literate grownups. The little touches of wit in Rowling's stories are sophisticated enough for adult sensibilities, without falling into the Disney-esque trap of being self-consciously hip. Whereas the general ideas in movies, TV, and other forms of mass-media entertainment is "dumb it down," Rowling "smarts it up," and trusts the kids to be able to follow along. Again, the influence here upon the whole of young adult publishing in the 21st century cannot be adequately measured.
The plot — for those of you just back from Pluto, naturally — follows the adventures of 11-year-old Harry Potter, who lives in England with his egregiously neglectful and hostile aunt and uncle, the Dursleys, and their spoiled brat son Dudley. Harry has always been something of an odd boy. Bizarre things have a habit of happening around him that he simply cannot explain. An explanation arrives in the form of Hagrid, a giant of a man who is the Keeper of the Keys at the aforementioned Hogwarts school. Hagrid, over the hysterically paranoiac objections of the Dursleys, informs Harry that he is a young wizard. And not just any young wizard, but one who has achieved wide fame among those of his kind, who live apart from the world of the Muggles (ordinary, non-magical people) hidden by shields of magic. Harry, as an infant, miraculously survived the attack by the evil and corrupt mage Voldemort which killed his parents. His survival actually caused Voldemort, who is still so feared no wizard or witch will dare speak his name, to lose his evil powers, and Voldemort is only too keen to get them back and finish what he started.
Harry soon finds himself on the way to Hogwarts, riding a magical train that takes off from Platform Nine and Three-Quarters at King's Cross, where he meets his fellow first year students, who are naturally quickly delineated into friends and rivals. Hogwarts is Rowling's most ingenious and delightful creation. It's as wondrous a setting for a juvenile fantasy as I can ever remember immersing myself within. And while Harry discovers that he's a natural on a broomstick and that he's one of the best players of Quiddich (a sort of magical mix of rugby and basketball played in midair on broomsticks), there are darker aspects to life at Hogwarts, such as the sinister professor of Potions, Snape, whose clear loathing of Harry leaves the young boy bewildered. It seems as if Snape is up to something. Indeed, he seems to be trying to get at something locked and hidden away under a trapdoor in a forbidden wing of the school...but for what purpose...?
And that's where I'll leave you, so that you can discover the rest for yourself. Rowling's book brims with nifty twists, tricks, and surprises, and enough fantasy elements to tickle anyone's imagination. And the climax is a neat and genuine surprise. Harry Potter has proven itself a series worthy of its phenomenal popularity. And of course, the fact that millions of children have rediscovered reading — how much more magical can you get?