Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban
by J.K. Rowling
Published by Raincoast Books
317 pages, 1999
Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix
by J.K. Rowling
896 pages, 2003
Buy it online
Wild About Harry
Reviewed by Linda L. Richards
There's a mystery afoot in the publishing industry. It started in 1997 when an unknown and struggling Scottish author wrote a children's book called Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone. The book was not an instant red-hot seller. Sales began with a trickle that -- slowly but surely -- grew to be a steady stream. Steady streams happen. What was completely unexpected was when -- by the time the book was released in the United States in 1999 (albeit with some Americanization that included changing the Philosopher in the title to Sorcerer) -- that stream had grown into a torrent. Forget about lists of bestselling children's books. The phenomenon of Harry had left the children's lists in the dust. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone actually made its US debut on The New York Times list of bestsellers. And, in case you'd suspected this but didn't know for sure: children's books do not make the NYT list. Usually.
While Sorcerer's Stone was edging Star Wars and White Oleander out of the top selling spots in the United States, the third book in the series, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, was elbowing Hannibal out of the number one UK spot. The phenomenon was showing no signs of abating.
One of the troubles with Harry -- and, in honesty, they're high class complaints -- has been that though the series was originally marketed for the 8-to-12-year old reading slot, adults thoroughly loved the books, as well. Adults, however, were apparently less than enthusiastic about being seen in public reading what was obviously a kid's book. In the UK, this problem was resolved by actually developing two entirely different sets of cover art. The original art is cartoon-y and fun. The more recently developed covers look like any adult-targeted book: if you don't know who Harry is, you'd be none the wiser. And, once again, this does not happen. Sometimes books written for adults will find a readership in the young adult market, but books originally written for children seldom-if-ever find a readership in the adult market. Yet, here again, Harry has made a considerable dent.
The mystery of the success of the Harry Potter books unravels considerably when you actually read the books. They're quite wonderful. More: author J.K. Rowling writes really well. This is solid prose, solid storytelling, solid plot: the type of writing -- it pleases me to say -- that stands out in any era. It transcends genre and age group and marketing surveys and -- thank god -- focus groups. It's just good. And it's delightful to be here watching closely while a classic is born.
In Harry, Rowling has created a strong, believable character who is -- nonetheless -- both a child and possessed of extraordinary skills and powers. Orphaned when he was an infant, Harry Potter is the only son of a witch and a wizard who were killed by an even more powerful and quite evil wizard. This was in book one. In book three, Harry is now 13. During the school year, he attends a special institute of learning called Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry whose sole purpose is the higher and better education of young wizards and witches.
Harry loves school. What he cares for much less are the summers when he's forced to live with his Aunt Petunia and Uncle Vernon Dursley -- non-magical both -- a loathesome a pair of muggles (the wizardly word for non-wizards) who are contemptuous of Harry and his magical abilities. More: they forbid the use of magic and any reference to its use. Harry is even forbidden to work on summertime projects that must be completed for school. Rowling hasn't held back in crafting this odious duo. The aunt and uncle are -- in their own way -- as repulsive as the truly bad guys that populate the book.
This inclusion of the slightly horrific and completely unbelievable is, perhaps, part of the charm of the Harry Potter series of books. There is no talking down to Rowling's young readers, no pulling of adventurous punches. Some of the things Harry must endure might be -- in the hands of a less skillful writer -- quite frightening. Yet Harry isn't frightened. Not really. And he goes on his merry way quite blithely. Ready, always, for the next adventure.
An example. Early in Azkaban Harry has been sentenced to spend the summer with the odious aunt and uncle and their repulsive son Dudley. Harry is trying really, really hard to obey the house rules of magic avoidance when a still more repulsive aunt shows up. Aunt Marge is not only a horrible person, she also has a special dislike for everything to do with Harry. A dinnertime exchange provides the setting for a final blow-up.
'No, Vernon,' hiccoughed Aunt Marge, holding up a hand, her tiny bloodshot eyes fixed on Harry's. 'Go on, boy, go on. Proud of your parents, are you? They go and get themselves killed in a car crash (drunk, I expect) --'
'They didn't die in a car crash!' said Harry, who found himself on his feet.
'They died in a car crash, you nasty little liar, and left you to be a burden on their decent, hardworking relatives!' screamed Aunt Marge, swelling with fury. 'You are an insolent, ungrateful little --'
But Aunt Marge suddenly stopped speaking. For a moment, it looked as though words had failed her. She seemed to be swelling with inexpressible anger -- but the swelling didn't stop. Her great red face started to expand, her tiny eyes bulged and her mouth stretched too tightly for speech. Next second, several buttons burst from her tweed jacket and pinged off the walls -- she was inflating like some monstrous balloon, her stomach bursting free of her tweed waistband, each of her fingers blowing up like a salami...
Harry runs into the night -- stopping only to grab his clothes, schoolwork and his favorite broom -- and makes his way -- ultimately and magically -- to Diagon Alley: a part of London favored by magical folk that is totally unseeable by the muggles. In Diagon Alley, Harry runs right into Cornelius Fudge, the Minister of Magic who is waiting there for him. (Well, he's magical, isn't he? And therefore has his ways of knowing things.)
Harry is afraid he'll be severely punished for breaking the Decree for the Restriction of Underage Wizardry and is therefore astounded when Fudge merely seems relieved to have Harry back under his eye. He tells Harry that a team from the Accidental Magic Reversal Department has already been dispatched to put Aunt Marge right again as well as to erase any memory of the incident from her mind. Fudge secures a room at an inn in Diagon Alley for Harry to stay in during the short time before the new school term begins.
Harry sat on the bed for a long time, absent-mindedly stroking Hedwig. The sky outside the window was changing rapidly from deep, velvety blue to cold, steel grey and then, slowly, to pink shot with gold. Harry could hardly believe that he'd only left Privet Drive a few hours ago, that he wasn't expelled, and that he was now facing two completely Dursely-free weeks.
'It's been a weird night, Hedwig,' he yawned.
And without even removing his glasses, he slumped back onto his pillows and fell asleep.
What seems to me to be significant about this small adventure, and why I mention it here, is that it neatly encapsulates one of the things that really works about the Harry Potter books. When addressing this age group, other writers might be tempted to do a bit of analyzing or moralizing here. How is Harry dealing with the rejection of his living family? How does it affect him emotionally? How is he dealing with being suddenly alone? Not only does Rowling avoid this, she doesn't even appear to be tempted. Harry can have all sorts of adventures and misadventures without any damage to his pysche. In an age where children's literature seems littered with young people dealing with issues, it's refreshing to find a youthful hero without any.
Refreshing and rewarding. On reading any of the Harry Potter books, young people will not learn how to deal with their parents' divorce. They won't be thinking about racial issues or the death of a pet, or even why they should eat their vegetables. They will, however, be taken by force on a magical journey from which their imaginations may never recover. If there is a lesson for young readers to learn here, it's passion for the printed page and the excitement of being in the thrall of a wonderful story. I can't think of a finer lesson. | September 1999
Linda L. Richards is the editor of January Magazine and the author of several novels.