J. K. Rowling swears she never saw it coming. In her wildest dreams, she didn't think her Harry Potter books would appeal to more than a handful of readers. "I never expected a lot of people to like them," she insisted in a recent interview with NEWSWEEK. "Well, it turned out I was very wrong, obviously. It strikes a chord with an enormous number of people." That's putting it mildly. With 35 million copies in print, in 35 languages, the first three Harry Potter books have earned a conservatively estimated $480 million in three years. And that was just the warm-up. With a first printing of 5.3 million copies and advance orders topping 1.8 million, "Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire," the fourth installment of the series, promises to break every bookselling record in the book. Jack Morrissey, 12, of Wellesley, Mass., plainly speaks for a generation of readers when he says, "The Harry Potter books are like life, but better."
Red-eyed and rumpled, I cast my vote with Jack. The highest compliment I can pay "Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire" is to say that from beginning to end, it made me want to stay up all night--or as long as it took to finish it. Rowling has gotten better with every book, and this time things move so smoothly that the story doesn't seem written so much as it seems to unfold on its own. Each of the books in the projected seven-volume series follows Harry through an academic year at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. But this time Rowling has tossed in so many new elements that you never stop to hear the formula's gears grinding away behind the scenes. After a splendid set piece near the beginning when Rowling sends everyone off to the Quidditch World Cup (box), the real plot kicks in with the Triwizard Tournament, to be held among three schools of wizardry, including Hogwarts. Meanwhile, Lord Voldemort, an evil wizard who killed Harry's parents when Harry was a baby, is once again on the prowl.
Amazingly, Rowling keeps her several plotlines clear of each other until the end, when she deftly brings everything together in a cataclysmic conclusion. For pure narrative power, this is the best Potter book yet.
When the book finally went on sale at 12:01 a.m. Saturday, thousands of children in Britain and North America rushed to claim their copies. Bookstores hosted pajama parties, hired magicians and served cookies and punch, but nobody needed to lift the spirits of these crowds. At The Book Stall in Winnetka, Ill., customers made such a big, happy noise that neighbors called the cops. At a Borders in Charlotte, N.C., Erin Rankin, 12, quickly thumbed to the back as soon as she got her copy. "I heard that a major character dies, and I really want to find out who," she said. But minutes later she gave up. "I just can't do it. I can't read the end first."
All in all, a pretty impressive level of excitement for a mere book. But at the same time it seemed somehow so anticlimactic, because months of planning by Rowling's publishers had laid the groundwork for this moment. In a campaign carried out with a level of secrecy sufficient to make Operation Overlord's commanders envious, the publishers succeeded in keeping the contents of the fourth book almost entirely under wraps. Even the title was closely guarded until just before publication. Printers and binders were sworn to secrecy. Booksellers had to promise not to open the boxes containing the new novel, which came stamped Harry Potter IV, not to be sold before July 8, 2000.
The secrecy was all Rowling's idea, according to her publishers, who swear up and down it was not a marketing ploy. "Jo Rowling really wanted as many kids as possible to discover the new Harry Potter at the same time," says Michael Jacobs, a senior vice president at Scholastic. And other publishers have nothing but kind words, mixed with awe, for the Potter Effect--which even included planes pulling banners touting Harry at the seaside. David Rosenthal, publisher of Simon & Schuster, calls the Scholastic campaign "shrewd, brilliant," adding that "you can't say enough about how decent it's been. We haven't been besieged with Harry Potter jockstraps and toothpaste and breakfast cereal." But while no one thinks duplicating Rowling's success is very likely, they don't deny that it has redrawn the landscape of their business. The New York Times, for example, recently announced a separate best-seller list for children's books, after the first three Potter books had roosted more or less permanently at the top of the old fiction list (best-selling authors who've failed to get on the list in the last year like to say they've been "Pottered").
The only sour notes in all the songs of joy over this phenomenon have come from parents and conservative religious leaders who say Rowling advocates witchcraft. Reading of the books has been challenged in 25 school districts in at least 17 states, and the books have been banned in schools in Kansas and Colorado. But that's nothing new, says Michael Patrick Hearn, a children's book scholar and editor of "The Annotated Wizard of Oz." "Any kind of magic is considered evil by some people," he says. " 'The Wizard of Oz' was attacked by fundamentalists in the mid-'80s."
But perhaps the most curious thing about the Potter phenomenon, especially given that it is all about books, is that almost no one has taken the time to say how good--or bad--these books are. The other day my 11-year-old daughter asked me if I thought Harry Potter was a classic. I gave her, I'm afraid, one of those very adult-sounding answers when I said, "Time will tell." This was not an outright lie. There's no telling which books will survive from one generation to the next. But the fact is, I was hedging. What my daughter really wanted to know was how well J. K. Rowling stacks up against the likes of Robert Louis Stevenson or Madeleine L'Engle.
I could have told her that I thought they were beautifully crafted works of entertainment, the literary equivalent of Steven Spielberg. I could also have told her I thought the Potter books were derivative. They share so many elements with so many children's classics that sometimes it seems as though Rowling had assembled her novels from a kit. However, these novels amount to much more than just the sum of their parts. The crucial aspect of their appeal is that they can be read by children and adults with equal pleasure. Only the best authors--and they can be as different as Dr. Seuss and Philip Pullman and, yes, J. K. Rowling--can pull that off.
P. L. Travers, the author of the Mary Poppins books, put it best when she wrote, "You do not chop off a section of your imaginative substance and make a book specifically for children, for--if you are honest--you have, in fact, no idea where childhood ends and maturity begins. It is all endless and all one." There is plenty for children and adults to enjoy in Rowling's books, starting with their language. Her prose may be unadorned, but her way with naming people and things reveals a quirky and original talent.
In Harry's world there is Quidditch, the soccerlike game played on flying broomsticks. People who can talk to snakes are parselmouths. Then there is Harry's boarding school, Hogwarts, with its motto, Draco Dormiens Nunquam Titillandus ("Never Tickle a Sleeping Dragon"), and its faculty: headmaster Dumbledore (archaic English for bumblebee), Snape, Flitwick and--new in book four--Alastor (Mad-Eye) Moody. And there is more to this than just funny-sounding syllables; language, Rowling is implying, is important. She's just making the lesson entertaining.
The best writers remember what it is like to be a child with astonishing intensity. Time and again, Rowling articulates just how defenseless even the bravest chil-dren often feel. Near the end of the second book Dumbledore, the wise and protective headmaster, is banished from Hogwarts. This terrifies Harry and his schoolmates--"With Dumbledore gone, fear had spread as never before"--and it terrified me. And in all of Rowling's books there runs an undercurrent of sadness and loss. In the first book the orphaned Harry stares into the Mirror of Erised, which shows the viewer his or her utmost desires. Harry sees his dead parents. "Not until I'd reread what I'd written did I realize that that had been taken entirely--entirely--from how I felt about my mother's death," Rowling said. "In fact, death and bereavement and what death means, I would say, is one of the central themes in all seven books." Do young readers pick up on all this deep-dish intellectualism? Consciously, perhaps not. But I don't think the books would have their broad appeal if they were only exciting tales of magical adventure, and I know adults would not find them so enticing.
The Harry Potter books aren't perfect. What I miss most in these novels is the presence of a great villain. And by great villain I mean an interesting villain. Long John Silver is doubly frightening because he is both evil and charming. If he were just all bad, he wouldn't frighten us half as much. Voldemort is resistible precisely because he is just bad to the bone. That said, I should add that in the new book Rowling outdoes herself with a bad guy so seductive you'll never see him coming. And he is scary.
That quibble aside, Rowling's novels are probably the best books children have ever encountered that haven't been thrust upon them by an adult. I envy kids reading these books, because there was nothing this good when I was a boy--nothing this good, I mean, that we found on our own, the way kids are finding Harry. We affectionately remember the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew, but try rereading them and their charm burns off pretty quickly. Rowling may not be as magisterial as Tolkien or as quirky as Dahl, but her books introduce fledgling readers to a very high standard of entertainment. With three books left to go in the series, it's too early to pass final judgment. But considering what we've seen so far, especially in the latest volume, Harry Potter has all the earmarks of a classic.