Twenty years ago, the first Harry Pot­ter book was pub­lished. The rest, as they say, is his­tory. Chil­dren’s book editor Ju­lia Ec­cle­share cel­e­brates the young wiz­ard’s great­est spell: get­ting boys to read

Good Housekeeping (UK) - - News -

When Harry Pot­ter And The Philoso­pher’s Stone was pub­lished in June 1997, it had a first print run of 500 copies. JK Rowl­ing’s man­u­script about a boy wiz­ard had been re­jected by 12 pub­lish­ers be­fore one took a chance on her. Rowl­ing was warned by her pub­lisher that kids had fallen out of love with read­ing; that there was no money in chil­dren’s books. But she was con­fi­dent that chil­dren would fall for Harry. She was right.

Fast-for­ward 20 years, and she is one of the most suc­cess­ful writ­ers in the world. Her seven Harry Pot­ter nov­els have sold up­wards of 450 mil­lion copies world­wide. Then there are the eight box-of­fice­top­ping film adap­ta­tions, many spin-off books and a stage play. The fran­chise is un­prece­dented in the sheer scale of its pop­u­lar­ity, and in­ter­est in the wizard­ing world is show­ing no sign of abat­ing.

But if Harry Pot­ter re-wrote the for­tunes of its au­thor, it also schooled a gen­er­a­tion in the magic of read­ing. The fran­chise proved just how much chil­dren would read if they had a book they liked. Lin­ing up dressed as wiz­ards and witches, wait­ing for mid­night when the next book would be avail­able, be­came part of the ex­pe­ri­ence.

This gen­uine delight in the sto­ries also made in­roads into the widespread con­cerns about boys’ lack of progress in lit­er­acy. Rowl­ing gave boys, who were typ­i­cally less en­gaged in read­ing, a rich seam of imag­i­na­tive sto­ries to get lost in, with enough dark­ness to scare, enough ac­tion to thrill and enough magic to in­spire – all in books that were to­tally cool to read!

While there have been many pop­u­lar char­ac­ters in chil­dren’s fic­tion, none has been so un­con­di­tion­ally loved as Harry Pot­ter.

Un­happy, or­phaned Harry draws on the best tra­di­tions of fairy tales. At some point in their lives, most chil­dren dream of hav­ing their an­noy­ing par­ents off their back, free­ing them up to imag­ine their own fu­ture. And no sooner has the tragedy of his or­phaned state been re­vealed, than read­ers dis­cover two other things about Harry: he has a spe­cial des­tiny and the su­per pow­ers to match.

What hap­pens to Harry pro­vides a gilt-edged sur­vival guide for nav­i­gat­ing the dif­fi­cul­ties of life. De­spite his ‘des­tiny’, Harry is easy to iden­tify with: he is an ev­ery­day kind of boy, who em­bod­ies the fa­mil­iar char­ac­ter­is­tics of be­ing sports-mad and mildly school­book-shy. With lik­ing Harry comes lik­ing what Harry does. Harry can fly, be­come in­vis­i­ble, travel in time, do magic well enough to pro­tect him­self from his en­e­mies, and be the best sports­man on the pitch. He is in­ter­est­ing to know.

While the deep ap­peal of Harry may be largely sub­lim­i­nal, the im­me­di­ately grip­ping fac­tor is Rowl­ing’s dra­matic, well-struc­tured sto­ries. Rowl­ing takes her read­ers on ad­ven­tures in an em­bel­lished mag­i­cal world, with more than enough dan­ger to make the pulse race. With its shift­ing por­traits, mov­ing stairs and friendly ghosts, Hog­warts School Of Witch­craft And Wiz­ardry is both homely and in­trigu­ing. What child wouldn’t want to go to such a place?

But the real magic of this world lies in its pro­longed ap­peal. Most of the char­ac­ters are de­fined as good or bad, and there’s a clear moral code that’s easy to fol­low. ‘It is our choices that show what we re­ally are, far more than our abil­i­ties,’ Dum­ble­dore tells Harry, in one his hom­i­lies that still res­onate. At an age when exam grades can feel like the only marker of suc­cess, therein lies a mes­sage of hope.

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