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Friday, July 2, 1999 Published at 17:43 GMT 18:43 UK


The magic of Harry Potter

Harry Potter is a most unlikely children's hero in the 1990s.

The BBC's Denise Mahoney: Harry Potter has outsold all other children's books
Bespectacled, swotty, by no means street-wise, bookish, and frankly odd - he is a wizard. Harry, as his name suggests, is a role model from the old school.

The fact that he is brought to life on the printed page, rather than on television or in an arcade game, would seem to seal his fate.

Yet, through his creator, JK Rowling, Harry has captured hundreds of thousands of young hearts.

[ image: The eponymous hero: Harry is bespectacled, swotty, bookish]
The eponymous hero: Harry is bespectacled, swotty, bookish
The print run for Rowling's latest offering, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, is 200,000 - 30,000 more than this year's other publishing blockbuster, Hannibal.

In a supreme piece of publishing hype, the book's release on 8 July, has been postponed until 3.45pm, to dissuade eager young readers from "bunking off" and hot footing it down to the local book shop.

Total sales for the first two books in the saga stand at 750,000 and film rights have been sold.

And it's not just the children who are biting their nails in anticipation. Harry Potter has a legion of devoted adult fans - his books have even been issued in alternative, grown-up editions.

Clearly a little bit of old-fashioned charm is what the children's book world has been waiting for.

Bethan Marshall, an education lecturer at Kings College in London, certainly thinks so.

She says Harry Potter is a welcome breath of fresh air after a long trend for "social-realism" in children's literature.

[ image: JK Rowling spent five years working on the first story]
JK Rowling spent five years working on the first story
Rowling's character is an intrepid hero in the make-believe mould of Indiana Jones, as the titles attest - Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone, ... and the Chamber of Secrets, ... and the Prisoner of Azkaban.

He is an orphan, who found himself transported to Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry by catching a train from a secret platform at King's Cross station.

At Hogwarts he teamed up with a cast of characters including Ron Weasley, a flame-haired pupil from a family of seven wizards, and Hermione Grainger, the school swot.

From there on it is adventure all the way, as Harry and the gang find themselves caught up in high action drama.

Critics praise the language for its inventiveness and the storylines for their constant suspense. It is a world in which grown-ups are either next to useless, or pure evil.

"It's like just so exciting, the way she writes it. The way she describes things," says one school-aged fan, Alice Messenger.

"You keep on wanting to know what's going to happen next. The description's really good," says schoolboy Jonathan Young.

[ image: The book they're all waiting for is out on 8 July]
The book they're all waiting for is out on 8 July
To unsuspecting adults, it probably sounds like Enid Blyton's Famous Five all over again.

In fact, Rowling's writing has been compared more closely to that of CS Lewis, author of the Narnia series, for its magical invention and mystical charm.

"The real key," according to Ms Marshall, is that she has found a gap in the market. "She appeals to small boys."

Girls tend to be more dedicated readers, she says. And before Harry Potter children's books were full of "strong, sassy lead female characters" which easily turn off boys.

"If you have got a boy who is eight or nine, they have done Enid Blyton when they were six and they're slightly too young for Terry Pratchett.

"Yet they combine fantasy, adventure and fun while just veering clear of science fiction."

The writing is dense, the plots complicated and the dialogue witty. Most of all, they score on readibility.

"They are rattling good stories. They have a strong a narrative pull," says Ms Marshall.

[ image: Adult version: The alternative
Adult version: The alternative "grown up" cover of the first book
Tales abound about how Rowling has managed to "convert" disinterested boys into avid readers. The author claims her best moment was meeting the mother of a dyslexic nine-year-old boy who told her Harry Potter was the first book he had ever read.

"Many parents are glad she's there. There's a real dearth of books for boys that age that they will actually read."

While others seem glad to read the books for themselves.

"It's like childhood escapism for thirtysomethings," says one of Rowling's more mature readers, Debra Leigh.

"I loved reading most when I was at the school. You don't have time to read as you get older, so Harry harks back to a more comfortable era."

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