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This article by Pat Summers was published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on November 17, 1999. All rights reserved.
For All Muggles, A Potter
Most Muggles must be looking over their shoulders
these days. And if you don’t know from "Muggles," you’ve been
too long on that desert isle, or otherwise out of touch with such
important worldly things as books, best sellers, television interviews,
and even Halloween costumes. In other words, there’s been no magic
in your life: no spells or charms, no flying broomsticks or invisible
cloaks, no witches or wizards . . . in short, no Harry Potter.
Ah, but when it reaches the point that Charles Schulz features Harry
Potter in a "Peanuts" strip (as he did in the weekend funnies),
it’s time to beam out a "Potter primer" to the uninitiated.
Comprising three volumes so far, the Harry Potter story — ostensibly
written for children — has dominated the New York Times best seller
list for months. And during Halloween weekend, this greedy trio of
fantasies was still hogging all three top spots. It got either so
bad (or so good) that there was publisher-talk of making junior books
ineligible for the best seller list. What can the magic — oops,
the attraction — be? It starts with adventure, fantasy, good versus
evil, humor, suspense, levels of meaning, sympathetic characters,
good writing, and it goes from there.
So popular is the Potter phenomenon that book store chains vie to
host author J.K. Rowling, and conjure up all manner of related events
— witness the Harry Potter Look-Alike contest last month at Borders
Books, and Barnes & Noble’s Harry Potter Family Night this Friday,
November 19, at the MarketFair store.
A skinny orphan with unruly black hair, green eyes, and round glasses,
and a peculiar, lightning bolt-shaped scar on his forehead, Harry
Potter leads a Cinderella-like existence somewhere in England with
his "ordinary" nasty uncle and aunt, Vernon and Petunia Dursley,
and his spoiled cousin, Dudley. The Dursleys are archetypal Muggles
— that is, non-magical people — these three, with a vengeance.
Harry’s whole life changes when, just before his 11th birthday, he
learns he will attend Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.
He also learns that his mother and father (a witch and a wizard) were
murdered in his infancy, and his lightning bolt-mark is a vestige
of his own successful struggle against the evil wizard who did it.
Covering a school year, each book recounts Harry’s adventures at Hogwarts
with his best friends, Ron and Hermione, plus villains of all sorts,
a growing arsenal of magic weapons — a wand, his father’s invisible
cloak — and a brave, boyish heart.
Hogwarts, a gigantic enchanted castle far from the madding Muggle
world, is notable for magic mirrors and wall portraits that talk,
as well as four distinctive school "houses" where student
witches and wizards live: Gryffindor, Hufflepuff, Ravenclaw, and Slytherin.
The school sport is Quidditch, a kind of basketball-in-air, requiring
speedy broomsticks that are skillfully piloted by students who must
avoid the menacing "bludgers" while pursuing the "Golden
Snitch," an elusive, winged golden ball. For his team, Harry Potter
occupies the "Seeker" position — both crucial to the team
and apropos to the story line.
Harry Potter’s creator, J.K. Rowling, has become a story in herself.
A single parent who lives in Edinburgh, Scotland, who took five years
to write the first Potter book before its 1997 publication in Britain,
Rowling has projected a series total of seven. Presumably, she has
pratfalls, villains, and magic tricks to spare, not to mention the
vision to get Harry, and his classmates, through adolescence. Already,
the latest book, "Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban,"
seems somewhat over the top — though we wouldn’t dream of divulging
specifics here. Early on, the Potter books, understandably replete
with English expressions, were selectively Americanized so that U.S.
kids would not be derailed by possibly obscure terminology. This was
just one of the trilogy’s ongoing controversies that has provoked
a steady stream of irate letters to the New York Times from Potter-loving
Odds are that Rowling will carry out her program. You have to bet
on anyone who could give figurative birth to this phenom, Harry Potter,
and stock his world with the places and character names she has. Just
consider "Hogwarts" — take it literally for its imagery.
Then there’s "Peeves," as in "peeved," the school’s
resident poltergeist, and "Professor Snape," whose name
suggests sneers, and who presides over snakey-sounding "Slytherin"
House, where dwells "Draco Malfoy" and his thuggy sidekicks,
Crabbe and Goyle: they just have to be, and are, "baddies."
Did we mention Harry’s flying broom, a nimble "Nimbus Two Thousand,"
and fat cousin "Dudley," as in "dud"?
Charmed not only with the story line, some adults say they like the
Potter books for their language, their spoofy humor. Therapists should
like the series for the implicit and explicit positive messages that
children, and adults, could take from the books, the power of love
and innate goodness over evil. The effect of the third book’s frightful
"dementers" would strike a chord with anyone who has experienced
depression — as would the ways suggested for dealing with these
monsters. And all TV, video games, sports, and even school work to
the contrary, children have taken Harry Potter to their hearts. Let
us count the whys in the person of nine-year-old Ryan Kelly, a neighbor
of mine in Lawrenceville and a super boy for whom Harry Potter is,
Kelly is an example of Harry Potter’s winning ways on otherwise busy
boys. On one October Saturday, he spent much of the day playing "fall
ball" (baseball), flag football, and soccer, with only clothes
changes (and breath-catches) in between. His mom and obvious energy-model,
Kathleen Kelly, noted with some relief in her voice that Ryan’s sports
would soon drop to two, and consist only of basketball by November.
Young Kelly also grew his neighborhood’s most flourishing tomato plant
last summer, besides playing baseball, frequenting his community swimming
pool, and attending daily sports camp while his mom was at work. Notably
kind to animals, he’s especially into turtles, and at last report,
wanted to be a marine biologist. If not a baseball player or a video
game designer. In computer-speak, Ryan is practiced at multi-tasking
— yet he still found time for something new.
Introduced to the Potter phenomenon at the beginning of the school
year, Kelly quickly became conversant with plot and characters. At
first, his mom read to him, then he read for himself and she caught
up on her own, with occasional joint readings. At Halloween, Ryan
Kelly trick-or-treated in a Harry Potter costume and was well into
book two, "Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets." So, along
with all his other pursuits, there’s still room in Ryan’s life for
magic, Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, owls that deliver
messages, and flying brooms as sports accessories. Even after a long
day at Lawrence Intermediate School, he stops to talk animatedly with
a neighbor about Harry’s latest adventure — or, wherever he left
off last night.
Over apple cider and cookies, Ryan recently told a couple of neighboring
Muggles how he would recommend a Harry Potter book to a friend: "There’s
a boy named Harry, and he gets in a lot of trouble, and after the
first chapter you’d want to read more."
Kelly describes how Ron crashes his father’s flying car into the Whomping
Willow in the second book, and waxes rhapsodic over Quidditch, the
big sport at Hogwarts ("I so wish it was true"). He is also
well aware of the ideas: the power of love is stronger than any other
power. To him, Hermione is "the bravest character — she’s
so daring." Not only that, "she’s way over too smart,"
as evidenced by this example: "She raised her hand both times
during the class in the greenhouse, and both times she was correct."
While Harry is his favorite character, Ryan likes giant
Hagrid, the Hogwarts gamekeeper, second-best. He’s funny, and he watches
out for Harry — and, like Kelly, he loves all kinds of animals.
But sometimes that, if not his drinking, gets Hagrid into jams. Kelly
laughs just to think of one of Hagrid’s "pets," the mis-named
"Fluffy" — "It’s totally not the right name,"
he says. And yes, the characters in the books remind him of people
he knows. There’s a Ron-type in his life, and a girl like Hermione.
As for Harry Potter, Kelly says unhesitantly, "That, I’d have
to say, is me."
Finally, over cider refills, the practical questions: Are you going
to put my friends’ names in the paper? Will you put mine in?
Ann Marie Gee, of Barnes & Noble at MarketFair, is firmly — almost
sternly — in favor of the Harry Potter books and all they represent.
She heard about the first Potter book from a customer in the children’s
book area where she has worked for a year or so. Then in its original
English incarnation, it was titled "Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s
Stone"; its American edition became "Sorcerer’s Stone."
Gee read it and went on to read all three of the books at least five
"They’re well written," she says, in a tone that suggests
anyone who has read them would naturally agree. She enumerates: They
offer mystery, adventure, and "life messages." She is pleased,
for instance, that a child might learn from the books that "an
act of love — like Harry’s mother giving her life to save his
— isn’t there for just that second. It’s with a person for the
rest of his life." And, Gee adds, the books suggest that hard
work is the way to achieve goals. "All these characters are at
school. They work hard, but they enjoy it."
Too often, Gee says, parents and teachers are so glad to have kids
read anything, they will approve what she calls "horrible"
book series. She cites one mom who is glad "her daughter is finally
reading literature" — the Potter books. (Of those lately publicized
for objecting to the Potter books for children, she wonders, "Could
they possibly have read the same book?") Smilingly aware that
some adults are not forthcoming about reading the books themselves,
Gee keeps hearing parents recommend the Potter books to other parents.
Since people of all ages are "wild about Harry," she decided
to do a "Harry Potter Family Night" at her store.
An anomaly in their field, especially in this era of rampant Disneyfication,
the Potter books are not accompanied by what Gee calls "merchandise."
Memorabilia may spring into being at the release of the first Potter
film, but Gee seems proud to report that Rowling has already disavowed
it, and that she herself has concocted whatever will be raffled off
or given out as prizes during Barnes & Noble’s event. Magician Fred
Walker ("He knew about Harry Potter, so that impressed me")
will do Potter-esque tricks early in the evening, and while supplies
last, free lightning-bolt decals and sample gourmet jelly bellies
— the Muggle treat closest to Bertie Bott’s Every Flavor Beans,
a wizard candy with tastes ranging from chocolate to earwax —
will be given out.
Bookstore cashiers agree with Gee on Harry Potter’s crossover appeal.
Adults are really the only ones who buy the books, they report, and
not all those adults are buying for the children in their lives. Nancy
Nicholson, community relations manager at Barnes & Noble, calls the
whole thing "Harry Potter madness" — a malady, it should
be noted, that she too suffers from. "I didn’t feel as if I was
reading a kids’ book," she says, mentioning "social satire"
as just one appeal for her of the Potter trilogy.
Faced with Harry Potter’s inevitable world takeover, what’s a poor
Muggle to do? Well, a self-respecting Muggle — if that’s not a
contradiction in terms — one who wants to rise in the world, even
if not on a broomstick, would do well to read all about it. As they
might say in the Muggle world, "If you can’t beat him, join him"
— or in this case, spring for a Harry Potter book and rise above
— Pat Summers
609-897-9250. Family evening of games, prizes, and a wizardly magic
show by Fred Walker. Free. Friday, November 19, 7 p.m.
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