Article Published in THE HINDUSTAN TIMES

Have You Given Your Child Potter Power?

Navtej Sarna

The New York Times Bestseller fiction list makes boring, repetitive reading. Week after week, the first three places have belonged to Harry Potter- the only three books so far published in the series. It was only two weeks ago that a book called Pop Goes The Weasel squeezed itself into the third place, pushing the first of the Harry Potter books- Harry Potter And The Sorceror’s Stone- to fourth place. But then it’s already been on the list for a full 47 weeks and still counting. Exasperated publishers are talking of approaching The New York Times with a request not to consider these books for the charts, so that others may have a chance.

Who is Harry Potter and what makes him tick? What is it about him and the world he inhabits that has sold 8.2 million copies of these books in the last three years and been translated into 28 languages, including Icelandic? There’s surely something special that has turned on its head the popular perception that reading is a lost art among the children of today, which they would rather be staring vacantly into a computer screen fidgeting fitfully with a mouse, than be curled up with a good book in some well-shaded nook. Kids are reading Harry Potter, and how.

Ever since J.K.Rowling, the 34-year-old British single mother let it rip with Harry Potter And The Sorceror’s Stone, she can’t roll them off fast enough for the young readers. She followed up the first book with Harry Potter and The Chamber of Secrets and then this year came the latest in series-Harry Potter and The Prisoner of Azbakan. Each book deals with a year of the life of Harry, the skinny orphan boy who discovered at age eleven that he was a wizard and went off to a boarding school.

This is no ordinary British boarding school with its tales of young capped schoolboys Playing cricket, eating tuck and playing tricks of housemasters- the stuff we were brought up on. This is Hogwarts, the thousand year – old school that teaches witchcraft and wizardry to a class of potential sorcerers. His richly textured fantasy world has other attractive characters, including He Who Must Not Be Named - Lord Voldemort and all of you who don’t understand, all the non-wizard crowd-are simply called Muggles. So we have it all here-a set of attractive, emotionally appealing characters in strange places with unexpected things happening to them-magic and mystery, double, double toil and trouble. The adult fiction bidding for a place on The New York Times list didn’t have a chance.

The author, Joanne Kathleen Rowlings, was in Washington, D.C. some time back, signing books and giving interviews. Kids had to be pulled out of school and mothers drove themselves crazy to ensure their kids reached the store in time to stand in unbelievably long queues. Thousands were turned away from one bookstore and another had to hire extra help to handle the rush. One store put up a sign disowning any responsibility if the kids who waited several hours in the queue finally failed to get the famous autograph from the author. Rowling scribbled away and complimented young kids on their clothes and looks. And promised the next book soon. She can do so safely, having conceived and outlined a series that takes us through seven years of Potter’s life. The series is to end in 2003 and then I suppose life could begin again for The New York Time best-seller list.

The books, meanwhile, are also stirring up a not-too-hot controversy. Some worried parents are accusing Rowlings of promoting witchcraft and in some states, school boards are being asked to remove the book from school libraries and classrooms. The issue is being discussed in editorials and on the Internet- just see the number of websites, e-groups, chat rooms that the mere punching in of the magic name of the hero can pull up. Rowlings is unfazed. The books, according to her, are a struggle between good and evil, even though she admits they are going to get scarier as the series proceeds. At the moment, though, such is Potter power among the young ones, that those who don’t like him will have to lump it. I can’t blame anyone anyway- I have spent several summers pretending I was Fatty of Enid Blyton’s Five Findouters.