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Jewish World Review July 12, 2000 / 11 Tamuz, 5760

Mona Charen

Mona Charen
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Just wild about Harry --
MOST OF THE MASS SUCCESSES in popular culture these days leave one either puzzled or despairing. Movies featuring the very lowest kind of adolescent humor regarding sex and other bodily functions rocket to the top of the charts. So-called "reality television" shows feed off the exhibitionism of some and the voyeurism of many.

So it is a remarkably restorative thing to join (together with my children) in the worldwide adoration of the Harry Potter series. At a time when it sometimes seems that video games and the boob tube will obliterate literacy altogether, along comes this series of witty and imaginative books, and children everywhere chuck the Nintendo aside for a chance to delight in them.

Most books have a publication date -- "Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire," " had a publication minute. At the stroke of midnight on July 8, cash registers all over America began to ring out the sound of its thunderous success. Barnes and Noble, the nation's largest bookstore chain, sold a reported 860,000 copies in the first weekend alone. The first printing ran to 3.8 million copies. To understand these numbers consider this: The average fiction book sells 2,500 copies. Sales of 25,000 put a book in the successful category.

J. K. Rowling has been widely described as a former single mother on welfare -- but that's a misleading datum. Following a divorce, she did receive welfare for a time. Still, she was a college graduate with a degree in classics and French, who had taught English in Portugal and French in Scotland. Even without Harry, she was not destined for a life of penury.

Her education certainly shows in her writing. Here is a description of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry from the first novel. "There were 142 staircases at Hogwarts: wide, sweeping ones; narrow, rickety ones; some that led somewhere different on a Friday; some with a vanishing step halfway up that you had to remember to jump. There were doors that wouldn't open unless you asked politely, or tickled them in exactly the right place, and doors that weren't really doors at all, but solid walls just pretending."

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The wizard world Harry learns to inhabit has newspapers with pictures that move, wands that sometimes backfire and a sport called Quidditch that is played on flying broomsticks (Harry covets the Firebolt). The nasty professor is called Severus Snape, and a poltergeist who haunts the place is named Peeves. There are trolls, three-headed dogs, giant spiders, werewolves, serpents of every variety and a gentle giant who tends to be a mite too tolerant of dangerous dragons. Students at Hogwarts, like wizards and witches worldwide, send letters to one another via "owl post."

Occasionally, a student who has misbehaved will receive a "howler." It's a letter that carries the parent's amplified voice screaming at the offending young witch or wizard.

Many children's books are engaging and well-written. What sets Rowling apart is the rare ability to create a whole alternative world in her books, as well as characters who grab your loyalty. As The New York Times review of the first book put it, "Much like Roald Dahl, J.K. Rowling has a gift for keeping the emotions, fears and triumphs of her characters on a human scale, even while the supernatural is popping out all over."

Much of the supernatural she conjures is funny, but a good bit is frightening -- and parents must use judgment as to whether their young children are ready for "dementors, sightless, soul-sucking fiends," "grims" (huge black dogs whose appearance betokens early death to the person who sees them) and "basilisks," enormous snakes sent by the evil Lord Voldemort to kill Harry.

Harry is an old-fashioned hero. He is brave, honest and good. Yes, there is evil in these books. But in contrast to a lot of the drivel out there, in these stories, to borrow a line from another children's classic, "Madeline," we "smile at the good and frown at the bad." Word has it that Rowling may kill off one of Harry's allies in the fourth book. I worry about how my 6-year-old will handle this.

But then, it is her imagination that brought all of this to life, and we cannot gainsay her G-d-like power over her creation.

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© 2000, Creators Syndicate