‘Potter’ Casts a Spell Across the Ages – Los Angeles Times

 In Entertainment
This article was originally published in September 1999 after the release of “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban.” Author J.K. Rowling is today (June 26, 2017) celebrating the 20th anniversary of the launch of the Harry Potter series.

Read more about the 20th anniversary of the Harry Potter series »

I happened to be sitting in an English hospital the other day with my nose in “Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets” when an officious nurse spotted the children’s paperback in my hand and marched up to me.

“You could at least read the adult edition,” she barked.

“I think that’s hypocritical,” I sputtered.

The nurse, whose children apparently had long since grown into adulthood, melted, a warm smile spreading across her broad face.

“Oh, me too,” she said. “I’ve read all three Harry Potter books.”

It doesn’t take a child or even the slightest bit of magic, for that matter, to figure out why the Harry Potter books are such a hit with young and old alike: The orphaned wizard is absolutely divine.

Author J.K. Rowling’s third spellbinding book, “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban,” goes on sale in the United States today after a long wait for fans who haven’t already rushed to buy it on the Internet. Or who weren’t lucky enough to have friends send them copies from Britain, where it went on sale at exactly 3:45 one afternoon early this summer–a time selected to avoid school truancies–and sold more than 60,000 copies in the first three days.

That was more than the hungrily awaited “Hannibal,” Thomas Harris’ sequel to “The Silence of the Lambs,” and more than any children’s book in the memory of British publishing.

In fact, Harry Potter is a worldwide bestseller, having been published in 27 languages and made it onto the New York Times list with two books at once. It hit No. 1 on the Amazon.com list nearly two months before it appeared in stores across the United States, with the other two Harry Potter books on its heels. The aggressive Internet sales forced up the U.S. publication date by more than a month.

The Harry Potter books would be on the Times of London’s list too if the snooty newspaper didn’t insist that only adult books qualify.

All told, the three books have sold about 7.5 million copies worldwide since the first one appeared in 1997.

“That is as of 5 p.m. today,” said Rowling’s agent, Christopher Little. “If you ask me next week, it will be close to 8 million.”

The first two books, “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone” and “Chamber of Secrets,” have been printed in more serious-looking–dull–adult editions in Britain to reach childless readers and adults who might fold under the disapproving eye of nurses and other strangers.

“We put out the adult editions after we got a lot of fan mail saying that the books had been pinched by parents after bedtime reading,” said Rosamund de la Hey, head of children’s sales at the British publishing house Bloomsbury.

“There was also a huge section of the population that would not come across the book in the children’s section, the 25- to 35-year-old gap. And then there were the people we heard about reading the book on the train in the morning hidden behind the Financial Times” newspaper, De la Hey said.


It is children, however, who truly relish the books marketed for 9- to 11-year-olds. Kids read them over and over, memorizing pages and acting out parts.

“Children recognize the characters and can empathize with them. They have flesh and blood and are believable,” De la Hey said. “And it is a school environment in which there are no parents around, so they are full of adventures.”

A Sorcerer Apprentice

For those who have not been fortunate enough to read the books–aloud to children or clandestinely in the subway–Harry Potter is a teenage wizard who is both underdog and hero. He was orphaned as a 1-year-old by Voldemort–a force so evil most only dare call him You-Know-Who–who killed his parents and left Harry with a lightning-bolt-shaped scar on his forehead.

He is scrawny, with rumpled dark hair, and was raised by a mean, nonmagical aunt and uncle who never told him about his special background. Instead, they house him in a cupboard under the staircase and give him such holiday gifts as a coat hanger, toothpick and an old sock of Uncle Vernon’s while his fat, blond cousin Dudley gets 37 presents for his birthday.

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