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Discovering Harry Potter
You Don 't Have To Be a Kid To Enjoy This Series
Educating young witches and wizards; teaching students to play Quidditch, a sport that involves people sprinting across the sky--- on brooms, no less; driving a car in the air; delivering mail via owls: certainly the stuff of kids’ literature, right? Wrong. If you’ve read the Harry Potter series, I’m sure you’ll agree.
For years, I resisted reading the popular Harry Potter books, despite the fact that several of my friends seemed enthralled by The Potter Phenomenon. After all, I was an English teacher; wouldn’t a fantastical world of witches and wizards be a bit elementary? My husband and I didn’t even bother to attend any of the Potter movies. That all changed, though, when our daughter started reading the series to our grandchildren. My husband and I thought it might be fun to discuss the books (by way of a Jeopardy-type game I planned to create) with the kids (my teacher-personality kicking in,of course). We borrowed Book 1 from our daughter and immediately were hooked by J.K. Rowling’s ingenious world of witches and wizards. Currently, the kids are into the sixth book in the series, my husband (who has hijacked each copy as soon as it comes through the front door) is reading Book Five, and I’m one book behind him.
Characters You Can "See"
From the very beginning of the series, Rowling paints a verbal portrait of each character so precisely that the reader can’t help but form a mental image of him or her. “I know someone like him!” you might think when you meet, for example, Harry’s uncle/guardian, Vernon Dursley, an oversized buffoon whose personality conjures images of Cinderella’s wicked stepmother.... or when Harry’s spoiled, cruel and morbidly obese Cousin Dudley appears. His behavior seems to have been cloned from the mean-spirited stepsisters. (You know Dudley: the kid who should be sent to Time Out every few minutes and deserves to be assigned eternal detention.) Granted, these characters might be stereotypes (Uncle Vernon could be the poster boy for The Guardian From Hell), but they definitely are necessary to advance the plot. Harry’s Aunt Petunia, his mother’s sister is...well, think about it: Petunia?! Undoubtedly because they’re “Muggles” (i.e., ordinary people with no skills in wizardry), this trio-that-you-love-to-hate fears wizards and witches (including Harry’s late mother) that they actually lock Harry, who was orphaned as a baby, in a cubbyhole under the stairs.
Book 1: Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone
The plot of Harry Potter and the Sorcer’s Stone, the first book in the Harry Potter series, begins shortly before Harry is invited (by owl-post) to attend Hogwarts, the school for witches and wizards. The sweet, undernourished kid with dark hair and a scar on his forehead- the most “normal” member of the household (perhaps there’s a message here)- is pleasantly surprised at his good fortune: the invitation means a ticket out of his abusive family. Despite the family’s efforts to prohibit Harry from participating in anything that has to do with magic, they ultimately have no choice when the huge, kindly Hagrid, gatekeeper of Hogwarts, shows up to help Harry and makes it clear that he means business: Cousin Dudley suddenly sports a tail.
The introduction of the rest of the characters is cleverly intertwined with the appearance of various magical phenomena. For example, Harry meets his soon-to-be best friend, the red-haired Ron Weasley, when he boards the Hogwarts Express at Platform 9 3/4, where witches and wizards walk through a wall to get to the train. Later, he meets his other buddy-to-be (whom he dislikes at first; she’s the know-it-all type who always has her hand in the air during class), Hermione Granger. He eventually learns that she pretty much does ” know it all” due to her diligence, dedication and eagerness to learn the Hogwarts curriculum. Upon their arrival, the three are placed in Gryffindor, one of the four “houses” at Hogwarts, by means of the magical Sorting Hat, which decides and announces(verbally) where each student should be placed by means of identifying his/her personality and character. At this point, we also meet some of the book’s young antagonists: Draco Malfoy, a smirky, smarmy type and his two not-too-brilliant sidekicks/followers. These three, of course, are assigned to Slyhtherin, the house of mean-spirited, self-absorbed wizards and witches.
Rowlings’ choice of names for certain people, as evidenced above, scores another point for creativite symbolism. “Draco Malfoy,” for example, certainly conjures up draconian images, while “Slytherin”- well, what kind of critter is known to slither? Professor Sprout teaches-what else?- Herbology, and as for Potions Professor Sirius Snape.... change one letter of his last name, and what do you get? Change the “H” to a “C” and the second “O” to an “A,”and Quidditch coach Madame Hooch’s name becomes her job. Finally, the evil Voldemort (whom the Hogwarts community fears so much that they refer to him as He-Who-Shall-Not-Be-Named) has three key letters in his name: “mor” is derived from the Latin “mors,” which means death, one of the major themes throughout the Harry Potter series.
Don’t be misled; this book is not Grimm’s Fairy Tales, 1984, or The Hobbit, for the real world certainly does exist and is woven into the wizards and witches plot lines. Rowlings often takes the famiilar one step further, as evidenced by Hogworts’ favortie team sport, Quidditch, that starts with soccer and literally takes flight, with players using their broomsticks to soar through the sky and score goals. ( An added detail: whoever catches the elusive, flying golden Snitch ends the game.) Also, Hogwarts students do go to school, study and take tests. The curriculum, however, offers subjects like Herbology, Potions Charms, and Defenses Against the Dark Arts rather than the standard English, math, social studies and science. The students all enjoy a good meal, too, but when they’re in the Hogworts dining hall, no one has to cook; an abundance of food magically appears on the table. Then there’s the postal system, which was mentioned earlier. There are mail carriers, but instead of men who deliver the mail on foot or by car, the carriers are owls (each student has one) who feature two-way delivery (and sometimes are more reliable than some real-world carriers). Finally, the ordinary world of the Muggles and the world of witches and wizards are pretty much the same in the realm of characterization. There clearly are good guys and bad guys, heros and villains, bullies and victims in both worlds.
Literary and Financial Success
The popularity of the Harry Potter series is reflected in retail sales; it has earned far more than any other series in history. If you haven’t been a fan of Harry and his crew, you might be pleasantly surprised, as I was, to read the first book in the series. Perhaps the highest accolades from an English teacher come down to this: I wish I had taught this book. My students could have learned so much about characterization, setting, plot, theme and mood while enjoying the assignments and consequent discussions. I can just picture a few weeks without complaints about homework.... a few exciting (and educational) weeks for both students and teacher.
In fact, I need to get back to reading the fourth book in the Harry Potter series.
......... to be continued