According to my eleven-year-old son, Izaiah, who has read the Harry Potter series in its entirety seven times, “the series is really cool because it’s about a boy who helps a lot of people. And his parents died, and he’s going out to kill the man who killed them.” I have to say that I did not expect this kind of answer from a preteen boy. I expected the answer to revolve around magic wands, bad guys, and Chocolate Frogs, not about doing the right thing and seeking justice. Some may think the latter is more about revenge, but that was not the tone in which Izaiah presented his answer.
In Harry Potter And The Philosopher’s Stone, J.K. Rowling uses the age-old theme of good versus evil but presents her novel with a modern spin, consisting of dangerous sports, a lot of food, especially treats, and a school that allows children to live away from home. The protagonist, Harry, is almost ten years old when the book opens. This also happens to be the age when reading, especially for boys, tends to either take off or dwindle by the wayside. Rowling was so successful in her ability to weave an exciting story that she ushered in a new era of readers. At the time, C.S. Lewis’s books were considered outdated, and Tolkien’s were too difficult for most ten-year-olds to read. Their waning childhood imaginations were able to sore again.
So why is it the novel not only appeals to young boys around Harry’s age, but also to girls? And what is it about a children’s book that makes adults of all ages line up for book release parties dressed in wizardry robes at midnight?
The answer is simple. Harry starts his life with a great tragedy, the death of his parents. This occasion causes the reader to immediately care about the main character immensely and desperately wants him to succeed. To make matters worse and to cause Harry to be even more likable, the family that raises harry treats him terribly, as evidenced by locking him in a cupboard, where he sleeps with spiders that fall from the ceiling. Also, Harry is disliked at school because his cousin Dudley hates Harry, beats him up regularly, and will beat up anyone who likes Harry. The more Rowling pushes her main character down, the more readers care about him and want to see him persevere. Humans like to root for the low man on the totem pole. While wanting him to be triumphant, the reader also cares about his journey that progresses him to the final ring with the bad guy, Lord Voldemort.
Long before fight night, Harry travels from point zero, not even knowing he is a descendant of wizards, to ninety, being the chosen one to stop the most evil wizard of all times. During this transformation, Rowling develops and carries Harry’s character, hence the audience, by way of mystery. There to help him solve the mysteries are Harry’s likable friends, Ron Weasley, who is poor, not very bright or talented, and has red hair, (the reader feels badly for him and may even associate with him, therefore likes his character immediately), Hermoine Granger, who is a girl (Rowling brings in her female audience), the most intelligent out of the lot, appears awkward, does not have any friends, and is made fun of quite frequently (girls are empowered because Hermoine is strong and successful, therefore likable), and Neville Longbottom, who lacks any sort of confidence and does not feel he is worthy of his friends or even the school he attends (audience pities him, but he is so sweet, they also love him). Through out the novel each character develops as they all help Harry’s character develop. Therefore, the reader not only cares about Harry, but he also cares about Harry’s friends. Being able to create characters that readers care about is crucial. The more the reader cares, the greater the catharsis can potentially be at the conclusion of the book.
Back to the mysteries, most are presented in one chapter but are not solved until the end of the novel. Rowling has the ability to create many mysteries, sometimes more than one per chapter, that cause the story to build tension and suspense and cause the reader to keep turning the page. She drops hints, and the reader is usually aware that she is dropping hints, but the reader often does not know the significance of the hint. For instance, in the opening chapter, Mr. Dursley, Harry’s uncle, sees strange looking people and animals. He knows something is going on but keeps brushing it aside until it is too big to brush aside anymore. He sees a cat reading, but then questions if that’s what he really saw. Then he sees strange looking people and owls flying during the day. The reader knows something is happening, but he is not sure what that something is.
Rowling quickly introduces unquestionable magic into the novel. Even before Mr. Dursley figures out what is happening, the reader knows. Rowling does not waste time and gets right to the meat of the story. Nothing is added to the novel that is not significant and important.
At the conclusion of each chapter, the momentum starts to die, but Rowling expertly adds a new mystery that is so exciting the reader feels compelled to find out what happens next and turns the page. She also repeats important facts, often verbatim. Sometimes, this is accomplished through dialogue, which she has a lot of, estimated at over half of the words. Through this repetition, the reader intuitively knows that piece of information is important, but he may not know why it is important. It is not until the final chapter when all the mysteries are solved that the reader is able to say, “Oh, I remember that,” or “I thought that was important.”
Also during the conclusion, there is a great catharsis. Besides the fact that Harry saves the day, emotions are brought forth that anyone can relate to. The reader finds out that Harry’s mother died while saving him, thus creating an invisible barrier of love around Harry. In Voldemort’s weakened state, he does not understand love and cannot pass through the barrier to kill Harry and retrieve the stone. The body that Voldemort possesses even dies from the exposure. Harry’s friends find their own strengths, and the reader realizes Harry is not the only hero; he would not have succeeded without his friends; they are a part of him. In the end, the most respected man, Albus Dumbledore, rewards each of their successes, and they go on to win the House Cup.
In the final sentences of Harry Potter And The Philosopher’s Stone, J.K. Rowling causes her readers to want more. She lets the reader know the kids will be back next year, Voldemort is not dead, and he will be back. She also suggests that Harry’s life back with the Dursley’s for the summer won’t be as bad as the last ten years because they do not know he is not allowed to perform magic over the holiday. After two chapters of crying (on my part) and frightening events happening that cause the reader to cheer for his hero, we are left with one final laugh. Brilliant.