Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone

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It's ideally calibrated for late nineties public consciousness. Who needs TV when the book packages Spectacle so well?

J.K. Rowling

Reviewed by Megan Shaw

Tuesday, November 9 1999, 4:15 PM

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone is the first book in a series that is on its way to becoming one of the biggest selling books of all time. Kids all over the world are crazy about this story of a little boy who is whisked off to wizard school. The craze for Harry Potter is like nothing I've seen since Star Wars. I was moved to read the book by seeing kids interviewed on TV saying how Harry Potter changed their lives, got them to turn off the TV, got them interested in books. Something's getting kids to turn off television? I had to read.

And the story of the author got my attention too. A single mom, living in Scotland on welfare, writing her books on notepads in coffee shops. Taking breaks from writing when her baby woke up. The publisher suggested she use initials rather than her first name, because they were worried little boys wouldn't read a book written by a woman. I heard this story from scraps of newspaper reports covering the staggering sales of Harry Potter. I identified with her poverty and the struggle the reports cued me to imagine: a young woman without the resources of entitlement or a support network, fighting to express herself.

But then I picked up the book and saw that same story ("a struggling single mother writing on scraps of paper at a local cafe") printed right on the dust jacket! The part about the reactive sexism in the authors' public name was left out. But it was clear that the mythology of the author was being carefully crafted by a publicist. I should have realized that if the mainstream newspapers were inspiring me to fantasize an identification with a multimillion unit selling author, then I was really being had. But it was a children's book author, not a typical subject of intensive media construction, so it worked.

Then I read the book and understood its ability to divert people from television. Above being a really exciting story, it's ideally calibrated for late nineties public consciousness. Who needs TV when the book packages Spectacle so well? For Harry Potter, fame is the thing that changes his life; more than his adventures; more than his wizardly powers. Rowling describes a world where every kid's media-programmed fantasy has come true: Harry is caught in webs of peoples' perceptions of his public works. Harry had, as an infant, stopped the most famous evil wizard in the world in his tracks, and made him disappear. Then he was raised by non wizards, oblivious to his history, while legends of his super power grew among the wizard society. The first book is the story of Harry being pulled back into the wizard world for training at age eleven. Overnight he goes from being socially maligned, undersized, hated, and weird, to being as famous as Jesus.

Speaking of Jesus, the book carefully crafts an alternative reality that is totally engaging without being inconsistent with dominant cultural paradigms. Though Harry is at a wizard school that teaches dark arts and transformation and levitation and alchemy, that doesn't stop Christmas from rolling around, or Easter either. By throwing Christian icons into the narrative, the author cleverly buys herself a public allowance to transgress into fantasyland. Grown ups may be able to handle limited doses of non Christic worlds such as Tolkien's Ring trilogy, but I don't think they would approve of the same for kids. Not by the millions.

The greatest thing about Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone is that it's a hell of a lot scarier than the Blair Witch Project. For an adult, that's not saying much. But given parents who are afraid to let their kid read Where the Wild Things Are for fear of scaring them, I'm really impressed that the Harry Potter books have not been banned. "Harry would have screamed, but he couldn't make a sound.֗here there should have been a back to Quirrell's head, there was a face.։t was chalk white with glaring red eyes and slits for nostrils, like a snake." If I were an eight-year-old reading this after the not-scary pages of Goosebumps, I would feel like I'd just been let out of school early.

It's healthy for kids to pour themselves into stories where they can face life-threatening situations by themselves. Kids get PISSED OFF when they are insulated from the world and starved for meaningful stimulus. Which doesn't mean that they should have to face the realities of hard edged poverty or danger. But most of the time parents misunderstand their role of protector and construct pastel Mickey Mouse worlds for their kids, thinking they are "protecting" them. Simplifying ideas for kids based on some fucked up belief that kids' minds are simpler than adults is called "dumbing down." When grown-ups try to simplify the whole world for kids, and in doing so create falsely safe, dull environments, I call that "numbing down."

Given the hair-raising, bone-chilling, un-numbing adventures Harry Potter experiences, I am not surprised that the book is profoundly meaningful to so many kids. I predict that in twenty years that the Harry Potter subculture will be as detailed and organized as Star Wars subculture is for today's young adults.

Scholastic Press, 1998, 309 pages, $17.95 

Copyright © 1999 by Megan Shaw. All rights reserved.

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