By Nancy Gibbs
June 23, 2003

Why are children around the world so eager for the next installment of a story about a boy wizard? Maybe it’s because they see themselves in him

On the same summer day that 6-year-old Catie Hoch beat her own personal best jumping rope–100 in a row–the doctors discovered that the pain in her side was coming from a tumor on her kidney. “In that split second,” her mother Gina Peca remembers, “your whole life changes. You’re going along safety-proofing your house and trying to feed your kids the right food, thinking you have control over their safety, and you don’t.”

There was even less control over the course of the next two years as the cancer spread, through seven rounds of chemo, three operations on Catie’s lungs and one on her liver. It was during that time that Gina began to read aloud the first three books about a schoolboy wizard named Harry Potter, who knew something about fighting fierce, deadly enemies. Maybe that’s why, when they took the train from their home in upstate New York to New York City for treatment, Catie wore a red cape, red lightning-shaped scar on her forehead, a wand and big black glasses. She was ready for anything.

In January 2000, when it seemed as if her treatment options had run out, Catie was back home, her chances of living to read Book 4 looking very slim. That is when an e-mail arrived from someone in Britain who had heard about the 8-year-old girl in New York who loved Harry so much. “I am working very hard on Book 4 at the moment,” the author confided, and she talked about the chapter she was writing, how the werewolf professor Lupin was one of her favorite characters, and about some new creatures who would be making their debut. “This is all TOP SECRET,” she warned, so Catie could tell her family but nobody else, “or you’ll be getting an owl from the Ministry of Magic for giving our secrets away to Muggles.” It was signed, “With Lots of Love, J.K. Rowling (Jo to anybody in Gryffindor).”

Over the next days and weeks, Catie wrote to her new friend about her birthday party; her friends; her new dog, Potter Gryffindor Hoch (the first name after Harry’s surname and the middle one after the dormitory house in which he lives at school). She seemed to be getting stronger, brighter, in her excitement about her new pen pal. Jo wrote back at length, typing from her home in Scotland as the windows rattled in the January gales. “It’s a bit spooky,” she wrote one night. “I sleep at the top of the house (like Ron) and when it’s stormy like tonight I keep waking up wondering what creaked … you see, I’m not as brave as Harry–if you told me there was a gigantic snake wandering around at night where I was living, I’d hide under the bedclothes and let someone else sort it out.” Jo was candid about other things that frightened her. “I don’t mind talking to big groups of people your age at all, because you ask interesting questions, but talking to adults scares me.”

Gina watched the friendship unfold, watched a stuffed owl and a toy ginger cat arrive in the mail as gifts. “I couldn’t believe it when the first e-mail arrived, but what I really couldn’t believe was that they kept it up,” she says. “This wasn’t a once or twice ‘I heard a little girl was sick, and I sent a get-well note.’ To me it was a relationship. I don’t know what Jo was thinking, but she was taking time out of a very, very busy schedule to write precious e-mails to Catie.”

Maybe it was sympathy. But maybe it was admiration. “I admire bravery above almost every other characteristic,” Rowling told TIME a few months later, when she sat down to talk about the characters she had created. “Bravery is a very glamorous virtue, but I’m talking bravery in all sorts of places.” It is, as Rowling attests from the first chapter of the first book, the virtue that cannot be faked: you either walk into the woods full of giant spiders, or you don’t. Stand up to bullies, or hide from them. Hang on to hope, or surrender to fear. She addresses children as though they know as much as or more than she does about the things that matter. Kids like the characters she has created, Harry above all, not because he is fantastic but because he is familiar. Rowling, they say, gets everything right, writes as though she knows what it is to be 13 years old and anxious or shocked at discovering what you can actually do if you try. Maybe she finds her way straight into the hearts of children because she never left in the first place.

That is at least a place to start in trying to understand why Rowling’s books are the most popular children’s series ever written. It is hard not to believe in magic when you consider what she has done. Through her books, she speaks to kids in Milan and Morocco and Minnesota, and those conversations too are somehow private, even though they are conducted in 200 countries, in 55 languages, in Braille, in 200 million volumes. Children buy her books with their own money. They wear out flashlights reading them after lights-out. Kids with a fear of fat books and dyslexic kids who have never finished a book read Harry Potter not once or twice but a dozen times. Parents report reading levels jumping four grades in two years. They cannot quite believe this gift, that for an entire generation of children, the most powerful entertainment experience of their lives comes not on a screen or a monitor or a disc but on a page.

So many of those children will be tired come Saturday morning, June 21, because on the shortest night of the year, the night when whatever you dream is said to come true, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix goes on sale at one minute past midnight. On that night there will be Potter parties complete with owls and cloaks and butterbeer, and those who can will lobby their parents to let them wear their Potter pjs and sleep in a cupboard under the stairs. Some families have ordered two or three books, to prevent civil war. At 8.5 million copies, this is the largest first printing ever; and at close to 900 pages, the longest children’s book there is. It already has the top advance sales in history: it was Amazon.com’s best seller two hours after it became available for preordering. And its contents were so secret that a forklift driver was sentenced for stealing pages from a printing plant in Britain and trying to sell them to the Sun for £25,000, or $41,000.

Not all the numbers are nice, of course: the American Library Association ranks the Harry Potter books as the most challenged in the country; more parents have requested that Harry be banished from bookshelves than they have Huck Finn, more than Catcher in the Rye. Conservative Christian parents have argued that the books promote witchcraft and Satanism; a student in Houston had to get up and leave the room every time the teacher read aloud from Harry Potter. But even that ruckus has calmed down or come to stand for a much larger conversation about what should shape the moral life of children. “I think any unusual focus on things like magic and witchcraft is a bad idea,” says Charles J. Chaput, Archbishop of Denver, “but these things can also be a natural part of storytelling with children. So I think the Potter argument is really about bigger and deeper battles going on all over the culture about our national character.”

There is also a small secular culture war about whether these books are good enough to deserve their acclaim, whether they will endure as classics or fade as fads. The charge, which given the mass popularity is typically made rather quietly, is that the stories are formulaic and conventional. The attack came first and most famously from stuffy Yale professor Harold Bloom, keeper of keys to the literary kingdom, who dismissed the first Harry Potter book as thin and derivative in a 2000 article in the Wall Street Journal and has since refused to look at any of the sequels. “I would think in another generation or so,” he told TIME, “Harry Potter will be in the dustbins everywhere. It will be period-piece rubbish because it is so atrociously written.”

He is, to put it mildly, in a minority; Bloom might be surprised at the number of adult readers who scour the texts for Jungian archetypes and trace the folkloric roots of hinkypunks, mischievous creatures who mislead travelers into bogs. “I think she’s a terrific writer,” says Maurice Sendak, author and illustrator of 80 children’s books, who has read the first book. “And she’s a ripper-offer, like me. She has taken from some of the best English literature and cooked up her own stew. It’s brilliant, and I have every intention of reading the others; otherwise children I know will kill me.”

Teachers who actually encounter children every day are just as appreciative. “I don’t know that it is literature like The Grapes of Wrath,” argues Gail Hackett, a librarian at Monroe Elementary in Des Moines, Iowa. “But it’s not Captain Underpants either.” Beyond their gratitude at anything that gets kids to read, parents and teachers appreciate how Rowling doesn’t pander or patronize. “Generally adults in children’s literature are horrible or incompetent,” observes Debbie Mitchell of the Magic Tree Book Store in Oak Park, Ill., while Rowling shows adults being wise and fair and, in the gamekeeper Hagrid, the best friend imaginable. Her tone can also grow dark and Grimm in ways that many contemporary children’s fantasies don’t. “Children’s psyches are a lot more sophisticated than we give them credit for,” says Suzanne Ferleger, a child therapist in Encino, Calif. “Adults would like to think that in kids’ minds the world is rosy. But they sugarcoat the deeper feelings of children. Rowling taps into that on so many levels.”

Younger readers sense that she knows their world and their tastes. Kids care about brands: a Nimbus 2000 broom is the best on the market, at least until the Nimbus 2001 is released. They like to solve her puzzles: they are tickled to see that Diagon Alley, the wizard mall, is of course laid out diagonally. They like a character who moves from being powerless to being magical to having powers even over other adults. Harry’s being an orphan makes him both more vulnerable and independent in ways most 13-year-olds are not; he had to invent himself because his spirit was not likely to be gently formed by his odious aunt and uncle. Not having a regular family, kids say, is something many of them can relate to. Teachers in inner-city schools, where many troubled kids are bouncing through foster care, are stunned by the power of the books over their students. “Many of these kids have grown up without parents, but they still have to make moral choices in their lives,” notes Ebony Thomas, 25, an English teacher at Cass Tech High School in Detroit. “Before, those choices might have been dictated by church, by family, by community; now you have to face that alone, and the choice lies within yourself. This is a generation that really needs Harry Potter.”

There were already lots of books with unicorns and wizards in them before Harry came along, certainly lots of books about orphans searching for their roots and adolescents coming of age–which leaves the question of what Rowling has done differently. Unlike some buff and brawny superheroes, Harry has the look of a nerd but the heart of a hero. He is small but fast: the wand is mightier than the sword. “He’s kind of like me,” says Alex Heggen, 12, of Des Moines, who, like so many kids, sees some of himself in Harry and hopes to find more of Harry in himself. “He’s just brave sometimes … I’ve got black hair, I wear glasses, we’re about the same height … Wearing glasses and having braces–getting picked on is just your life. You have to deal with it.”

Kids say that in her portrayal of the friendship between Harry, Ron and Hermione, Rowling shows an uncanny understanding of how adolescents deal with one another. “She gets almost everything right,” says Ligia Mizhquiri, 12, from Chicago. “What happens [at Harry’s school] happens to us. Some of us are popular. Some of us are not. Some of us get bullied. Some of us are bullies.” Harry’s friendship with Ron evokes every buddy movie ever made; the pattern is so familiar to kids that when word got out that a character would die in Book 4, children wrote to Rowling and begged her not to kill Ron off, because in the movies it’s always the sweet best friend who dies. But into that familiar tree house Rowling inserts Hermione, infuriating at first, indispensable very soon, and the tone and tenor of their friendships ring true to a generation of kids for whom gender roles and relationships have been rearranged.

Hermione would be a pretty familiar stereotype as well if she were just “the smart one.” But Rowling also makes her resourceful and at times the toughest. “Hermione ignores a lot,” says Ellis O’Connor, 10, in Evanston, Ill. “Ignoring while people are teasing is very, very important, because if you don’t ignore them, they’ll get on your nerves more, and it will be worse.” She knows something about being teased because of a developmentally delayed older brother whom the other kids call retarded. Kids who get mocked because they don’t have cool clothes find a soul mate in Ron. “If you took all three and put them into a blender, you’d get me,” says Ryan Gepperth, 12, of Chicago. “I like to try new things, like Harry. I love reading, like Hermione. And I have problems of my own, like Ron,” says Ryan, a husky boy with tousled brown hair. “Ron gets made fun of a lot because he has a lot of brothers and sisters and he comes from a poor family. The other kids don’t like him because of that.”

Rowling creates a bridge for kids to cross from her magical world to their own, built out of rules and constraints that both share. The very existence of Hogwarts School, the training academy for young wizards, is a testament to the reality that learning still takes time and patience. There’s no spell that fills one’s head with knowledge; the best Hermione can manage in Book 3 is the Time Turner, to give her more hours to study. The Weasleys, Ron’s family, are still poor–and any world in which a family as hardworking, loving and generous as theirs still struggles to put food on the table is, well, a lot like our own. Mrs. Weasley can cast a spell to make dirty dishes clean themselves, but she can’t create new kitchenware out of thin air. Rowling has created a world in which a boy can fly on a broom, talk to snakes and grow gills like a fish, but he can no more easily cope with his crushing sadness about his dead parents than any other child. “She mixes the real-life struggles in with the imaginary, magic struggles,” says Casey Brewer, 15, of Longwood, Fla. “Harry and his friends have to think through the obstacles in life the same as they have to think through an obstacle that’s a three-headed dog. It’s, like, inspirational.”

Inspirational, but mercifully not perfect. Wizards have troubles and egos and envy and ratty robes they are embarrassed to wear. Harry is capable of jealousy and insensitivity. He breaks rules and doesn’t tell grownups things it would plainly be in his interest to reveal. He gets into trouble. (“If he didn’t, you wouldn’t have all those pages to read,” notes Zack Ferleger, 12, of Encino, Calif.) Hermione may be smart, but she can be rigid; Hagrid is loving, but to a fault when it comes to horribly scary beasts. Ron is loyal but insecure. Rowling loves her characters and invites readers to love them, not just despite their flaws but because of them. Since one’s flaws loom large in adolescence, that is quite a healing potion.

So given the lessons these books teach and the values they honor, how is it that they remain controversial? Even among evangelical and Fundamentalist Christian parents, there is a deep divide over how much to embrace the popular culture and use it for missionary purposes. On the one hand there are those who share the view of Jack Brock, pastor of the Christ Community Church in Alamogordo, N.M., which made worldwide headlines for its “holy bonfire” in December 2001, in which Harry Potter was among the books burned. The incident was taken out of context, says Brock. “The media made me look like Hitler.” But that said, he still would do it again. “They [the books] are totally, completely, entirely about witchcraft,” he told TIME. “The next book, I understand, will be 700 pages long, and it’s just going to be going deeper and deeper into witchcraft. Anyone who thinks that’s healthy, I don’t understand. God says in Deuteronomy that witchcraft is an abomination. Whatever God hates, I hate.”

But those who disagree do more than defend the books as just good clean fun. They praise them as powerful moral tools. The Catholic News Service, run by the American bishops, puts the books on its recommended list for children. Ministers preach sermons likening Harry’s running through the wall of Platform 934 to a leap of faith. “We’re missing something if we can’t tell stories from the Bible as compelling as Harry Potter,” says John Fleming, minister of First United Methodist in Henrietta, Texas. Many have found embedded in the books all kinds of biblical imagery. “If you read these books carefully, they are not only not evil, they are profound stories about good, and they are deeply religious,” argues Baylor University philosophy professor Scott Moore, who started by reading the books to his kids and ended up staying up late to finish for himself.

The climax of the second book, Chamber of Secrets, he asserts, works as pure Christian allegory. “It’s the story of Harry fighting a serpent and overcoming it with the sword of Gryffindor. He is unable to accomplish this by himself and must call for help, which comes from above, most often in the form of the word of truth or a double-edged sword. It’s not just a snake he has to overcome but a snake summoned by [the evil wizard] Voldemort’s memory. Over and over in these medieval mystery morality plays, it’s the memory of our sinfulness that we must overcome. The phoenix–a classic symbol of Christ, who dies and rises again–comes to help him. He kills the serpent, then in a moment quite shocking–I’m surprised Hollywood left it in–the phoenix weeps in his wound to heal him. That’s a classic symbol of Christ’s passion. It’s Christ’s tears that make us whole.”

Perhaps the most surprising appropriation of Rowling’s world took place at the conservative Vanguard Church in suburban Colorado Springs, Colo. Housed in an old movie theater, the six-year-old church has 1,100 members, including lots of young families. Using Harry Potter to teach Sunday school was the brainchild of Tosha Williams, the petite young wife of senior pastor Kelly Williams. “That’s one thing about Southern Baptists–we’re very pragmatic,” she notes, “and our goal is to reach people with the Gospel.” So the teachers dressed as wizards, and the church was entirely decorated, with darkened rooms and glow-in-the-dark props and hot dogs renamed goblin fingers. When the kids put on the Sorting Hat that determines the fate of young wizards in the book, they were all put in Slytherin, the home of the evil Voldemort; the way out, they were taught, could only come from following what God teaches. “I have never seen children so excited about a church event, just absolutely mesmerized,” Williams says. And what did they learn from it all? “No one can do miracles but God,” says Abigail Haggerty, 5. “It showed how Harry Potter’s mom sacrificed her life for Harry, as God sacrificed his life for us,” says America Copeland, 9.

When the moment comes that parents must trust their children’s hearts to another, they pray that whoever fills that space–a teacher, a coach, a character in a book–will be worthy of the power and will use it well. A month after Catie Hoch’s ninth birthday, doctors found that the cancer had spread to her brain and that she had only a few weeks left. That was when the phone rang.

Over the next few days, Rowling read aloud to Catie from Book 4, which was finally finished but would not be released until summer. “She was lying on the couch,” Gina says, remembering how her daughter was transported, “just listening and listening.” The family resisted putting the call on the speaker phone. “That was Catie’s time with Jo,” Gina says. “We didn’t want to intrude on their privacy.” The last few times Rowling called, Catie was too sick to come to the phone. She drifted into a coma and died on May 18, 2000.

Rowling wrote to her parents three days later. “I consider myself privileged to have had contact with Catie,” she wrote. “I can only aspire to being the sort of parent both of you have been to Catie during her illness. I am crying so hard as I type. She left footprints on my heart all right.” Catie’s parents established the Catie Hoch Foundation to help young cancer patients. In November a check for $100,000 appeared, from Catie’s favorite English friend. —With reporting by Amy Bonesteel/Atlanta, Cathy Booth Thomas/Dallas, Amanda Bower/Albany, Harlene Ellin/Chicago, Rita Healy/Denver, Broward Liston/Orlando, Jeanne McDowell/Los Angeles, Betsy Rubiner/Des Moines and Andrea Sachs/New York

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