July 12, 1999

Book's Quirky Hero and Fantasy Win the Young


Hannibal Lecter and Harry Potter are shaping up as the summer's must reads. Harry who?

Jonathan Player for The New York Times
Brighty, center, 11-years old; and Edwin Brighty, 9-years old, browsing in the Lion and Unicorn Childrens' Bookshop in Richmond upon Thames outside London today. The youngsters immediately homed in on the latest Harry potter book.

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    But riding broomstick high, right behind the ghoulish Dr. Lecter, is Harry Potter, an orphan wizard with unruly hair and a lightning scar on his forehead. This unusually adept pupil at Hogwarts School for Witchcraft and Wizardry is the hero of two wildly successful British children's novels by J. R. Rowling.

    Last week there were 826,000 copies in print of the first novel, "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone," and some 915,000 of the second, "Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets," which was published on June 2. At bedtime, at the beach, by the pool, in the back of the car, whole families are reading about the boarding school where the food is delicious and the equipment list includes a wand and cauldron.

    The Potter books are an international phenomenon; in two years the first has been published in 115 countries in 25 languages. The headline in the British newspaper The Guardian on Thursday proclaimed, "Hannibal eaten for breakfast by 13-year-old." The article said that 24 hours before publication of the third book, "Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban," with a first printing of 240,000, it had surpassed "Hannibal" on the Amazon.com.uk charts.

    The book went on sale 15 minutes after school ended that afternoon to stampedes of children going from schoolyards to stores. Scholastic Press, the American publisher, plans a national release of that book here on Sept. 7, the day after Labor Day. British wholesalers have been reminded of the territorial rights of British publishers and told not to sell "Azkaban" abroad.

    But as was the case this spring when the second book was available only in Britain, and E-commerce bypassed copyright, many American readers and bookstores have already ordered copies directly or on the Internet.

    All winter and spring teachers and librarians marveled at the speed with which children, particularly "reluctant readers," embraced "Sorcerer's Stone." But the biggest surprise, based on anecdotal evidence, may be the books' combined power to bring boys back to reading. Calls to sleep-away camps for children aged 8 to 15 around the United States early this month suggest that roughly a third of the children had already read them.

    American girls, for the most part, have always been readers, have loved series and have been receptive to suggestions for the next book. Boys have always found alternatives to reading: think Tom Sawyer. But adult concern for reinforcing boys' reading skills has intensified in recent years as alternative temptations have burgeoned to include Pokemon, Play Station, computer games or the Internet.

    "The Hardy Boys" and the baseball novels of John R. Tunis notwithstanding, the last title genuinely popular with boys, as opposed to one foisted on them by adults, was probably "Hatchet," Gary Paulsen's realistic 1987 novel about a boy stranded for 54 days in the Canadian wilderness. The book and its sequels remain popular paperback titles.

    Earlier in the 90's boys read the paperback "Goosebumps" series avidly, but, as Clifford Wohl, a former children's bookseller, put it: "You couldn't get them off that dime. You couldn't say, 'Here's another scary book you might like.' No. They only wanted 'Goosebumps.' It was like a fence, and the boys were trapped within the series."

    Boarding school books have been a British export since "Tom Brown's Schooldays" and fantasy worlds since J. R. R. Tolkien's "Lord of the Rings." Contemporary writers successfully working with witchcraft and parallel universes include Diana Wynne Jones and Terry Pratchett, who said recently in The Sunday Times of London that the British were major exporters of imaginary worlds.

    The great summer read in the United States 25 years ago, in fact the best-selling adult novel for six months, was "Watership Down," by Richard Adams, a dense fantasy about a rabbit civilization. A children's title in England, the novel was considered so sophisticated here that it was published as an adult book. Today it's a paperback popular on middle-school reading lists.

    Although they are widely admired, and read, by adults, there has been no confusion about the Potter books. Susan Hirschman, the editor of Greenwillow Books, who bought "Watership Down," says that Ms. Rowling's achievement in the Potter books is: "She never breaks out of her voice. There's no Roald Dahl bark in the prose, no adult asides."

    The fantasy is firmly in the British tradition: the wizards live by rules, hovering above England in a setting quite near reality but not part of it and so clearly described that young readers can map it. Hogworts has required classes in charms and potions, name tags on black robes and on pointed hats; the mail is delivered by owls, and Harry stars in the spectacular airborne school sport called Quidditch, riding his Nimbus 2000 broomstick. And of course there are good and evil.

    The plot springs from the fact that Harry's parents were murdered by the dark prince Voldemort, generally referred to as "You Know Who." He and his legion disappeared during the years Harry was in the care of his dreadful human relatives, the Dursleys.

    Voldemort's followers are reappearing in pursuit of Harry, and he lurks somewhere ahead in future books along with the fevers of adolescence.

    In the Hammock Or at the Beach

    Ordinarily, said Bill McMahon, director of Camp Moosilauke, in Orford, N.H., boys tend to "leave reading a little behind" at camp, though they read every night. This summer, he said, "we are seeing them in the hammock at free time and down at the beach with the books." He noted that European campers there had packed their own editions.

    The boys' enthusiasm for Harry Potter is spilling over into other books, many booksellers and librarians say. They cite, for example, "Holes" by Louis Sachar (Frances Foster Books/Farrar Straus & Giroux). This adventure story about Stanley Yelnats (admittedly certified in adult eyes because it is the winner of the 1998 National Book Award and the 1999 Newbery Medal) is selling at nearly twice the expected rate, more than 190,000 copies in five months. At Barnes & Noble, said Steven Geck, the children's buyer, other hardcover fiction for middle-grade readers, especially boys, is selling strongly as well.

    Word of mouth, not to mention placement in the front of bookstores because of the best-seller status, has made the Potter books a crossover phenomenon. They are now attracting adult readers here pretty much as they did in Britain, where the second book topped the best-seller lists last year.

    Sally Lodge of Wellesley, Mass., said: "I've been a mother for almost 18 years, and never in my parenting career have all three of my children read and even fought over the same book. But then my husband started the first book at the same time the 11-year-old was reading it, and he wanted it reserved for him. So he hid it under his pillow. But she found it."

    Juliette Smith, a counselor at Camp Kamaji, a girls camp in Cass Lake, Minn., is reading the first book to 8-year-olds, a chapter a night. "They are silent throughout," she said, "and then say, 'Can we read some more?' "

    Ms. Rowling said she imagined the character while riding on a train. She planned seven books, one for each year of boarding school, carrying Harry from just before his 11th birthday when he is summoned to Hogwarts, to graduation. Several years later, while she was an unemployed single mother on the dole, she sat in cafes in Edinburgh writing the first novel in longhand while her infant daughter napped beside her.

    Arthur A. Levine of Scholastic, an editor with a keen eye for fantasy, bought the American rights to the first novel after reading advance galleys of the British edition. It was a spirited auction, and the price, $105,000, was the highest then paid for a foreign children's novel.

    In consultation with the author Levine changed the title from "Philosopher's Stone" to "Sorcerer's Stone" and made small editing changes that smoothed out differences in British and American speech. He also added rich paper, a cover illustration and decorative chapter illustrations.

    Selling Tactics Not Just for Children

    Scholastic -- best known to adults for the paperback series "The Animorphs," "Goosebumps," "Baby Sitters Club" and "Fear Street" -- used the marketing strategies and techniques given to promising adult fiction titles. Barbara Marcus, the executive vice president of the book division, said the strategy included sending nearly 2,000 advance copies to so-called "big-mouth" or influential adults and children. Scholastic placed Harry Potter in all its advertisements and in the fall and holiday catalogues, invested in easel displays and posters and brought Ms. Rowling to the United States. Independent booksellers in particular eagerly "hand sold" the book, recommending it to holiday shoppers.

    The first printing was 35,000, with a hefty marketing budget of $100,000. Still, Diane Roback, children's editor of Publishers Weekly, which gave "Sorcerer's Stone" a starred review and an interview, says: "Marketing can only go so far because it's directed at adults. It's the incredible word of mouth among kids that has blown this into a phenomenon."

    Scholastic planned to bring out "Chamber of Secrets" in September, a year after the first Harry Potter title, but large numbers of books imported from England forced them to move up the date and then to schedule "Azkaban." Appearing in American stores a week ahead of "Hannibal," "Chamber of Secrets" spent a week as No. 1 on the best-seller list in The New York Times.

    They Finish One And There's Another

    Beth Peffer at the Bank Street College Book Store in Manhattan thinks the almost immediate availability of the sequel helped develop reader loyalty. Often there have been long intervals between installments of many of the best loved American children's books.

    Using the example of Jean Craighead George's "Julie of the Wolves," she pointed out: "The original kids outgrew it before the sequel came. We sold that to another generation entirely. But here the sequel is being sold to the initial excitement." A new "Ramona" book by Beverly Cleary will be published this fall; the first was published in 1952, the last 15 years ago. Compare that to three Harry Potter books in a year, something that never occurs in adult publishing.

    Ms. Rowling, who will do an American book tour in October, is off somewhere finishing the fourth book. In the future the novels will be published simultaneously in all English-speaking countries.

    So where, cynical parents sated by "Phantom Menace" merchandise this summer must be wondering, is the movie? Where are the toys? How can this be just a book? Warner Brothers has the film and merchandise rights to the first book, but there will be a lull before American children see their personal image of Harry replaced by a face on a movie screen or have a chance to buy a certified Nimbus 2000 broomstick.

    Copyright 1999 The New York Times Company