J. K. Rowling
With Harry Potter, She Cast a Spell That Turned Millions of Young Video-Game Addicts into Avid Readers
British author J.K. Rowling's signature creation, Harry Potter, came to her in a kind of vision as she rode a train from Manchester to London. "I saw Harry very plainly, with his glasses and his black hair and scar," says Rowling, 34, referring to the trademark lightning-bolt mark on her hero's forehead. "I knew he didn't know he was a wizard." By trip's end she had sketched out the plucky 11-year-old's adventures at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. And in 1997, when the first of a planned seven volumes was published in Britain, Harry began taking possession of young minds as surely as he first seized Rowling's imagination. By early November of this year more than 12.1 million copies of the first three books—Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets and Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban—had been sold in the U.S. On Sept. 26 they took over the top three rungs of the New York Times fiction bestseller list, and in Hollywood directors including Steven Spielberg and Rob Reiner are vying to direct a Harry Potter film due from Warner Bros, in 2001. Among children the books inspire the kind of frenzy recently associated with Beanie Babies and Pokemon. And to most parents and teachers they're a wish come true: paths to reading for a generation for which literature often pales next to TV and video games. At New York City's Hunter College Elementary School, all but 4 of 49 fifth-graders have read all three books, says teacher Amy Kissel. Hannah Schwartz, owner of Children's Book World in Haverford, Pa., thinks kids identify with Harry. "He's not the brightest. He has some friends, but has some enemies. He's just like they are, except he has these marvelous adventures." Arthur A. Levine, the Scholastic editorial director who paid $105,000 for U.S. rights to the still obscure first book in 1997, thinks the magic is "the idea that a great power lives in each of us." Not everyone is captivated. Some parents who fear that the books promote witchcraft have asked schools to ban them. Rowling isn't worried though. "Children totally recognize this as an imaginary world, and I think it's a very moral world," insists the author, who writes in longhand in cafes near her Edinburgh home, just as she did in 1993, when, divorced and living on public assistance, she began the first book with her infant daughter Jessica, now 6, napping at her side. In plotting Harry's journey she has already completed a draft of the final chapter of the last book. "I constantly rewrite," she says. "At the moment, the last word is 'scar.' " When the time comes, no one will be sadder to close the book on her hero than Rowling herself. Writing about Harry Potter, she says, "is the most fun you can have without anyone else present."