Wiz Kid

 

Joanne Rowling and her creation Harry Potter, who discovers at the age of 11 that he is a wizard and is whipped off to a school of witchcraft and wizardry Joanne Rowling and her Harry Potter books: Harry discovers at the age of 11 that he is a wizard and is whipped off to a school of witchcraft and wizardry

`Have you read the new Harry Potter?" asked Huw, who runs my local garage. Harry Potter wasn't an author I was familiar with, I admitted. "No," he laughed. "Harry Potter the Wizard." He was talking about a children's book, in fact two children's books. He had just finished reading the new one, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. To his children, you understand. Although he and his wife nearly came to blows every night over who was to read the bedtime story.

"Astonishing," he went on. "Most follow-ups aren't up to the first one. But this one's even better."

Harry Potter first burst onto the children's literature scene last year when Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone, written by first-time writer Joanne Rowling, won the Smarties prize - the Booker for those who write for children. It went on to sell a phenomenal 70,000 copies. Then this summer came the follow-up, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, which went straight to the top of the hardback bestseller list, outselling John Grisham, Terry Pratchett and Delia Smith.

On his 11th birthday, the orphaned Harry - whose life until then has been a litany of misery with his aunt, uncle and noxious cousin Dudley - discovers he is a wizard and is whipped off to Hogwart's School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.

"It's everyone's favourite fantasy of turning out to be far greater than their background," explains the author Joanne Rowling in an attempt to explain the books' cross-generational popularity. "I went through this period, which most children I think do, of thinking `these people can't be my parents'."

The genius of the series is that it combines the structure of the school story with every childhood fantasy you care to imagine. Rowling's invention is phenomenal: portraits on the walls move and talk, letters are delivered by Owl, lessons include Potions, Charms, Transfiguration and Defence Against the Dark Arts. Pupils sleep in four-poster beds, school equipment includes wands (different types and sizes, naturally) and broomsticks, although their main use is for the inter-house sport, Quidditch.

Many of Rowling's ideas are pure invention, such as Quidditch, whose rules are as complex as lacrosse mixed with American football (Ireland, Rowling tells me, is about to become world champion). But she also draws from the well of folklore and fable: mandrakes are grown in seed trays (transplanting is a dangerous business, the scream of a mandrake can have dire consequences). Three are phoenixes, dragons and unicorns.

However, as in any school, there's the downside: exams, bullies and teachers who seem to have it in for you. The books teem with characters with weird and wonderful names and the plots are as complex and action-packed as any adult thriller.

"I think people grossly underestimate children," Joanne Rowling says. "Just because they enjoy the slightly less demanding things doesn't mean they can't enjoy demanding things. It struck me as patronising to dumb down. Basically I just wrote for me. I do feel vindicated now, in the sense that they've sold amazingly well which I really never anticipated. I didn't really expect it to have any mainstream appeal. I felt it was a book that obsessive people might like. You can almost hook onto the details and collect information on the wizardly world."

Perhaps the most extraordinary thing about the Harry Potter books is that right from the outset Joanne Rowling conceived them as a series of seven. In 1990 she was on a train which was delayed when the idea suddenly came to her.

"Essentially it was the idea of a boy who didn't realise he was a wizard, had a miserable, miserable life till he was taken away to wizard school. But the thing that really got me going on the train was what wizard school would be like. I sat there for four hours and just thought and thought and thought. When I got home I started writing and literally haven't stopped since."

Shortly after that, she moved to Portugal to teach English (her degree was in French and Classics), where she met and married a journalist and had a daughter. All the while she was still writing - ideas and plotlines that would form the basis of the whole series. It was only when the marriage broke down and she came back with her fourmonth-old baby to Edinburgh to be near her sister that she showed it to anyone.

She has no idea where she found the confidence to plan a sevenbook series when she had never had anything of any description published.

"I think it was a back-against-the-wall courage. My life was absolutely dreadful when I first arrived in Scotland. I was living in a glorified bedsit and I had a newborn baby. I had no prospects of childcare. State nurseries were only for children on the at-risk register. I thought, it's never going to get better than this. I thought: once you're out there and working again, you'll have no time." She wrote (longhand) anywhere she could - preferably the local cafe where it was warm both for her and the baby in the buggy. A year later the first book was being auctioned in New York (it sold for $100,000). Three years later a film deal is about to be signed.

Comparisons have inevitably been made with Roald Dahl. But the anarchy of his stories is absent from Rowling's work. Her inspiration, if anybody, is C.S. Lewis. The Harry Potter books are imbued with a gentle morality. "The moral heart of the first book, that had an awful lot to do with my coping with my mother's death. Though I didn't realise it until I wrote the second draft." Rowling's mother died eight years ago after many years suffering from multiple sclerosis. In the first book, Harry discovers a magic mirror that reflects what your heart most desires. What he sees is his parents, both long dead.

"I don't think children will get everything. But I don't think that's a problem. My favourite books are tatty and falling to bits because I keep going back to them. If people go back to the book and find more in it that's got to be good. It'll be like finding another sweet in the bag."

Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone (Bloomsbury £4.99) and Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (Bloomsbury £10.99) by Joanne Rowling.