Oh my Harry, how you have grown! Monday marks the 20th anniversary of the boy wizard's fictional debut in Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone - the book that started it all. (The book was later named Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone when it made its U.S. debut in the fall of 1998.) With more than 450 million books in print worldwide, not to mention making billions at the box office and having a theme park of his own, Harry Potter is as ubiquitous as, well, Harry Potter.
For the anniversary, USA TODAY looked back to when we in the U.S. first met Mr. Potter, and searched its archives and dusted off its very first Potter review - Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone. Turns out, they liked it, and Harry, a lot. And though its debut only cracked the USA TODAY Best-Selling Books list at No. 135 back then, it's future dominance at No. 1 (yep, every Potter book has since claimed the top spot) was not far behind.
There's nothing fun about the aging process. The belly sags. The memory goes bad.
But no amount of gray hair need end the pleasure of reading children's books.
Stories aimed for young readers are often guileless, seeking fun for fun's sake. Yet they can be just as witty, suspenseful and thought-provoking as adult reads, minus the angst.
Case in point: Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, by J.K. Rowling.
The book, released stateside last month, was a huge hit when issued last year in the United Kingdom, topping the adult best seller list as well as the kids'. The sequel, already released in England, leaped to the top of the adult hardcover best seller lists.
Part of the attention has focused on author J.K. Rowling, a struggling single mom living on the dole, who scribbled the manuscript at an Edinburgh cafe. Rowling's rags-to-riches story is much like the central tale of Harry Potter: An orphaned baby, Potter is taken in by an odious aunt and uncle and spends his childhood trying to escape the fat fists of his spoiled cousin Dudley. His only solace comes from escaping to his room, a cramped cupboard under the stairs.
But then a wondrous thing happens, as they are wont to do in books about sorcerers. On Harry's 11th birthday, he receives a letter announcing his acceptance to the Hogwarts School for Witchcraft and Wizardry, the best school for young witches and wizards in all the land. It seems Harry's real parents were prominent spellcasters killed by their rival, the evil wizard Voldemort.
So off Harry goes, departing through an invisible platform at King's Cross station to arrive at Hogwarts, where he commences studies in Potions, Spells and Defense Against the Dark Arts, all guaranteed to graduate first-rate wizards.
Here, Harry Potter takes on the tones of a much-loved fiction genre, the British boys' school reminiscence. Classics such as Kingsley Amis' Lucky Jim and James Hilton's Goodbye, Mr. Chips come to mind. The only difference: the professors in Harry Potter are magicians, not Oxford dons.
At Hogwarts, Harry throws himself into the school experience, making friends, rooting for his "house," pulling pranks, avoiding studying at all cost.
Given that he's a student wizard, he also hatches a dragon, evades the resident poltergeist and learns to ride a broom. He even becomes a star player at Quidditch, a popular game, sort of like soccer played high up in the air on broomsticks.
But he also encounters evil professor Snape, who Harry and his friends fear has the most wicked of intentions -- to steal the sorcerer's stone, which promises eternal life.
Harry Potter also has echoes of children's classics Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and C.S. Lewis' Chronicles of Narnia. With the help of a noble if nitwitted giant, a few inept but big-hearted student magicians, even a concerned if somewhat distant centaur, Harry takes on powers bigger and stronger than him, growing older and wiser in the process. You don't have to be a wizard or a kid to appreciate the spell cast by Harry Potter.
Cathy Hainer, a staff reporter for USA TODAY, is also a lifelong fan of kids' books.
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