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"A Readable Romp" - What they said about Harry Potter back in the Day

Cover of the first Harry Potter bookFor true-believers of Harry Potter, it might be hard to comprehend that there were those who could not make it past page 52 of the first book because, well, it was soooo boring. Perhaps, and I say perhaps, those doubters have been proven wrong. The Muggles on the Library staff  thought it might be fun for Harry Potter Week to take a look back and see what the professional reviews said about Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone back in the day when it first came out.

New York  Times Magazine LogoSo many of the beloved heroes and heroines of children's literature -- from Cinderella and Snow White to Oliver Twist and the Little Princess to Matilda, Maniac Magee and the great Gilly Hopkins -- begin their lives being raised by monstrously wicked, clueless adults, too stupid to see what we the readers know practically from page 1: This is a terrific person we'd love to have for a best friend.

And so it is with Harry Potter, the star of ''Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone,'' by J. K. Rowling, a wonderful first novel from England that won major literary awards and has been at the top of the adult best-seller lists there, and is having the same kind of success here too. Poor Harry Potter is orphaned as a baby and is sent to live with his odious aunt and uncle, Petunia and Vernon Dursley, and their fat son, Dudley. While Fat Dudley Dursley has two bedrooms (one just for his surplus toys, like the television set he put his foot through when his favorite show was canceled), Harry is forced to sleep in a crawl space under the stairs, has never had a birthday party in his 11 years and must wear his cousin's way baggy hand-me-down clothes.

But Harry is destined for greatness, as we know from the lightning-shaped scar on his forehead, and one day he mysteriously receives a notice in the mail announcing that he has been chosen to attend Hogwarts, the nation's elite school for training wizards and witches, the Harvard of sorcery. Before he is done, Harry Potter will meet a dragon, make friends with a melancholy centaur and do battle with a three-headed dog; he will learn how to fly a broom and how to use a cloak that makes him invisible. Though all this hocus-pocus is delightful, the magic in the book is not the real magic of the book. Much like Roald Dahl, J. K. Rowling has a gift for keeping the emotions, fears and triumphs of her characters on a human scale, even while the supernatural is popping out all over.

We feel Harry's fear when for the first time he is traveling to a faraway place, an 11-year-old boy arriving alone at the King's Cross train station with a trunk bigger than he is, and no idea how to find Platform 9. This is a world where some people know from birth that they are wizards, and are raised by their sorcerer parents to attend fair old Hogwarts, while others, like Harry -- raised in human or what Rowling calls ''Muggle'' families -- don't find out that they have special powers until they receive their acceptance letters. As Harry worries that first day about whether he can compete with the privileged children of Hogwarts alums, I found myself thinking back 30 years to my first days at Harvard, wondering how, coming from a blue-collar shipyard town and a public high school, I could ever compete with preppies from Exeter and Andover.

''I bet I'm the worst in the class,'' says Harry.

''You won't be,'' says a friend. ''There's loads of people who come from Muggle families and they learn quick enough.''

The book is full of wonderful, sly humor. Exam period at Hogwarts means not just essay tests, but practical exams too. ''Professor Flitwick called them one by one into his class to see if they could make a pineapple tap-dance across a desk. Professor McGonagall watched them turn a mouse into a snuffbox -- points were given for how pretty the snuffbox was, but taken away if it had whiskers.''

Throughout most of the book, the characters are impressively three-dimensional (occasionally four-dimensional!) and move along seamlessly through the narrative. However, a few times in the last four chapters, the storytelling begins to sputter, and there are twists I found irritating and contrived. To serve the plot, characters begin behaving out of character. Most noticeably, Hagrid, the gentle giant of a groundskeeper who has selflessly protected Harry over and over, suddenly turns so selfish he is willing to let Harry be punished for something that is Hagrid's fault. That's not the Hagrid I'd come to know.

These are minor criticisms. On the whole, ''Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone'' is as funny, moving and impressive as the story behind its writing. J. K. Rowling, a teacher by training, was a 30-year-old single mother living on welfare in a cold one-bedroom flat in Edinburgh when she began writing it in longhand during her baby daughter's nap times. But like Harry Potter, she had wizardry inside, and has soared beyond her modest Muggle surroundings to achieve something quite special.

Michael Winerip is a senior staff writer for The New York Times Magazine.

Booklist logoGr. 4^-7. Orphaned in infancy, Harry Potter is raised by reluctant parents, Aunt Petunia and Uncle Vernon, an odious couple who would be right at home in a Roald Dahl novel. Things go from awful to hideous for Harry until, with the approach of his eleventh birthday, mysterious letters begin arriving addressed to him! His aunt and uncle manage to intercept these until a giant named Hagrid delivers one in person, and to his astonishment, Harry learns that he is a wizard and has been accepted (without even applying) as a student at Hogworts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. There's even more startling news: it turns out that his parents were killed by an evil wizard so powerful that everyone is afraid to so much as utter his name, Voldemort. Somehow, though, Harry survived Voldemort's attempt to kill him, too, though it has left him with a lightning-shaped scar on his forehead and enormous celebrity in the world of magic, because Voldemort vanished following his failure. But is he gone for good? What is hidden on the third floor of Hogworts Castle? And who is the Man with Two Faces? Rowling's first novel, which has won numerous prizes in England, is a brilliantly imagined and beautifully written fantasy that incorporates elements of traditional British school stories without once violating the magical underpinnings of the plot. In fact, Rowling's wonderful ability to put a fantastic spin on sports, student rivalry, and eccentric faculty contributes to the humor, charm, and, well, delight of her utterly captivating story. --Michael Cart (Booklist, September 15, 1998).


Horn Book Magazine logoOrphaned Harry Potter has been living a dog's life with his horrible relatives. He sleeps in the broom cupboard under the stairs and is treated as a slavey by his aunt and uncle. On his eleventh birthday, mysterious missives begin arriving for him, culminating eventually in the arrival of a giant named Hagrid, who has come to escort him to the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. Harry learns that his parents died saving him from an evil sorcerer and that he himself is destined to be a wizard of great power. Harry's astonished introduction to the life of wizardry starts with his purchase, under Hagrid's guidance, of all the tools of an aspiring sorcerer: wand, robes, cauldron, broomstick, owl. Hogwarts is the typical British public school, with much emphasis placed on games and the honor of the House. Harry's house is Gryffindor, the time-honored rival of Slytherin: he becomes a star at Quidditch, an extremely complicated game played with four different balls while the whole team swoops about on broomsticks. He studies Herbology, the History of Magic, Charms, Potions, the Dark Arts, and other arcane subjects, all the while getting closer to his destiny and the secret of the sorcerer's stone. He makes friends (and enemies), goes through dangerous and exciting adventures, and justifies the hopeful predictions about him. The light-hearted caper travels through the territory owned by the late Roald Dahl, especially in the treatment of the bad guys-they are uniformly as unshadedly awful as possible-but the tone is a great deal more affectionate. A charming and readable romp with a most sympathetic hero and filled with delightful magic details. a.a.f. (c) Copyright 2010. The Horn Book, Inc.,  (Hornbook, January 1, 1999).

Logo for Washington PostVirtually all juvenile books are, at heart, stories of education, testing, and growing up. Little surprise then that the heroes of classic fairy tales and much contemporary YA fiction should resemble each other: “I am not really what I seem, not just another kid. I am special.” Isn’t this how we all feel when young? The insignificant woodcutter’s son actually is a prince; one day the Ugly Duckling awakens a swan. And 11-year-old Harry Potter, the bespectacled, orphaned boy abused by his Uncle Vernon and Aunt Petunia Dursley -- not to mention their fat bullying offspring Dudley -- turns out to be very special indeed, though for a long time he doesn’t know it.

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone — the British Children’s Book of the Year — strikes me as completely unoriginal and absolutely top-notch. Charm counts for a lot in kids’ books, one genre where it’s less important to make everything new than to put in just the right things. In her first novel J.K. Rowling takes a ripping English school story, then adds an account of the education of the young-protagonist-with-special gifts-and-a-mysterious past, a thrilling against-all-odds sports triumph, strange beings who move unseen among us, and an all-powerful object that must not fall into the wrong hands -- or perhaps claws. Her characters are just as conventional: a wise, slightly daft wizard; a gentle Disneyish giant, who speaks haltingly (and names a terrifying three-headed dog Fluffy); a raspy-voiced villain of oily evil (paging Jeremy Irons), and the obligatory snide and snooty classroom rival. We have been here before -- in Roald Dahl, Ursula Le Guin, “Star Wars,” Dune. But in the right hands we’re always happy to make the trip again.

Like many fantasy writers for children, Rowling zestily mixes humor, suspense and action. When our Harry -- who sleeps in a pantry cupboard under the steps at the Dursleys -- finds an envelope addressed to him, he is deeply excited, even a little afraid, never having received a letter before. But an upset Uncle Vernon quickly tears up and burns the tantalizing missive. The next morning, however, two more letters arrive; a day later a dozen; then a score and eventually hundreds; all identical. Uncle Vernon tries to outrun this epistolary blitz by taking everyone to a motel, to a distant forest, to a desolate island. A waste of effort. On the morning of Harry’s 11th birthday, in a run-down shack, during a violent storm, some distance from the mainland, there is a knock at the door.

Outside stands Hagrid, the aforementioned giant, who easily intimidates the cowardly Dursleys. Harry finally gets to read his letter:

“We are pleased to inform you that you have been accepted at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. Please find enclosed a list of all necessary books and equipment. Term begins on September 1. We await your owl by no later than July 31.”

When Harry looks puzzled, Hagrid eventually realizes that the awful Dursleys have never told their nephew the truth about his parents. In fact, Harry’s father and mother died fighting a Sauron-like dark sorcerer named Valdemort. Somehow their 1-year-old baby proved strangely unkillable, though Harry still bears a small lightning-shaped scar on his forehead. And, for some reason, Valdemort unexpectedly disappeared after his “defeat” by this mere infant. It doesn’t take an expert in narrative morphology to suspect that the cloaked terminator will be back.

Hogwarts turns out to be a school much like Eton, divided into rival houses. But it is also magical: The portraits talk to one another. Ghosts teach the history of spells. Instead of a reflection a mirror may reveal your most heartfelt desires. The head of all this, Albus Dumbledore, is more than a tad eccentric: “Before we begin our banquet, I would like to say a few words. And here they are: Nitwit! Blubber! Oddment! Tweak!”

During his first week of classes Harry discovers an unsuspected talent for the dangerous game of Quidditch -- a kind of basketball, with rugby and soccer features, played in mid-air on broomsticks. “There were seven hundred ways of committing a Quidditch foul and . . . all of them had happened during a World Cup match in 1473.”

In short, everything would be highly agreeable to Harry, especially after the Dursleys, were it not for the arrogant Malfoy and the reptilian Professor Snape, who teaches Potions; both star student and master take an instant dislike to our hero. And then truly disturbing things begin to happen: A 12-foot mountain troll invades Hogwarts; somebody tries to penetrate the off-limits corridor on the third floor; a ravenous creature stalks the unicorns of the forest -- and then drinks their blood. Not least, there are rumors about a Sorcerer’s Stone that can grant eternal life and unimaginable riches.

At the novel’s climax, Harry and two of his friends must brave a forbidden zone deep underground, risk their souls to outsmart the tricky magical defenses created by their own wizard teachers, and ultimately confront the unsuspected evil in their midst. All ends satisfyingly, though a sequel is clearly in the works (and has been published in England).

Obviously, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone should make any modern 11-year-old a very happy reader. The novel moves quickly, packs in everything from a boa constrictor that winks to a melancholy Zen-spouting centaur to an owl postal system, and ends with a scary surprise. Yet it is, essentially, a light-hearted thriller, interrupted by occasional seriousness (the implications of Harry’s miserable childhood, a moral about the power of love). Dust jacket blurbs compare Rowling to Roald Dahl, and this seems right: Her genial tone and certain bits in the novel recall Matilda, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, The Witches. Happily, Rowling avoids the meanness and cruelty that mar so much of Dahl’s work. But she certainly possesses the same level of storytelling wizardry. Perhaps she writes with a wand.

Michael Dirda reviews books for the Washington Post. He won a Pulitzer Prize in 1993.

Publisher's Weekly logoReaders are in for a delightful romp with this award-winning debut from a British author who dances in the footsteps of P.L. Travers and Roald Dahl. As the story opens, mysterious goings-on ruffle the self-satisfied suburban world of the Dursleys, culminating in a trio of strangers depositing the Dursleys' infant nephew Harry in a basket on their doorstep. After 11 years of disregard and neglect at the hands of his aunt, uncle and their swinish son Dudley, Harry suddenly receives a visit from a giant named Hagrid, who informs Harry that his mother and father were a witch and a wizard, and that he is to attend Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry himself. Most surprising of all, Harry is a legend in the witch world for having survived an attack by the evil sorcerer Voldemort, who killed his parents and left Harry with a lightning-shaped scar on his forehead. And so the fun begins, with Harry going off to boarding school like a typical English kid‘only his supplies include a message-carrying owl and a magic wand. There is enchantment, suspense and danger galore (as well as enough creepy creatures to satisfy the most bogeymen-loving readers, and even a magical game of soccerlike Quidditch to entertain sports fans) as Harry and his friends Ron and Hermione plumb the secrets of the forbidden third floor at Hogwarts to battle evil and unravel the mystery behind Harry's scar. Rowling leaves the door wide open for a sequel; bedazzled readers will surely clamor for one. Ages 8-12. (Sept.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved. Publisher's Weekly.


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