Why is it that the Harry Potter books have such universal appeal? Why do parents love them as much as their children do?
Everyone loves a mystery, don’t they? It is J.K Rowling’s unrivalled ability to create intrigue that kept us interested through seven books, published over a period of eleven years. The series of books has sold over 400 million copies worldwide and yet the interest has barely diminished: the interest and hype surrounding the films has made them into the most successful franchise ever - even more successful than James Bond.
From page one of The Philosopher’s Stone we are drawn in. We are desperate to understand and be part of Harry’s world. The author has invented a back story so convincing and consistent that we are desperate to find out more. All we know at the beginning is that a baby has been orphaned, but by the end of the first chapter we are longing to understand how, and why.
We have to read seven books, approximately 3,000 pages, before we understand completely. But cleverly concealed within those pages are a number of clues, many of which only become obvious when you have finished the series and are going back to read them again with your children.
J.K.Rowling’s characterisation is unrivalled in modern children’s writing. She never patronises her audience; her characters are always complex, always beautifully portrayed, with deep emotion but never over-sentimentally. In every case, there is a complex story, gradually revealed, which helps us to understand that character.
Much of Harry’s character and actions stems from a longing for his parents so deep, and so beautifully drawn, that only someone who had experienced such longing could have achieved it.
Neville, too, is portrayed as a geeky, accident prone child but only later do we find out the horror that he has seen and experienced which have made him so. We are humbled by these revelations and shamed by our shallowness in laughing at him.
There is warmth and humour there too – characters we love to hate, and here, comparisons with Roald Dahl are justified – the overblown baddies such as the Dursleys, Malfoy, Crabbe and Goyle are comic book, and yet by the end we pity them.
We all remember teachers we hated when we were at school, and Snape embodies them; we feel for Harry as he tries to get through potions lessons with the minimum of embarrassment.
The themes of the story are universal. There are deep questions of good and evil, nature and nurture, plus the theme of racism, still so topical in today’s world, is a hugely important part of the story. These big ideas are never skirted around, and yet because they are presented in an unreal setting they manage to be thought-provoking rather than frightening.
Added to all this is that most of the action takes place in a boarding school, a device used to great effect in such novels as Billy Bunter and Enid Blyton’s St Clare’s and Malory Towers novels. The writer has more freedom, as the setting places children firmly at the heart of the action, with adults being more peripheral.
All children will, however, recognise Harry’s exam worries, friendship difficulties and, of course, the first flush of young romance.
Those of us that have read them all will still look forward to each of the remaining films being released though, as will our children, still desperate for a bit more of the Harry Potter magic.
text © Alexandra Freeman 2009
About the Author: Alex Freeman is a freelance writer specialising in parenting and family topics and can be contacted via eParenting.