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July 5, 2005:

Harry Potter—Why Millions of Kids Identify
with the Boy-Hero

by Jon M. Sweeney

The fifth book in the Harry Potter series was released two years ago. It was June 21, 2003, that Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix shattered all records for first-day sales of a book, at almost 5 million copies in the United States alone. (Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire—the fourth in the series—held the previous record.)

When the Associated Press reported the enormous sales two years ago, they quoted the CEO of Barnes & Noble, the U.S.’s largest book retail chain: “We expected to sell 1 million copies in the first week and we sold that many within the first 48 hours.”

Two years later, almost 300 million Harry Potter books have been sold around the world. They have been translated into sixty languages. The first three books have been made into films, earning almost 2 billion (with a “b”) dollars at box offices around the world.

Well, now the sixth is upon us. Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince releases worldwide on July 16. Before that day, the books are embargoed in the backrooms of bookstores everywhere; the boxes may not even be opened by employees or else those bookstores will be “punished” by the book’s publisher the next time around.

Amazon.com just announced that they have exceeded the million copy mark for pre-orders, the most ever for the largest Internet retailer.

Most larger brick-and-mortar bookstores will open at midnight on July 16 to hundreds or thousands of kids and adults, who will not only buy books but party Harry-style, with witch and wizard costumes, food and conversation. (You’ll probably be greeted as a “Muggle,” the word for non-wizard folk in Harry’s world.)

Just for the fun of it, we called West Quoddy Gifts in Lubec, Maine—the easternmost giftshop in the easternmost town in the United States—to see if they are carrying Harry Potter. Lubec is in the same time zone as the rest of East Coast America, but there might be some symbolic value to buying your book there. However, West Quoddy only carries books about lighthouses, according to the store manager.

Instead, you could try Books-n-Brew, the easternmost bookstore in the U.S.—in West Lubec, Maine—but the manager there told explorefaith.org they will not be opening at midnight on July 16. “We’ll open at our usual 8 a.m. No one around here would come out at midnight. But, we do have thirty copies of the book on order—because that’s all we could get from the publisher—and about fifty people who are dying to have one of them. So, we’ve told people that the first thirty people to come through our door that morning wearing something funky and wizard-y will get to buy one.”

Harry Potter is the most beloved fictional character in the world today. Perhaps ever.

J. K. (Joanne Kathleen) Rowling, author of the series, was born near Bristol, in southwest England. Her birthday is known by all true Harry Potter fans to be July 31, the same day that Harry was born.

The “magick” of Harry
So, what accounts for the enormous appeal of young Harry to kids?

First, Harry Potter is someone who learns from elders and others around him, but who also has to discover within himself how to conquer fear and do good. Kids are drawn to characters that find strength within, and Harry finds plenty; in fact, he becomes more powerful and knowledgeable than most of the adults around him.

Second, the stories make it abundantly clear that good overcomes evil. Kids want to know that good can always win.

Third, Harry lacks self-confidence; he worries about what others will think about him and his actions; he is picked on by boys who are more aggressive than he; he lacks the security and love of parents. (They died when he was a baby.) Kids can relate to Harry.

Adults, too

Millions of adults are attracted to Harry for many of the same reasons. Some estimates are that as many as half of the readers of the books are, in fact, adults.

The first academic symposium on Harry Potter occurred in July 2003 at the Swan and Dolphin hotel at Walt Disney World. It was called “Nimbus 2003,” a play on words for the name of Harry’s famous broomstick. Hundreds of fans and scholars gathered to discuss and debate the boy-hero. Eighty presenters spoke on topics that ranged from legal, class and gender issues in the books, to examination of the books from a variety of religious perspectives. The keynoter was Judith Krug of the American Library Association.

Organizers have announced the next meeting—named “The Witching Hour”—for this coming October 6-10 in Salem, Massachusetts (where else!). This conference will begin on a float in the annual Salem Halloween parade, followed by a banquet and the first presentation: “Tom and Harry: From Similar Beginnings,” a panel discussion comparing the lives of Tom Riddle and Harry Potter, both recurring characters in the books and movies. The conference website (www.witchinghour.org) says: “When the time arrives, attendees will don their cloaks, grasp their wands, and tote their magical texts to the Historic District of Salem for five days of magic and merry-making, text and context, craft and criticism.”

There seems to be something in Harry for all of us.

Is Harry Bewitching our Youth?-- Parents and Churches respond to the Potter Phenomenon

Jon M. Sweeney is a writer and editor living in Vermont. His most recent book is The Lure of Saints: A Protestant Experience of Catholic Tradition.
More by Jon Sweeney.

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