Children found Harry Potter on their own

Hundreds of children pour into the sold-out auditorium, while dozens of others loiter hopefully nearby, trying to catch a glimpse inside.

No, WWF is not in town, nor has the Pokmon World Tour stopped by. These kids are rushing for front-row seats to ... a book talk.

They're just wild about Harry - Harry Potter, that is, the young wizard-in-training who's turning America's children into bookworms, at least temporarily.

"I think the books are so cool, so imaginative and creative - you can't put them down," says Frances Denny, a ninth- grader who admits that at first she thought all the fuss over a kid's book was foolish. "Then I read the first chapter."

The last time a writer had three novels at once on The New York Times bestseller list was ... well, never. Sunday, J.K. Rowling's fantasy novels were perched snugly in the top three slots. The fact that it's a children's series makes the feat doubly stunning. No children's book has made itself at home on the adult bestseller list for more than a week or so since "Charlotte's Web" in 1952.

"There's never been anything like 'Harry Potter,' " says Karin Snelson, children's book editor for the online behemoth

The success of the books, which have sold 8 million copies and been translated into more than 20 languages, is all the more improbable in that they're the work of a first-time British author who was on welfare while writing the first book.

Her whimsical work has inspired the kind of devotion usually reserved for trading cards and "Star Wars." Last month, WordsWorth in Cambridge, Mass., opened at midnight for the first time ever so that fans could snatch up the third novel, "Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban," the instant it went on sale.

"[Harry Potter] gives hope to those of us who are romantic about books," says Bob Broadwater, managing director of Veronis Seuler & Associates in New York. It's proof that if you write "literature that strikes a chord, people will buy it and buy a lot of it." Ah, but bestsellerdom - not to mention the imagination of children - can be as elusive as the golden snitch. "That's a mystery best left to the cosmos," says Roger Sutton of Horn Book magazine, the oldest reviewers of children's literature in the United States. "Why does one book become a bestseller or not?"

The real appeal may be that kids discovered Harry for themselves, says Cathryn Mercier, assistant director for the Center for the Study of Children's Literature at Simmons College. No teacher assigned it for homework; their parents didn't read it when they were little. Harry belongs to them.

But adults are gobbling up the books as well. Part of the reason, Ms. Snelson says, is the famed baby-boom nostalgia for childhood, and part of it is just that the books are thumping good reads.

"They affirm adult ideas of what a child is," says Ms. Mercier. "An innocent child goes off and experiences the world, and is still innocent." Adults are attracted to the notion that "there can be an ideal child in a world that treats children so badly - that there's something innate about a child that remains pure."

But some critics bristle at glowing comparisons to Roald Dahl and C.S. Lewis. "Although they're exceptionally popular, they're not of the highest quality," says Mr. Sutton, who calls Harry Potter a "likable but critically insignificant series."

"The themes, while worthy, aren't big enough," he says, to compare to true heavyhitters like Lewis's "Chronicles of Narnia" and Philip Pullman's "The Golden Compass." Sutton also calls the books' incessant use of magical gimmicks "lazy."

The big question educators are pondering is: Now that they've read Harry, will children, especially young boys, head back to the bookshelf?

"Once you realize a book can transport you into another world, I don't think there's any turning back," says Snelson.

"We've seen sales spread out even more," says Lisa Beurkin, noting that sales for award-winning books like Louis Sachar's "Holes" are up at her WordsWorth store. "People take recommendations much more seriously. That comes directly from the Harry Potter phenomenon. I hope it brings forth interest. There are so many great kids books that don't get this kind of attention, or any attention at all."

Sutton, while hopeful, is not entirely optimistic. "A fad feeds on itself - there may not be a crossover effect."

In fact, a number of children at Tuesday's book signing say they aren't rushing for the library. A.J. Hunte, a fifth-grader from the Devotion School in Brookline, says he doesn't read much besides Rowling's books. Now that he's finished the third one, he says, "I'm sitting around wondering, 'What am I gonna read?' "

He and the others have one main question for Rowling: "When is the next one coming out?"

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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