Seven Reasons Why People Love Harry Potter

There has been much discussion of late on "Why Harry Potter?" -- why did these books break through, when so many other books haven't? What makes them special? Why does everyone care? I wrote out my theories for child_lit today and cross-post the message here.

1. Relateability. In Book 1, J. K. Rowling is a genius at getting you to sympathize with Harry -- first through showing you the Dursleys, who are so awful that you automatically like anyone they dislike (and you enjoy disliking them); then through his difficult circumstances; then when things start to happen to him -- a story is gathering around him, with owls and letters from no one and giants; he is clearly someone worth following. (I've written more about this here.) Beyond that, in all the early books, Harry is such a decent Everyhero that he is hard not to like; and all the people around him generally fit into the pattern of being either people the reader likes as well (the Weasleys, Dumbledore, Luna) or else people we enjoy disliking (the Dursleys, Hermione before the troll, Malfoy, Snape).

Harry's everyday experiences are also enormously relateable: Even though he's fighting off a Dark Lord who wants to kill him, what he's really thinking about a lot of the time is his friends, and homework, and mean teachers, and girls, and the mean rich kid, and sports practice -- the everyday life of many kids, which readers recognize and connect with. His life is not all excitement; it is not all sad; it is not all funny, and that variance in tone reflects real life as well.

And then the overarching arc: Ms. Rowling traces the entire seven-year course of Harry's teenage maturation with a wise and excellent eye for real adolescent emotional development, and for narrative development too; from the simple "Yay School!" atmosphere of Book 1, to the family history of Book 3, to dealing with death in Book 4, to Harry's discovery of seemingly every single adult's feet of clay in Book 5, to his taking control of his destiny in Book 7 . . . Even though the details will be different for we Muggle non-orphans, I think we readers recognize the truth of this process in our own lives -- the unfolding of information as we grow up, and our growing with it.

2. Accessibility. The wizarding world is just like ours, with a magical twist: The staircases might move, or the clock might tell you "You're Late," or the billboards advertise magical broomsticks and cleaners in language very much like that of our Muggle advertisements for boring broomsticks and cleaners. Because it's so recognizable, it is not a hard fantasy world to enter -- much easier to fall into than, say, Tolkien's, as the settings are so comfortably domestic and there isn't another language or unfamiliar creatures to decipher; plus we have the humor and pleasure of recognizing the wizard twists on our Muggle lives ("I think Mum has a second cousin who's an accountant, but we don't talk about him much").

On a different note, there has been much turning-up of noses here about the surface of her prose and whether she is a good writer. To my mind she is very much in the style of C.S. Lewis's writing for children: brilliant -- absolutely brilliant -- at showing-not-telling -- at creating an image in the reader's mind, giving just enough details to make you intrigued and leaving just enough else to the imagination. She does not overexplain, she does not tell you what to feel (beyond the adverbs and dialogue tags, I admit -- but note there were MANY fewer of those in DH); we readers see, experience, and feel everything right along with Harry, which is partly why we come to care about him so much. And *that* is the most important kind of good writing, especially for children; it doesn't matter how beautiful the prose is if you aren't there with the character in the moment.

Finally, she is really and truly funny, with humor both highbrow (the accountant above) and low (the firecrackers that "resolutely spell out POO"), and nothing warms a reader to a book like enjoying a joke in it.

3. Complexity. Part of the reality of the series is the acknowledgement that things are very rarely simple, especially people. James Potter as a teenager was an arrogant toerag; Voldemort had an unhappy childhood; Severus Snape loved Lily Evans; Sirius Black died partly because of his own impetuosity; Narcissa Malfoy spares Harry; Dumbledore wanted to rule Muggles and death. Though the good vs. evil lines are clearly drawn here, nearly every character has mitigating factors or shades of gray. (This may just be one of MY personal reasons to love Harry Potter, but it's an accomplishment worth noting.)

4. Mystery. Has anyone since Dickens plotted like J. K. Rowling? (And even Dickens only did it in one book -- I am thinking of Bleak House here, but bow to anyone's superior knowledge.) Seven books, the keys to the climax of the seventh laid in the first, a mystery in each book feeding into the mystery of the whole; red herrings and clues in plain sight (in retrospect) and characters mentioned in passing in one book blooming into central importance later; her incredible authorial control of her backstory, and incredible restraint, in never giving away a word more than she wants the reader to know at any one moment.

5. Authority. By which I mean in this context, the reader's sense that an author is in control of the story, and we can let go and relax into it -- the sense that she knows Harry's great-grandfather's middle name, the wizarding history back to the arrival of wizards in Britain and Harry's history forward through all seven books; that she has a destiny in mind for Harry and we can trust her to reveal that destiny to us, step by step. This trust in an authority is such a comforting thing to have, especially in these uncertain days of global warming and stupid presidents and economic fluctuations, and we readers take that comfort wherever we can get it.

6. Community. Harry Potter was published in the U.S. in 1998, right at the beginning of the dot-com boom, when everyone was first making web pages or joining chat rooms or logging onto AOL. And as people discovered the books, and especially their increasing complexity as the series went on, they wanted to theorize about the mysteries and write more stories about the characters and tease out the literary and linguistic connections and, in general, play in JKR's world. All we readers got to know other people all around the world through this process; and then we were logging on not just to discuss Harry but to hang out with our friends, so we spent even MORE time discussing Harry. July 21 in New York felt like New Year's Eve or Halloween -- a gigantic party, the entire city (or my little corner of it) united to count down to and celebrate an event -- a book!

7. Pleasure. Glory, so much pleasure, from all the things I've listed above: discovering the world, hanging out with her characters, feeling and thinking through their adventures, talking about them with friends. I hope my (theoretical) kids have the chance to experience something like this someday, and I hope I get to go through it all again too.