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Friday, July 20, 2007

Me 'N Harry

In a few hours, I will be going to the offices of Allen and Unwin in East Melbourne to collect my reviewer's copy of the very last Harry Potter book. It's been quite a journey, for me as well as for millions of other people. Thing is, I discovered it by word of mouth in 1999, when a fellow member of the committee of the 1999 World Science Fiction Convention, recommended the first book in the series. I'm a regular reader of children's books, but I hadn't heard of that one. I picked up a copy of Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone at that year's Children's Book Week Fair, and quite enjoyed it, though I thought it rather reminded me of Diana Wynne Jones' Lives of Christopher Chant and its sequels(and not for nothing - when the Potter books became a world phenomenon, guess which series was reissued in bright new covers?). Then there was Susan Cooper's Dark is Rising series, which not only had a boy wake up on his 11th birthday to find he was a wizard - well, okay, the last of the Old Ones - but had a rather Dumbledore-like version of Merlin as his mentor. Luckily Merlin - or Merriman Lyon, as he was known in the 20th century - didn't die.

I also thought HPPS read like a cross between Roald Dahl and Enid Blyton's boarding school stories. The boarding school story has always been popular, because it's a fantasy in its own right - who hasn't imagined for themselves the midnight feasts (read "Gryffindor common room parties"), the sports matches, the noble heroes and heroines solving mysteries and fighting crooks?

While I liked the first two stories very much, I only became a fan with Prisoner of Azkaban, which was starting to become dark. There had been a hint in Chamber of Secrets that the wizarding world was not as glamorous as it seemed, when an innocent man, Hagrid, was sent to prison, to be tormented by Dementors, merely on suspicion, with no evidence whatsoever. But in Prisoner of Azkaban, I, at least, decided that I wouldn't want to live in the wizarding world! Mind you, this was the last book in the series in which nobody died.

While it's true that the novels published since really needed severe pruning, there's no getting around the power of the storytelling. I became well and truly hooked and the nice thing was that I could discuss the novels with colleagues and students alike, and go on-line to read lengthy posts on Harry Potter forums, with everyone having their own theories about what would happen, what had happened in the past, whether Snape was or was not a villain, what really happened to Professor Umbridge when she was carried off by those centaurs. I was even sucked into some of the fan fiction, I blush to admit - a guilty pleasure, but then I used to write fan fiction myself, based on media universes and there was just as much discussion of, and arguing about, those universes, just as many people coming to verbal blows over their respective theories. At least in the Harry Potter forum I frequent, there are moderators to request everyone play nice and remind them that they're just books, for heaven's sake, not Holy Writ!

There has been much arguing that harry Potter has 'got kids reading." Wrong. As a teacher-librarian, I know that kids have never stopped reading - and I work, not at some exclusive select-entry school or a middle-class private school, but a secondary school in the working-class suburbs, where many of the students are the children of parents on benefits - those of them who aren't refugees living with older siblings or aunts. What they read may not be to the taste of some of those who say so, but they read - books, magazines, newspapers, graphic novels, web-based manga...

No, what I love about the series is that it has drawn adults' attention to how wonderful children's literature can be. Before the series began, you'd constantly be meeting folk who sneered at "kiddielit" and asked children's writers like me when they were going to write a "real book". Now, they have had to set up a separate list on the New York Times because this kiddie series was hogging the regular one week after week, and you see everyone from workmen in uniforms to businessmen and women in suits reading the books on the train and the tram and not all of them with adult covers, either.

Whatever happens, I'll miss Harry after tomorrow, but always be grateful to his creator for making my life as a lover of children's books so much easier!