Monday, August 06, 2007

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.


  1. I agree in every single aspect you mentioned! And I usually use the same reasons when someone asks me what I see in those books....
    Now I have your post to show them... probably I'll print it out and show them! LOL

  2. As part of the complexity issue, I think the themes of death, desire, loss, melancholy, longing, the unresolved open-endedness of grief (and love), the ordinariness of being compassionate (the ordinariness of being extraordinary), and the circuitry of power (particularly significant in childhood) also really make this book a classic. Actually I think all (most?) classic kids books are really about death on some level.

    Snape. Ah, the tragedy. I would have fixed him (ooh, did I just say that out loud?)

  3. That was a wonderfully thought out post! I'm going to send it to my friends, if that's alright. It might help them to understand the Harry phenomenon.

  4. It was simply amazing to read your reflections about the books. Is always great to enjoy the pleasure of reading about why we love them so much.

    And just so that you know, we didn't have a "Time Square" countdown here in Brazil, but we had some crazy countdowns all around the bookstores. :)

    Is amazing to find a book that is capable of creating that kind of engagement and commitment in people from all ages (from myself to my dad).

    Warm regards,

  5. It was so beautifully written. Specially point 2-accessibility. I never understood how to put down or sort out that particular point in my head...Now you've done it.. Thank you so much!

  6. Well said. Thank you for this. I'm particularly in awe of her skill in plotting. Reading Deathly Hallows, I was struck by how many details go all the way back to book 1.

  7. Since you're listing things...I tag you for "8 Random Things".

    Rules on my blog

  8. I still really really disliked it. Growing up reading the books for 10 years I found myself cut short. I felt it was really rushed and like the story was being told by someone who writes fanfiction for Harry Potter in a livejournal community. It was just far too "butterflies and rainbows and 546464 kids."

    My two cents.

  9. All excellent reasons! I miss Harry already...

  10. Beautifully said! I don't know that I've ever seen someone's reasons for liking the series articulated quite so well. I really agree with you on the "complexity" of the characters. Even our hero Harry is not perfect.

  11. I've done a lot of thinking on this, too. It gets old to see so many new books slapped with "the next Harry Potter!" label. Because while a big marketing plan might have made Harry known, it wasn't what made him loved. Nor was it just that it was about cool magic stuff (although it is very cool!). It's all those inner things you mention, and they come from writing about real things, with heart, not by following a formula, or by having mildly entertaining, quirky characters, or a magic wand.

    Personally, I don't think there will ever be "another Harry Potter," even though there will be books that are just as beloved. And there doesn't have to be. Books that work on relateability, accessibility, complexity, and authority, though? There just can't be enough of them!

  12. What I loved most about the series was the zest it put into kids' books. All of a sudden it was cool to read them. Thus a gift for parents, kids, teachers and authors. Thank you JKR!

  13. This was such a great list and wonderful reflection on such an accomplishment as this series is.

    As a future librarian, there was nothing more exciting than all the hype that was produced by a book!

  14. May I add a few?

    1. Humor. While Rowling at times had clunkers in characterization or plot, she almost always nailed it on humor.

    2. Connections to genres. After the third book, my family realized that each one fit into a genre (or sometimes with traits of two genres). In order: fairy tale, mystery/horror, adventure, Victorian novel, tragedy, Bildungsroman, quest/epic. Doing that with the same set of characters? Wow.

  15. I agree with all that you said. You don't just want to carry on reading the books just to se if Harry Potter defeats Voldermort at the end. Obviously you want to know this but you also want to see if Harry wins over Cho, or if Ron ever forgives Hermoine for going to the ball with Victur Krum. You relate to Harry Potter because J.K Rowling has the uncanny ability of just making you love him. He isnt perfect so mch that he is irritating, he has his faults, like the fact he has a very quick temper and as soon as he sets his mind on something he won't change his mind about it untill he is proved wrong. But that's what makes you love him, and anyway, even if Harry makes a huge mistake, Joanne MADE you believe he was right.
    Thank you for sending out the post. It completely summed up the books for me.

  16. I read this and the speech you gave and I think these are some of the most insightful Potter commentaries I've ever read. I think a day will come when the literary world sees Potter for what it really is--a work of immense complexity and the product of a superior imagination.

  17. So true, so true. Probably why my house hold has 6 copies (scholastic, bloomsbury, audio and dvd) of the works.

  18. The Complexity of Harry Potter series is my favorite part.

  19. i live harry potter! i am hoding ALL the real books right now, amazing how muhc you get it!

  20. Harry potter will never be over. The complexity of the series and each detail makes it so beautiful and impossible to copy. There will never be another Harry potter and JKR did such an amazing job in creating these books.

  21. This is the dumbest thing I have read in my entire life (and I read all seven books). How does James Potter being an alpha male make him complex? How is a weirdo like Snape still nursing his (magical!) middle-school crush complex? How is N. Malfoy not killing the kid who saved her own child indicative of a complex character? There is no single behavior, thought, or occurrence in the entire series that is not laughably predictable and transparent - very simply because every character is ridiculously one dimensional. Well plotted? Anyone with the slightest awareness of Christian moral simplification could have anticipated how the series would end by book four. The irony in asserting that there is an actual *moral* therein is that the narrative itself expresses zero empathy for its characters. Why are the Dursley's assholes? Why are the Malfoys assholes? (because they're rich, obviously?) Why is Voldemort, bearing in mind his deeply troubled childhood, merely rendered a stock-Satan? Instead of exploring why these "villains" are the way they are (that is, providing a backstory beyond being fat, rich, and abused, respectively) they're essentially sociopaths and solely because they thwart magic-baby-Jesus who, instead of having to spend a week on the cross, is rich as fuck, a born hero, and can literally bang any magic-or-mudblood-making twat he wants. And this is so because in Rowling's Kindergarden-Christian universe (as if Christianity isn't reductive enough of human nature), one need not *sacrifice* to restore the social and moral contracts of mankind, one must
    And instead of exploring the deep, intricate nuances of love, it's merely a cute catchphrase asserted profusely by an 80 year old virgin whose only exhibition of "love" is for his sexy star student -- platonically, of course, as this is the only type of love that exists in a world in which teenagers don't think about sex (much less masturbate...although they may 'snog' from time to time), the hottest girls in the school are all smart, and babies -- along with screaming letters, brooms, and other magical magics -- are in fact delivered by storks (I'm only kidding about one of those).

    Lastly, because you are an editor and thus disseminate your retardation to the rest of this retarded generation, please brutally sodomize yourself with every nimbus 2000 and then, to recompense for your conflation of Charles Dickens to JK Rowling, with every book you have ever released to the public.

    1. Harry Potter is absolute nonsense character. If guys like him exist in our society they may destroy the whole world. People today need better heroes than him.

  22. I completely agree with the guy/girl above. Thats complete nonsense. Most of what you wrote could apply to any book.
    Its not a complex story, nor is it well plotted out. A lot of the plot hinges on the fact that Snape loved Lilly, a woman who betrayed his feelings by not returning them, and actually marrying a guy that was terribly cruel to him. Now very few people could possibly forgive that. Most people in Snapes place would hate Lilly. We are never shown nor told that Snape is so kind hearted that he could forgive that. In fact Snape is a rather arrogant guy. The kind of guy that would never forgive her for what she did. And yet, forgive her he does only to further the plot. Thats cheap. Very cheap plot point there.
    What makes the characters relateable? the fact that they have some sort of backstory? If only it were that easy. I certainly couldn't relate to those strange adolecents. Harry doesn't make any positive use of his fame. I find that terribly unbelievable. Especially as he is rather immature in all other ways. And can someone tell me exactly why he is always trying to do things alone? Thats very odd for a kid his age too. Especially because his excuse that he doesn't want to "bring them into danger" is absurdly false. pretty clearly if Harry were to fail they would all be in much worse danger. Hermoine is supposed to be smart, but she decides to become involved with Ron, a jealous, petty, short tempered boy who always gets angry before he finds out the actual truth. Thats a recipe for domestic abuse if there ever was one. And Ron...don't even get me started. He is pretty much even hated by quite a few people who tolerate these books.
    But the most egregious problem in the book is the disrespect it shoves at humans. Every human in the book is an idiot, a coward and absurdly worried of what others think of them. Including the Prime Minister of England. Do you really think a man running one of the more powerful countries on Earth would simply let some wizard walk into his bedroom, and listen patiently like a schoolboy when told what to do? I don't. World leaders are used to reacting to weird bad news. I very much doubt he would simply let the existance of magic folk go. he would quietly investigate, and then we would all be at war before too long. Us Muggles might not have wands, but we do have some awfully nifty guns.

  23. Great job, sucking the life out of a classic like that. Well, since I don't have much time to correct thy ignorance, I'm just gonna take the usual route-you've listed out all the faults of HP; now that you've done that, care to write something better than the HP series, avoiding all the so said faults, and logical fallacies. Critique has a purpose: to drive people towards something better. I'm sorry to say this, but by listing out the obvious stuff that envious KG kids, can come up've outright proved just're full of nothing but purposeless criticism; even though you are right, in a way.