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Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone

by J.K. Rowling

hardcover edition

Because people keep asking: Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets will be released in the U.S. on June 2, 1999. The release date was stepped up from September because of demand. -- cms

Harry Potter doesn't know it yet, but in magical circles, he's the most famous boy in the world. The premise of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, published in the UK under the equally unwieldy title of Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone, is that the world is secretly full of witches and wizards. They have their own newspapers, their own currency, and their own schools; and they all go to a great deal of effort to conceal the existence of magic from the mundane folk, who are, for no adequately explained reason, known as Muggles. It is a thoroughly delightful book, ideal for reading aloud to children, and clever enough for adults.

When Harry Potter was a baby, the evil wizard Voldemort killed his parents and tried to kill Harry too. Harry inexplicably failed to die, however, and Voldemort vanished, apparently out of pure frustration. While Britain's witches celebrated like Munchkins who've just seen a chunk of Kansas real estate land where it'll do the most good, Harry was sent to live with his only surviving family, the Dursleys.

The Dursleys, regrettably, are the sort of pathologically insipid middle-class caricatures that usually die gruesomely in Roald Dahl stories. Harry leads a miserable existence with his pompous uncle, shrill aunt, and oafish cousin Dudley. He sleeps in a spider-filled closet under the stairs; he wears Dudley's cast-off clothing; and he inevitably gets blamed whenever anything odd happens. Harry gets blamed a lot, because odd things do seem to happen around him, particularly when Dudley torments him. The first several chapters, in which the Dursleys try to cope with Harry, are hilarious and unpredictable. (Orphans always do seem to be much more satisfyingly mistreated in British books than in American ones. Perhaps British authors feel obligated to uphold the tradition of Dickens and Burnett, or maybe they're just crueller by nature.)

Everything changes on Harry's eleventh birthday, when a hairy giant arrives to deliver his acceptance to the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, the most exclusive boarding school in Britain for magical folk. The story turns rather formulaic once Harry arrives at Hogwarts. All the boarding school cliches make an appearance: the swaggering bully, the spitefully unfair teacher, the Big Game. Of course, at most boarding schools, the spiteful teacher uses a less arcane textbook than One Thousand Magical Herbs and Fungi, and the Big Game isn't played swooping on broomsticks high above the field.

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone is just a tremendously likable book, the sort that makes you smile at odd moments when bits of it pop into your head. Even when it's predictable, it's sprinkled with whimsical details: owl mail, booger-flavored jelly beans, school ghosts who really take an interest. J.K. Rowling does leave a few very deliberate loose ends for the sequels to deal with. The next book, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, is already out in Britain, and will be published in the US in June 1999.

Albus Dumbledore had gotten to his feet. He was beaming at the students, his arms opened wide, as if nothing could have pleased him more than to see them all there.

"Welcome!" he said. "Welcome to a new year at Hogwarts! Before we begin our banquet, I would like to say a few words. And here they are: Nitwit! Blubber! Oddment! Tweak!

"Thank you!"

He sat back down. Everybody clapped and cheered. Harry didn't know whether to laugh or not.

"Is he -- a bit mad?" he asked Percy uncertainly.

"Mad?" said Percy airily. "He's a genius! Best wizard in the world! But he is a bit mad, yes. Potatoes, Harry?"

-- Christina Schulman.
Reviewed in
March 1999

hardcover edition
Publisher: Scholastic Press
Date: October 1998
ISBN: 0-590-35340-3
Binding: hardcover
Pages: 309
Price: US $16.95

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Sep 2001 / CMS