- A Guide to the Harry Potter Novels
In her exploration of the writings of J. K. Rowling, Julia Eccleshare has added a useful volume to Continuum's "Contemporary Classics of Children's Literature." This series is dedicated to providing critical discussion of both literary and popular children's books and their authors thereby creating a comprehensive guide for readers and scholars alike. With her addition to the series, Eccleshare has sought to create a thorough and comprehensive analysis that will initiate all readers into the many worlds that have been traveled by the phenomenon that is Harry Potter. Driving her writing is a desire to find a place for a series that has "completely won the hearts and heads of child and adult readers all over the world" (2).
Eccleshare begins with a chapter titled "The Publishing of a Phenomenon," in which she provides background into J. K. Rowling's history as a writer and the initial publication and reviews received by Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone. As Eccleshare points out, Rowling did not initially believe that she was writing solely for children. Despite this fact, however, the publisher marketed it as a children's book, and it soon began winning awards that recognized it as an outstanding work of children's literature. In the United States, its status as a work of children's literature was reinforced when Scholastic released and marketed the first U.S. edition under the title Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone. However, even before the Potter phenomenon became full blown, the appeal of J.K. Rowling's writing and her central character was not limited to children. Eccleshare argues that Rowling's book crosses the boundary that separates books for children from those typically read by adults. Eccleshare then goes on to discuss several other ways that Rowling's works transcend traditional boundaries.
Another factor that has contributed to the Potter phenomenon, according to Eccleshare, is Rowling's ability to cross national boundaries. Although Rowling's novel is steeped in British culture, it has captured the hearts and minds of readers from around the world. The popularity of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone in the United States is reflected in its appearance and staying power on the New York Times Bestseller List. This list also includes the three other currently published Harry Potter novels: Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, and the most recent, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire.
Eccleshare's exploration of the Potter phenomenon also examines how the series both fits and defies literary conventions. Rowling's influences stem from a vast array of genres, including the school story of Great Britain and the use of magic and fantasy worlds. Onto these traditional frameworks Rowling shapes the world of Harry Potter, which is "a clever fusion of nostalgia for the schoolstory tradition, laced with high fantasy themes of good and evil that are brought up to date through discussion of rights and race," and conveyed to a modern reading audience through "contemporary black comedy and social commentary on the late twentieth century" thereby [End Page 233] providing "both context and access" as it crosses the boundaries between convention and Social Realism (44). Eccleshare gives high praise to Rowling's ability to craft the magical worlds of non-muggles, while shaping a real world in which Harry must struggle against the Dursleys.
Having thus established the classical conventions upon which Rowling's series is based, Eccleshare asserts that Harry Potter is far from conventional fantasy. Eccleshare argues that Rowling often addresses and sometimes challenges the realities of the modern world. Like a work of social realism, Rowling's series explores openly the notions of class, race, tensions between nations, and social equality, including equality of the sexes. Eccleshare praises the frank and open discussions in Rowling's portrayal of "an inclusive society founded on equality" (83). However, it is in this equal world that Eccleshare finds Rowling the most problematic. She writes, "Gender differences—or similarities—are not so...