Harry Potter and the Wizardry of Engaging Readers

Posted: Jul 12, 2011 12:01 AM
As "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows -- Part 2," is set to hit theaters Friday, consider J.K. Rowling's villains.

Nasty boy Draco Malfoy's first name is downright draconian; any last name that starts with Mal does not bode well. His aunt Bellatrix (female warrior) is also Lestrange. The sibilant-rich and spiteful Severus Snape possesses a name that needs no explanation. Dolores Umbridge? The senior undersecretary of the Ministry of Magic takes constant umbrage at any and all who challenge her authority.

Even if young readers did not realize it, Rowling infused her characters with context and linguistic markers. Rowling was a French and classics major at Exeter University. Hence the Latin derivatives, old-school Briticisms and French panache.

Of course, it is the story of an ordinary 11-year-old boy who discovers he is a wizard that reels in readers. Harry is not just any wizard; he is "the boy who lived" after a fatal battle between his parents and a dark lord.

At the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, Harry befriends Ron and Hermione. For the first time, the orphan feels a sense of family. Draco Malfoy does his best to make the three feel inferior, but Harry, Ron and Hermione discover and develop their own talents. They must learn how to harness magic without being corrupted by it. And they must destroy the dark Lord Voldemort (French for "flight from death") before he annihilates them.

Adults can appreciate that, without lecturing, Rowling makes a strong case for kindness -- without which knowledge is hollow. Harry's father, James, used magic for frat-boy pranks, but mother Lily's love gave her the strength to protect her son from Voldemort.

While waiting for a delayed train in King's Cross Station in 1990, Rowling conceived the idea for the books. A divorced single mother on welfare, she began to write. She was rejected. She didn't give up. She found an agent -- and more rejections. In 1997, Bloomsbury bought "Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone" with an advance of 1,500 British Pounds.

In 2004, Forbes dubbed Rowling the first billion-dollar author. (I like to think that's the power of Latin. I know it is the power of creativity.)

In a sense, J.K. Rowling is Harry Potter. But for Rowling, words are the magic. Pages became the canvas on which she transformed the everyday world. While the movies convey the author's bounty of imagination, the books convey the long slog and pangs of doubt that plague the high-stakes quest.

Now that the last Harry Potter movie follows the last Harry Potter book, tomorrow's children will not know the excitement that greeted the release of a new Harry Potter book or movie. But it is a tiny miracle that so many children in a generation weaned on TV, the Internet and video games one day decided to pick up a book and engage in the solitary pursuit of reading.

Although products and amusement rides followed, the Potter plot wasn't constructed around merchandising. Rowling invented a complex world, with layered individuals and rough consequences. She wrote with a robust vocabulary -- Latin included -- and children ate it up. There has to be a lesson in here somewhere.

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