For the last ten years in my college class in children’s literature—where the students have to write their own stories for children—I’ve had my students read J.K. Rowling’s first Harry Potter book, Harry Potter and the Sorceror’s Stone. It grounds them in many ways. I originally wrote this three years ago, but it’s worth bringing back.
I love Harry Potter and the Sorceror’s Stone not only for how it surprised me when I first read it, but also for how it’s been inspiring my students. Is Harry Potter and the Sorceror’s Stone the richest, most meaningful book to use? Not necessarily. My 13-year-old daughter is reading To Kill a Mockingbird, and that’s closer to my heart. The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold, The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje, and Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen are a few of the adult books I adore. Yet there’s much to admire and learn from J.K. Rowling if you’re a writer. Here are a few things:
1) It’s important to get the overall sense and feel of the series to learn why people would stand in a long line for a day to buy one of the books. Wouldn’t you want people to stand in a line for your book?
2) More specifically, you can learn how concise Rowling’s descriptions of people can be with a well-placed simile or two. She describes Hagrid’s hands as “big as trashcan lids and his feet in their boots were like baby dolphins.” Fabulous.
3) Humor is throughout the first book. You’d never know it by the first movie, but the book is hilarious at times—and very dark toward the end. Humor can be mixed with drama. How humor can grab kids is important to know, too. I put a check mark in the book by things I thought were funny, and the pace of her humor is interesting. You sense that Rowling had fun writing the book.
4) As the series goes on, Harry is a year older in each book, and the reading level and darkness grows. Understanding who your primary readers are is important.
5) It’s nearly impossible to stop reading at the end of a chapter because you have to know what happens next. That’s an important element for writers to learn.
6) Rowling is a master of structure in the first book because when we first meet Harry, he’s passive, and the main antagonist, Voldemort, doesn’t come into action until much later in the book. That’s a prescription for a dull book, yet each chapter has tension if not outright conflict. Thus you, the reader, may not notice Harry isn’t the most interesting character. He grows into that role.
7) Notice, too, there are plenty of other antagonists before and after Voldemort appears. There are Harry’s aunt and uncle, who treat him poorly. Their son Dudley and his pals bully him. When Harry gets to Hogwarts, there’s Draco Malfoy and his cronies Crabbe and Goyle to rain on his parade, and many of the professors, especially Snape and those who teach the Defense Against the Dark Arts classes, stand in his way. There’s also internal conflict with Harry. He’s not always sure he can do things.
8) Notice that Harry isn’t the lone warrior like Superman or as in most male-oriented stories. Harry has help from his friends Hermione and Ron Weasley. In fact, sometimes the stories objective narrator slides off with them for short stretches. The fact that Harry has friends and the fact that Hermione is so strong as a young woman opens the door to girls liking the story, too.
9) None of the characters are perfect, which rounds them out. Many people hate Hermione at first because she seems to be such a know-it-all, yet she grows on you. Harry, as mentioned earlier, is at first passive, and throughout the series, he has doubts. He’s also remains true to his instincts and into doing the right thing, even if the rules are against him. In psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg’s stages of moral development, Harry is an evolved being.
10) I rarely read fantasy, yet I never thought of the books as fantasy when I first read them. They seemed so real that I accepted the magic stuff. How does Rowling do it? The details are right. A flying broomstick isn’t merely a broomstick, but a Cleansweep Seven or a Nimbus Two Thousand. Hogwarts feels exactly like sixth grade felt to me way back when, with bullies on the playground and teachers who were either helpful or scary. Populate your book with truths. People will then buy the imaginary.
These observations are things that spoke to me. Even though my own new novel, Love At Absolute Zero is an adult book about a scientist looking for love, I’ve used the above. My protagonist, Gunnar Gunderson, is far from perfect. He has friends to help him in his quest. There are strong female characters including his mother and his friend Ursula. There are plenty of antagonists, too. The details of science are real, but so are the human interactions. The pacing is strong. In short, I had fun writing the book, and it’s a funny story.
If you’re a writer, there’s much you can admire from Rowling. May people stand in line for your books.
Before I wrote novels and plays, I was a journalist and reviewer (plays and books). I blogged on Red Room for five years before moving here.