Resuscitates Reading

The publication of the children’s book Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone marked the beginning of an unprecedented cultural phenomenon. The Harry Potter series is credited with rekindling interest in reading among upper elementary and middle school children.

Summary of Event

On June 30, 1997, Bloomsbury in London published Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, by J. K. Rowling. The final manuscript, having taken the author six years to complete, was accepted for representation by the Christopher Little Literary Agency. After an additional year of searching and multiple rejections, Bloomsbury accepted it for publication. Because of the book’s immediate popularity, Arthur A. Levine Books/Scholastic secured the American publishing rights and in September of 1998 published the book under the title Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. Rowling then completed additional books in the series, and an industry of Harry Potter-related movies and products was born. Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (Rowling)
[kw]Harry Potter Resuscitates Reading (June 30, 1997)
[kw]Reading, Harry Potter Resuscitates (June 30, 1997)
Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (Rowling)
[g]North America;June 30, 1997: Harry Potter Resuscitates Reading[09720]
[g]Europe;June 30, 1997: Harry Potter Resuscitates Reading[09720]
[g]United States;June 30, 1997: Harry Potter Resuscitates Reading[09720]
[g]United Kingdom;June 30, 1997: Harry Potter Resuscitates Reading[09720]
[g]England;June 30, 1997: Harry Potter Resuscitates Reading[09720]
[c]Literature;June 30, 1997: Harry Potter Resuscitates Reading[09720]
[c]Publishing and journalism;June 30, 1997: Harry Potter Resuscitates Reading[09720]
Rowling, J. K.
Levine, Arthur A.

The idea for Harry Potter came to Rowling while riding the train from Manchester to London in 1990. For the next six years, Rowling spent considerable time developing the richly detailed magical world and complex stories of good versus evil that form the basis for all seven of the books of the Harry Potter series. While working on the first book, Rowling also developed outlines for the entire series. This was a tumultuous period in the author’s life, as she experienced the death of her beloved mother, moved to Portugal and taught English, married a Portuguese journalist, gave birth to her first child, was divorced from her husband, and moved to Scotland to be near her sister. Despite these events, Rowling completed the manuscript in 1996, much of it written on paper in local cafés, and began the hunt for a literary agent.

The first agent to whom she submitted her book rejected it, but the next, the Christopher Little Literary Agency, expressed interest and became Rowling’s representative. The agency spent the next year submitting the manuscript to a variety of publishers. Eight publishers rejected the manuscript, but the ninth, Bloomsbury, accepted it and offered Rowling a financial advance for its publication. The publisher suggested that while Rowling had written the novel without a particular age group in mind, they would target it toward nine- to eleven-year-old children. In addition, because boys in this age group were believed to perceive books written by women as books for girls only, the publisher suggested that Rowling adopt a more gender-neutral name. Rowling adopted the name of her grandmother, Kathleen, as her middle name, and coined her famous pen name.

Author J. K. Rowling reads from her Harry Potter series at a children’s literacy party hosted by Queen Elizabeth II to celebrate her eightieth birthday at Buckingham Palace in London in 2006.

(AP/Wide World Photos)

Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone was greeted with many positive literary reviews, and these and word of mouth from readers catapulted the book to best-seller status. In particular, the book appealed to young boys, who traditionally spent more time with video games. The book’s success was noted by publishers in the United States, and Arthur A. Levine Books/Scholastic secured the American publishing rights with an offer to Rowling of approximately $105,000. This extraordinary sum allowed Rowling to quit her teaching job and work full-time on writing the subsequent books in the series. For the American edition, Scholastic changed some of the language, as well as the title, to reflect American English. The philosopher’s stone, for example, is associated with alchemy and magic, but the publisher was concerned that the American audience would not be familiar with the term. For this reason, the title of the American version is Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, and British slang was rendered for an American audience.

The series captured both children’s and adults’ imaginations. The stories follow the protagonist, Harry Potter, and his friends Hermione Granger and Ron Weasley as they experience adventures, challenges, and dilemmas at their school of wizardry, Hogwarts. Their magical world is threatened throughout the series by the evil wizard Voldemort, a satanic figure who killed Harry’s parents but, astonishingly, failed to kill the infant Harry, leaving him only with a zigzag scar on his forehead that throbs painfully in the presence of Voldemort’s evil. Harry’s fame since infancy as the one who survived “You-Know-Who” precedes him, plagues him as he grows up during the course of the seven novels’ events, and ultimately shapes (but does not define) his destiny. The combined themes of good versus evil and Harry’s coming-of-age story made the novels compelling to young readers, accounting for much of their success.

The continuing saga of Harry Potter became wildly successful. The first three books of the series, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (1998), and Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (1999), occupied the top three slots on the New York Times best-seller list for more than one year. When the fourth book of the series, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, debuted in 2000, The New York Times instituted a new best-seller list specifically for children’s literature. The first six books together sold more than 300 million copies worldwide and were translated into forty-two languages. The books also spawned a film franchise, each film corresponding to a novel in the series.

The Harry Potter series has been credited with recharging interest in reading among late elementary and early middle school children. In July, 2006, Yankelovich, Inc., with Scholastic, released “The Kids and Family Reading Report,” which supports this claim. The survey included five hundred children ages five to seventeen and one parent or guardian per child. Fifty-one percent of the Harry Potter readers said that they did not read for fun before beginning to read the Harry Potter series, but that they do now; 89 percent of parents said that Harry Potter has helped their children enjoy reading more; and 76 percent said that reading Harry Potter has helped their child do better in school. Half of all the surveyed parents indicated that they too were Harry Potter readers, confirming the cross-generational appeal of the books.

The books were not universally applauded, however. Many predominantly fundamentalist Christian religious groups expressed concern that the novels promote paganism and witchcraft, and that children could be influenced to adopt such beliefs and practices if allowed to read the books. Since 1999, the Harry Potter books have been consistently at the top of the American Library Association’s list of the most protested books, and some communities have banned them.


The Harry Potter books, films, and merchandise earned a fortune for J. K. Rowling and publishers Bloomsbury and Scholastic and have been critically acclaimed with numerous literary awards and honors. Harry Potter became more than a series of books—it became a cultural phenomenon. The highly readable and engaging stories grew a huge and devoted following, with their universal themes of friendship, family, hard work, and the struggle of good against evil. The series as a whole, moreover, is among the best-selling series of all time. Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (Rowling)

Further Reading

  • Anatol, Giselle Liza, ed. Reading Harry Potter: Critical Essays. Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 2003. Essays analyze the novels from the perspectives of child development, literary, and historical theories, as well as moral and social values. Anthology covers the first four novels.
  • Heilman, Elizabeth E., ed. Critical Perspectives on Harry Potter. New York: Falmer Press, 2002. Scholars from a variety of academic disciplines provide literary, cultural, sociological, and psychological examinations of the Harry Potter books as a cultural phenomenon. Especially useful for teachers and those interested in cultural studies, this book is geared to an adult reader.
  • Sexton, Colleen. J. K. Rowling. Minneapolis, Minn.: Lerner, 2005. Highly readable biography of J. K. Rowling provides a glimpse into her life as a writer and mother; written for children ages nine to eleven.

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