J. K. Rowling began her career in the early 1990s, writing on restaurant napkins and drinking cups of espresso while her newborn baby daughter, Jessica, slept soundly at her side. Recently divorced and living on welfare, Rowling could not afford to properly heat her small apartment, nor could she buy a word processor, so she instead spent her days in cafes and wrote nearly all of her first novel by hand. The result of Rowling’s work, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, was passed over by dozens of publishers, who each believed it to be too long, too complex, and far too slow. Eventually, in 1996, British publisher Bloomsbury Press bought the book, and Rowling’s career exploded almost overnight. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone set record sales, made literary history, and changed the way children read forever. Quickly, Rowling began gathering prestigious awards. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone was eventually named Children’s Book of the Year at the 1997 British Book Awards, and in 1998 the book was pronounced Best Book of the Year by both Parenting magazine and the New York Public Library and deemed “One of the Best Books of 1998” by Publishers Weekly, School Library Journal, and Booklist.
Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince is the sixth and penultimate installment in the series and widely considered to be the darkest of the books thus far. A major character dies, and Harry finds love, events that bring a newfound maturity to the young wizard’s world. Released two years after its predecessor, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, fans of the series were extremely eager to hear what awaited their beloved protagonist, and many waited for hours at bookstores across the globe, dressed as their favorite characters. To date, the books have sold 270 million copies and been translated into sixty-two languages. With an estimated fortune of $1 billion, J. K. Rowling is now the richest woman in Britain and the most financially successful author of all time. In its first twenty-four hours of release, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince sold about 9 million copies in Britain and the United States combined (6.9 million in the United States, 2 million in Britain), beating out Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix by a considerable margin. (In its first twenty-four hours, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix sold only 5 million copies in the United States.) In its opening weekend, the U.S. sales of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince were higher than the combined totals of the number one and number two movies at the box office (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and The Wedding Crashers, respectively).
Still, Rowling has had to contend with considerable backlash, particularly from Christian groups who believe the series’ pagan imagery is dangerous to their children. Since 1999, the Harry Potter books have sat atop the American Library Association’s list of most protested books, with some American churches banning the books altogether. The moral ambiguity of the series—there is good magic and dark magic, but it is often unclear who is responsible for what, and characters introduced as good are often later revealed to be evil—is the cause of great controversy among parents and school and religious officials. Rowling has cited her inspiration for the series as “The idea that we could have a child who escapes from the confines of the adult world and goes somewhere where he has power, both literally and metaphorically.” Consequently, many of the books’ supporters argue that the idea of a child controlling his own destiny, making profound choices, and learning to control his environment is what frightens parents, and it is not necessarily the occult implications that have led to the books’ controversial reception. Regardless, the Harry Potter books have been licensed for a series of successful Warner Brothers films, the first three of which have already earned spots on the list of the twenty highest-grossing films of all time. In March 2001, Rowling received an OBE (Order of the British Empire) medal of achievement from the Queen of England. She married her second husband, Dr. Neil Murray, later that same year. Rowling’s immense success has guaranteed her a secure spot in the literary canon.