Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone emerged from the creative mind of J. K. (Joanna Kathleen) Rowling on a train ride from Manchester to London in 1990. Rowling was a single mother of an infant daughter and living on welfare in Edinburgh, Scotland, when she began the novel. Putting pen to paper in a café while her baby, Jessica, napped, Rowling soon skyrocketed to fame and fortune. While she received an advance of only £2,500 (approximately $3,500 American) for the novel from her British publisher, Bloomsbury, she has since become one of the richest women in the United Kingdom. Her first book was published under the original title Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (the book’s American publishers feared that mention of philosophers would scare away young readers and changed the title to Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone). The book garnered rave reviews in the United Kingdom, where it won the British Book Award’s Children’s Book of the Year prize, as well as the Smarties Book Prize. Critics have compared her to classic children’s writers such as Roald Dahl, C. S. Lewis, and J. R. R. Tolkien, who also fused the traditional adventure story with fantastic elements drawn from myth and legend.

Soon after the British release of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, Arthur Levine, an editorial director for Scholastic Books, bought the American rights to the novel for the impressive sum of $105,000. This money allowed Rowling to retire from a teaching job and devote herself entirely to writing. When it was released in America, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone almost immediately became a publishing sensation, holding the top spot on the New York Times Best-Seller List for several months. The book was unique in attracting both young and adult readers; indeed, the British publisher issued an edition with a less colorful cover for grown-ups to read on trains without having to hide the novel behind a newspaper. Spurred by the success of her first book, Rowling produced a number of sequels, which have won the Smarties Book Prize so often (in three consecutive years) that Rowling has requested that her books no longer be considered candidates for the prize. To date, the Harry Potter empire includes four books in the Potter series, a couple of related works written by Rowling for charity (Quidditch Through the Ages and Fantastical Beasts and Where to Find Them), and a major motion picture produced by Warner Brothers.

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone draws on a long tradition of English fantasy works that seem to be for children but are in fact deep allegories of the human condition. Rowling herself has stated that her book is really about imagination and that practicing wizardry is only a metaphor for developing one’s full potential. On one level, the story is a thriller with a criminal plot (the planned theft of the Sorcerer’s Stone) that is thwarted by a group of brave students, just as C. S. Lewis’s Narnia books—childhood favorites of Rowling’s—are about children who explore a strange land and perform heroic deeds. But on a deeper level, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, like the Narnia books, illustrates the challenges and adventures of growing up. Rowling’s book outlines every child’s ordeal of becoming an individual, winning respect from peers, learning about loyalty, discovering the difference between forgivable vices and unforgivable sins, and believing in something bigger than oneself. Harry’s transformation from a forgotten orphan living under the stairs into a publicly recognized individual (symbolized by the magical, adultlike letters addressed to him), and then finally into a renowned hero represents the successful entry into the public world wished for by every child. Harry’s escape from misery to a new place where he has friends, respect, and a useful role in the world is a projection of every child’s ideal life. Most important, Harry’s discovery that there is something uniquely valuable inside him represents the dream of innumerable people—children and adults alike—who enjoy indulging their imaginations.