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In 1996, after years of struggle, an unknown British author named Joanne Kathleen Rowling finally found a publisher for Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, her 80,000-word children’s novel about the adventures of a young wizard. The publication of Harry Potter was an unlikely and unexpected triumph for the thirty-one-year-old Rowling. At the time of Harry Potter’s creation, the Bristol-born Rowling had been recently divorced and was living alone in Edinburgh, Scotland, caring for her one-year-old daughter, Jessica, and living off of welfare payments from the government. Since she could afford neither a typewriter nor typing paper, Rowling wrote nearly all of her debut novel longhand on scraps of paper and bits of napkins. Another problem was where to write—Rowling’s cheap one-bedroom flat was too cold for Jessica to sleep in comfortably, so Rowling was forced to spend the day drinking water and inexpensive espresso in Edinburgh’s many cafes, dreaming up adventures for Harry while her daughter napped in her carriage. Countless publishers rejected Rowling’s manuscript, judging it too long, too literary, and too slow. Finally, British publisher Bloomsbury Press accepted the book in 1996, nearly two years after the manuscript was completed. Rowling was paid an advance of £2,000—less than $4,000.
Within a year of its initial publication in 1997, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone became an international phenomenon, earning unprecedented commercial and critical success for its author and young hero. The book sold over 150,000 copies within its first few months on bookstore shelves, and by the end of year it had sold nearly half a million copies in England, a heretofore unheard of number for a children’s book. When the U.S. rights to the book were auctioned off in late 1997, Arthur A. Levine of Scholastic Press offered a bid of $100,000, the most the company had ever paid for an acquisition. Soon, an illustration of Harry Potter appeared on the cover of Time, making Rowling the first children’s writer chosen as a subject for a Time cover story. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone was eventually named Children’s Book of the Year at the 1997 British Book Awards. 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.
Soon, Rowling signed a contract agreeing to pen six additional installations of the Harry Potter story. Meanwhile, at least a dozen film studios had begun scrambling for the rights to turn Harry Potter into a full-length motion picture. Ultimately, Warner Brothers acquired the film rights, and, in 2001, released a successful adaptation of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. The film was promptly followed by movie adaptations of all seven Harry Potter novels (including a two-film adaptation of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hollows, the final book in the series). The Harry Potter books have been translated into sixty-one languages and distributed in over two hundred countries. All seven books appeared on bestseller lists in the United States, Britain, and around the globe, and to date, more than 250 million Harry Potter books have been sold. In 2004, Forbes magazine announced that Rowling was worth over 1 billion dollars, making her (at the time) one of only five self-made female billionaires, the only billionaire author, and one of the richest people in the world.
The explosive global response to the Harry Potter series made the books the subject of serious literary criticism and academic interpretation, another first for a contemporary children’s book. Scholars have tried to pinpoint exactly why the Harry Potter books have been so enormously successful. The series’ ability to appeal to readers of all ages and nationalities has significantly aided sales, and in terms of genre, the Harry Potter books are complex and dynamic, incorporating elements of fairy tales, detective novels, boarding school narratives, adventure stories, quest tales, and fantasy novels. Consequently, the books actively engage followers of each of those genres, not just regular readers of children’s literature. Many critics and literary theorists also suspect that it might be Harry’s historic battle against evil that contributes to the books’ wide audience and loyal support. Others argue that it is the series’ empowerment of children, who shoulder extraordinary responsibility and triumph despite setbacks, even pausing to instruct adults along the way.
Still, not all readers greeted Harry Potter with open arms. A number of religious groups protested the books, declaring Harry Potter “evil” and accusing Rowling of promoting thoughts and ideas inappropriate for young children. Rowling’s defenders insisted that she was following in the footsteps of countless canonized English authors, including C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien, who imbued their writing with Christian themes.
Ace your assignments with our guide to Harry Potter and The Order of the Phoenix!