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After “Harry Potter,” J. K. Rowling’s First Novel for Adults : The New Yorker


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“Dear Mr. Little,” Rowling wrote, in a 1995 letter. “I enclose a synopsis and sample chapters for a book intended for children aged 9–12. I would be very grateful if you could tell me if you would be interested in seeing the full manuscript. Yours sincerely, Joanne Rowling.”

Christopher Little, a fairly obscure London literary agent, took her on. A year later, he made a modest deal with Bloomsbury, a British publisher that was only a decade old. “Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone” appeared in 1997, with an initial print run of five hundred. It won Children’s Book of the Year at the British Book Awards, and a gold award in the Nestlé Smarties Book Prize, which is voted for by children. The book also sold to Scholastic, in New York, for more than a hundred thousand dollars. Rowling bought an apartment. She published the second novel, “Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets,” in 1998.

Maria Tatar, a Harvard scholar of children’s literature, recently told me, “It took me years to like Harry Potter.” She now includes the final Potter novel in an undergraduate course entitled “Fairy Tales and Fantasy Literature.” When she first read the books, she recalled, she “could not remember anything.” Then she listened to the audiobooks. “All of a sudden, I got it—I could remember it, and I could visualize it. So much of it is dialogue. It’s not exploring minds. It’s conversations and actions that drive these books.” You’re in the skin of a wizard—“You’re moving along with Harry”—even if you have little access to his mind.

She added, “It’s a strange combination of both superficial and deep. That’s what people forget about children’s literature. It is very surface-oriented, but the great writers, and I include Rowling in them, manage to get the depth in, too”—life and death, good and evil. “It’s not a psychological depth but a mythological depth.”

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Absolutely fantastic and insightful piece on Joanne Rowling.

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