How to Read Young Adult Literature Like a Young Adult Writer/Harry Potter

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Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone

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Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone (released as Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone outside the US) is the first book in a seven-book series. Published in the UK in June 1997, in the US in September 1998, the book had been making the rounds of the publishers for a year before it was finally accepted by Bloomsbury. The seven books have done what was considered impossible: in the age of electronic entertainment, video games and the internet, they inspired almost an entire generation of young readers to buy and read that most archaic of forms, words printed on paper. The seven books have been turned into eight films, among other works, and have inspired an extremely large and active fan base.

Each of the first five books of the series largely stands on its own, though there is a single story line that unites the seven of them into one planned, cohesive story. The last two books, each with its own story line, are more closely linked. The series follows the adventures of Harry Potter, aged 11 at the start of the adventure, as he discovers his own Wizard heritage, finds his place in the hidden Wizard society of England, and learns to manage his power to defeat Voldemort, the most feared wizard of all time, who has returned from apparent death to take over the Wizarding government of England.

The first book, of course, is the hook for the series. If the book does not engage your attention, you will not read onwards, so the opening chapter of the first book must entice you to read further, and the opening book must intrigue you enough that you are willing to wait for subsequent volumes. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone clearly manages this, being intriguing enough to snare even readers who are well past the first flush of youth, while still being written on a level that is accessible to readers of the same age as our hero.

The first chapter introduces us to the Dursley family, making a great point of how aggressively normal they are. Late that night, a character appears near their house, uses a device to extinguish all the street lights, then speaks to a cat who turns into an woman. The woman is evidently named Professor Minerva McGonagall, while the extravagantly bearded gentleman who put out the street lights, and who the others seem to defer to, bears the name of Albus Dumbledore. They are shortly joined by a giant of a man, one Hagrid, who appears from the sky on a flying motorcycle. The three of them leave a foundling child on the Dursleys' doorstep, and depart into the night, Dumbledore re-illuminating the streetlights as he goes.

How does this chapter manage to entice us to read the rest of the story? First, we are introduced to the idea of an entire second world, marked by strange clothes, notably robes. With the appearance of Dumbledore, also robed, and his quite obvious magical abilities, we gather that the world we are about to be introduced to is one of wizards and witches. We are not told of this, it is never explicitly outlined; Dumbledore and McGonagall take their magical abilities for granted, they are not pushed into the reader's face, they simply occur and the reader notes them in passing. Events of the previous eleven years, and of the previous night, are alluded to but not laid out in detail; we learn that a great villain has been defeated by this infant, and suspect that we are embarking on the story of his growing up. We also see McGonagall's resistance to placing Harry with these "muggles", whatever those might be, and have to wonder why that would be happening.

What this chapter does, therefore, is awaken our curiosity. The character of Dumbledore is sketched in; he seems the wise elder, but there are odd irregularities in his behavior that we cannot yet analyze — we do not expect his liking for "lemon sherbert" candies, for instance, and his delight at recognizing the cat is also somewhat surprising. McGonagall is less intriguing in herself, but we suspect that there may be an interesting interplay between her and Dumbledore, and her ability to change into a cat also evokes wonder. Harry quite obviously has already played a significant role in this undiscovered world, and we are curious to see how he will get along with the Dursleys, who already are seen to have serious issues with this world. A much larger story is hinted at, and we are driven to find out more about it.

In the same manner, the book as a whole, while complete in itself, whets our appetite for more. We learn that the villain, Voldemort, though widely believed to be dead, seems to still exist and retain some semblance of life; though he is defeated in this book, we believe it is not a complete defeat, and we expect that we will see more of him. We learn that Dumbledore is a complex character with significant hidden depth, and want to learn more about him as well. We see Harry's maturation through the course of this book, as he learns his place in Wizard society, and are driven to find out how he grows up and into his powers and confidence in himself. Additionally, we are throughout given glimpses of a vast conspiracy, a hidden world of magic that runs parallel to our own "muggle" world, a world that we would like to believe in and that we want to learn more about.

We should emphasize two major factors in the success of the story as a whole, spanning the seven books. First, of course, is the overall story arc, in which someone who believes himself to be nothing becomes a hero, saving a world. This is a very difficult plot arc to make work. While the rags-to-riches story is one of humanity's oldest and favorite yarns, it is far too easy to over-simplify. The hero cannot simply be given the keys to the kingdom, he has to earn them; he has to grow into his powers, and his responsibility, in a way that is true to his nature. We see this in the Harry Potter story, as he is faced by, and by repeatedly extending himself conquers, a succession of ever-stronger enemies.

And secondly, the characters have to be realistic, not necessarily likeable, but showing that they are not simple cardboard props, present to speak their lines, and little else. The Harry Potter series is a prime example of this, as nearly every character who we see at any length is shown to react in ways that are based on some inner character, rather than simply as puppets of the author. Examples are Lucius Malfoy, who could have been a simple villain, but shows that he cares for his family after his prestige is lost; Draco Malfoy, Harry's nemesis, who again shows more depth in later books than the simple bully that he appears to be early on; and the Auror Tonks, who has romantic issues unrelated to the main story that show more of her character.

Note that there is another study, going into significantly more depth on the series' literary merits, elsewhere on Wikibooks. While not designed for the budding author of Young Adult books, the Muggles' Guide to Harry Potter may be of use to the author looking to understand the Potter phenomenon.