(This is an article I wrote for Firsts Magazine for their December 2000 issue -- this version is from before any edits were made)
Harry Potter reminds me a lot of Star Wars. I know that may sound strange, but let me make my case with a few similarities. Starting at the very beginning the book Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone(H.P and the Philosopher’s Stone in the UK edition) arrived in libraries in Britain with very little fanfare and not too many copies. Star Wars was a summer fun film with just the normal amount of media hype. In short order, both book & movie started getting great word of mouth praise & suddenly became blockbuster sellers. Both book and film have sequels. Both have very good (smart, brave, plucky) heroes who begin life with real disadvantages. Both book and film have friends and partners in adventure. Both have very dark, brooding villains. And most importantly, both book & movie have their roots in stories/movies that have gone before them.
This article isn’t about Harry Potter. This article is about the books that made Harry Potter possible. Now that Harry Potter has become a craze like nothing we have seen since the original Star Wars, it might be time to take a look at the books which paved the way for Harry Potter—and incidentally have been brought back to life by that same craze.
I’d like to start with a book that nearly every child (who is a reader) has probably read at one point in his life. Norton Juster’s The Phantom Tollbooth is a story that instantly springs to mind simply because of the front cover illustration. On a background of blue stands a little boy and a seated dog who’s middle is made up of a clock. The dog’s name is Tock (though he ticks instead of tocks). The story is about a little boy who spends his day ho humming through everything…that is until the arrival of the Phantom Tollbooth. The tollbooth appears in his room one afternoon with no information on how it arrived or why it’s there. It just comes with a small instruction book & some tokens to put in the tollbooth. The story takes the little boy into a fantasy world filled with strange characters and even stranger ideas. Interestingly, when I reread this book for the article, I was surprised at how advanced (age wise) the ideas were. The writing was easy to read & quite enjoyable (that’s what I remember from the first time I read it as a kid) but the concepts that the author plays with are not childish at all. This book is, besides a modern classic in the young adult fantasy/SF genre, a highly collectable title. Even though it was originally published in 1961 (only thirty odd years ago), the price tag on it is a hefty three figures (Robin/Kathryn—I’m not sure how people figure their figures…last price I saw was 875.00)if you have one in very good condition with a dust jacket.
Now that I’ve looked at one book let me take a moment to list a few of the criteria I used to generate this list. All books that I’ll mention were originally targeted to the “Young Adult” reader or even a little younger. I stuck with more fantasy-oriented fiction, because that’s the type of book Harry Potter is and that’s the type of book that has regained popularity with younger (and older) readers. All of the books have some basic collectability, or are classics in the field. Finally—all of the books are great stories and like Harry Potter, can be enjoyed by youngsters and adults
equally well. In fact, most of these books would make great family reading—though I wouldn’t use them for bedtime reading as no one will ever get to bed on time.
O.K., back to the list. Lloyd Alexander’s Prydain Chronicles is a series of five books set in the land of Prydain and centers around Taran an assistant pig-keeper. The first book, The Book of Three introduces Taran, the pig Hen-Wen and several other characters that roam throughout the series. Taran is a simple assistant pig-keeper who has aspirations of being a hero, though he knows nothing about how to be a hero, he doesn’t know how to fight and he’s never been anywhere in his life. Luckily (or unluckily) heroism & adventure reach out and grab Taran when the oracular Hen-Wen goes missing & Taran decides to search for her. The rest of the books in the series: The Black Cauldron, The Castle of Llyr, The High King and Taran Wanderer carry the story through Taran’s growing up and as he and his followers help defeat evil in the form of Lord Arawn. One of the Volumes, The High King, won the 1969 Newberry Medal and at one other, The Black Cauldron, won a Newbery Honor award.
When I stared compiling the list of books to read for this, I tried not to skew the results by reviewing only the books I remember reading and loving as a child/young adult—luckily for me, most of the books I remembered are books that are being reprinted, listed on bestseller lists or recommended by teachers. Also luckily for me, there are some books and authors I’m meeting for the first time—and quite enjoyably too. One such book is Ella Enchanted (Harper Collins 1997) by Gail Carson Levine. This witty retelling of the Cinderella story received a Newbery honor for its 1997 release. While the book has started to show some collectability, the main reason I’m listing it is because it’s a really funny and thought provoking story. In this version, Ella has been given a gift by one of the fairy folk. From her birth she has been enchanted to always obey. Anyone. Anytime. If she is given an order of any kind, she must obey it. The fairy who enchanted her thought she was giving Ella a wonderful gift. In reality, it made her life nearly unbearable. For years Ella has tried to hide her gift/curse from others because even the simplest conversations cause her to do things she would rather not do. The curse was rather broad in its nature too—if someone told Ella to go jump in a lake, she would be forced to, even if she didn’t know how to swim and she would have to stay there until someone told her to get out again. There are small delaying techniques Ella can use to try to get out of obeying, but for the most part she’s truly stuck with doing what others want her to do. The story follows Ella as she tries desperately to break the curse/gift, and at the same time it follows the classic Cinderella story fairly closely. In the end, as expected with fairy tales, Ella is un-enchanted and marries the prince just as always--It’s the getting to the end, which makes the story memorable.
Another fairy tale reinterpreted is Beauty by Robin McKinley. In this case, Beauty is of the Beauty and the Beast fame. Robin McKinley is well known for her subtle interpretations of character, her almost poetry oriented prose & her easy grasp of a whole world that is similar and yet very different from our own. Beauty was Ms. McKinley’s first novel and is now considered a not so minor classic in the Fantasy field. First published in 1978 in a printing of less than 10,000 copies, this book is becoming more difficult to find, especially in fine or very good condition, as it has a delicate white dust jacket that absorbs finger marks very easily. The retelling of Beauty and the Beast puts a very different slant on both beauty and the beast. Neither is the straight-line character met in normal fairytales, and neither has simple motives for his actions. Just this past year, Ms. (now Mrs.—she married the British fantasy author Peter Dickinson) McKinley wrote a sequel to this novel called Rose Daughter.
The next book is one of those books that is probably on every young person’s bookshelf at some point in his or her life. It’s a true classic in the field of Fantasy and it has been in print (and as far as I know, never out of print) since it first appeared in 1937. The series which follows this book was made into animated movies in the 1970’s and is currently in production for a series of live-action films, due out sometime next year. The Hobbit (Allen & Unwin 1937), by J.R.R. Tolkien, is not only one of the all time favorite books for young and not so young, it is also a benchmark book in the field of fantasy literature. After The Hobbit was published, the craft of writing fantasy stories/novels changed forever. Tolkien’s works of fantasy were originally stories he wrote for his own children. They were constantly being tinkered with, added to, changed and played with. Tolkien worked out his own languages with sets of rules for their use (Tolkien was a reader, then professor of English languages at Leeds University—his specialty was Anglo-Saxon). He illustrated the stories with his own drawings. He made maps and diagrams, genealogies and family stories. Basically he created his own working world, filled it with characters that truly lived & breathed and then presented it as a finished package to the rest of the world. The world, in turn, absorbed every bit of Tolkien’s work & hungered for more. Currently, copies of the original British publication—even in later printings can command prices in the thousands of dollars range—a copy of the first edition, first printing with an original dust jacket could be worth a six figure price tag or even more.
While there could never be another J.R.R. Tolkien, another British author and good friend of Tolkien, produced a series of fantasy novels that have had an impact on the lives of many readers in one way or another. Clive Staples Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia is in some respects similar to the Lord of the Rings series by Tolkien. Both Tolkien & Lewis lived and worked in rarified atmosphere of the British University system. Both wrote their fantasy series (for C.S. Lewis, at least this particular series) for younger readers. While Tolkien’s work was mythic fantasy, C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles were more allegorical in nature. C.S. Lewis is known (at least in the U.S.) for the Chronicles, which begin withThe Lion The Witch and the Wardrobe, but the bulk of his writing is non-fiction dealing with religion. The Chronicles of Narnia are a set of seven stories that are loosely joined to each other and all deal with the fictional world/land of Narnia. The first book recounts a Christ-like tale that centers around the character of Aslan the lion. The subsequent stories either tell back-stories—fill in the gaps of earlier happenings in Narnia--or recount rousing adventures of young children who step through the wardrobe (the devise which brings them to Narnia). The full set of the Chronicles of Narnia include: The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, Prince Caspian, the Voyage of the Dawn Treader, The Silver Chair, The Horse and His Boy, The Magician’s Nephew & The Last Battle.
Diana Wynne Jones is a British author who is quite well known in the U.K. for her quirky, humorous fantasy stories for young adults. Until recently she was not all that well known in the U.S., though she does have a faithful and growing following. With more than 25 titles (I have heard closer to 75 titles but I haven’t confirmed this yet) published in the U.K. and the U.S. since the mid 1970’s, her books include a range of genres from fantasy, science fiction, and humor to mythology. I have to admit that I was not as familiar with Ms. Jones books as I could have been, but in doing the research for this article I was surprised to learn a number of things about this author. First I learned that her books are lots of fun to read & quite diverse in their subject matter & scope. Second, I learned that while her name is not as well known in the U.S. as Harry Potter, her books and her name are becoming more and more familiar with young adults (and through them, adults). Thirdly, I learned that a number of her books command very decent collectable prices (in the hundred dollar range & up), and that was for first U.S. Editions. Because she has so many books to choose from, I’ll only list a few of the more exotic titles. Dogsbody is a book that takes the Dog Star Sirius and makes him into a real life character. Sirius is accused of murdering a luminary, is tried by the Heavenly court and is convicted. His punishment is to spend time on Earth as a real dog. He will be stuck as a dog until he can fulfill a nearly impossible task imposed on him by the court. It’s a fun story and quite moving as it deals with someone wrongly accused and then, in dog form he and his friend Kathleen are mistreated by members of their family. Dogsbody is actually a very elusive title to find, in collectable condition or otherwise. Originally published in 1975 in the United Kingdom, its first American edition was published by Greenwillow press in 1977. Both U.S. & U.K. first editions are extremely difficult to locate. The book was reprinted once in 1988 by Greenwillow press (they called it a new edition). I’ve seen copies of this edition noted as first American edition because the wording on the copyright page is quite ambiguous and there is a number line that begins with a 1. Actually, that’s something I would mention as a warning. It appears that Dogsbody is not the only title to have been thus reprinted and the ambiguous language is a real fooler. Check the dates on copyright pages very carefully. Another title of interest is Howl’s Moving Castle (Greenwillow Press 1986). Howl is a wizard who lives in a castle which appears to move. The story follows Howl, his assistant Michael and the young woman Sophie who is turned into an old woman by the Witch of the Waste. This particular tale is a fun romp of a book with no serious undertones. On the other hand, the book Eight Days of Luke takes the mythology of the Norse Gods and makes a story out of the exploits of the god Loki. The story itself is so subtly written that a regular kid wouldn’t notice the Norse theme underlying the text, but at the end, Ms. Jones includes a simple explanation of both the Norse myth & the characters & their traits. It’s kind of a nice way to learn something new. All of Ms. Jones books seem to have had (or have) small print runs with lots of copies going to libraries. First Editions of her titles from the 1970’s and 1980’s (and even some in the 1990’s) in collectable condition can run upwards of $75.00 or more. Ms. Jones’ career has spanned more than two decades and there seems to be no end in sight.
Another author who crosses the fantasy & youth fiction genres is Patricia McKillip. Best known for her Riddle Master of Hedtrilogy, Ms. McKillip’s work has an appeal that is not bound by age limits. One of her earliest works, The Forgotten Beasts of Eld, published in 1974, is a story that can be read by adults and by youth. This is the story of Sybel, a young enchantress who lives by herself in the forest of Eld. She has grown up with very little adult input in her life, and she has lived mostly by the rules of animals and not people. She has the power to summon all sorts of mythical beasts to her side for companionship. Life seems nearly idyllic until Sybel herself is magically called by a human. She, and her beast companions must follow this calling wherever it leads. Unfortunately, it leads to Sybel learning about human failings, frailties and the ways of humans in society. Though the book has quite a bit of sadness to it and some nasty evil characters, the story does have a happy ending and it is Sybel who teaches others how humans should live. This book garnered a World Fantasy award in 1974 and has remained pretty much in print (in paperback form) since that time. The original hardback edition had a fairly small print run & copies in very good condition with like dust jackets are not easy to find. All of Ms. McKillip’s work crosses the genres of Youth Fiction and Fantasy quite easily—at least one title, The House on Parchment Street—was specifically geared to the young adult audience but even it can be read quite enjoyably by adults.
One of the neat things about young adult fantasy is the fact that even though the characters get to go to another world/place/time, they don’t necessarily have to stay there. Sometimes the world visited is a nice place (better than home, in the case of Harry Potter), but sometimes, it’s a bit odd and confusing and strange. Madeleine L’Engle’s Wrinkle in Timeseries has her characters, Meg Murray and her brother Charles, go through a tesseract (the wrinkle in time of the title—nowadays called a time warp) to reach another world in search of a way to rescue their scientist father. With the help of Mr. Whatsit, Mrs. Who & Mrs. Which, the children find their father and try to defeat “the Black Thing”. In this series, Earth is actually a better place to be, especially when Meg and Charles outwit the evil forces at work and bring their father back home. The series started out as a trilogy: A Wrinkle in Time, A Wind in the Door, and The Swiftly Tilting Planet. A fourth novel, Many Waters, was added on several years later. A Wrinkle in Time won the Newbery Medal in 1963. The series has been in print continuously since it was first published and can be found on teachers recommended reading lists & library reading lists across the country. First editions copies of the books fetch decent prices; especially A Wrinkle in Time as it is collected as both a classic in the fantasy genre & as a Newbery Medal winner.
There are, of course, other titles that might have influenced J.K. Rowling as she wrote the Harry Potter books. Unfortunately, there is no possible way to mention them all. And because of my criteria, I have to leave off all of the “hard” science fiction books for young adults (the early boys space adventure books by Robert Heinlein come to mind). The neatest thing I can think of about the Harry Potter phenomenon is that it is encouraging young people (and budding collectors) to read—and better yet-- once they’ve read all of that series, to pick up other books and try new and different authors. In the same way that the Star Wars adventures brought about a new wave of science fiction/fantasy movies and rejuvenated old friends like Star Trek, J.K. Rowling & Harry Potter have brought to a new audience some of the great young adult fantasy novels.