what category: books
vantage point: characters
I was still in high school when I first heard references of J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter, referenced in the arts section of USA Today. I bought the first few books while in my freshmen year of college, reading them in the winter of 1999-2000. My parents got me Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban for my birthday, the first hardcover of the series in my collection. And like everyone else, I then started to attend the release parties for subsequent entries.
What is it that made these books so successful? It's my argument that Rowling succeeded because she did what any author does, found what she did best in the medium she chose to work in. With books, it's all about the characters. I'll choose to illustrate how she did it by focusing on Prisoner of Azkaban, because it's still my favorite entry in the series and because it best illustrates my point (and is probably the reason why it's my favorite).
Harry Potter is the most famous modern orphan in literature. Unlike Oliver Twist, he has the opportunity to discover his intrinsic worth in the world in a fairly sensational way, learning that not only is he a wizard, but that his parents died protecting him from the greatest evil the world has ever known, Lord Voldemort. Prisoner of Azkaban is the entry that pulls the whole story together for the first time. No, Harry never truly gets to meet his parents, only the remaining individuals who knew them best.
We've met Severus Snape already, and his story is the most fascinating one in the series, though Prisoner of Azkaban is the first time he seems human, even though it takes a long time in the book to realize it. He's hated Harry since meeting him, even though curiously, he's saved the boy's life on numerous occasions. Why can that possibly be? He doesn't like the new professor in Defense Against the Dark Arts, either, Remus Lupin, who harbors a dark secret, even though he's involved in a secret relationship Harry and his friends are not privy to throughout the book.
Lupin immediately takes to Harry, not just because of the dramatic rescue from Dementors on the way to Hogwarts. Where Dumbledore had been the kindly mentor in the first two books, there was a distance between them. Harry was very much a child to the headmaster. Lupin treats him like a peer. Why is that?
Harry's biggest concern is Sirius Black. He knows he should fear him, but why?
And Ron's rat Scabbers suddenly becomes the most important pet in the series.
The key to all these characters is that they're all connected to Harry's parents in weird and startling ways. Snape, as I said, begins to blossom thanks to Prisoner of Azkaban, but it's the discovering of Lupin and Sirius and even Peter Pettigrew as complicated members of the inner circle of a previous generation, friends and betrayers of James and Lilly Potter, that deepens the story of young Harry Potter.
For most of the series, and especially in the first few books, it may be easy to assume that Rowling is writing a narrative of education angst, but no, she's deliberately building a world of immense complexity, through the eyes of children, not in a childlike way, but through a dawning maturity, and it's Harry who's always at the center of things. His relationships define everything, and never before or after are the relationships and how he comes to understand them as important as those in Prisoner of Azkaban. Here is where we discover how important her characters are to Rowling.
Why love this series? Here's a good place to start, if you've ever been curious.