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'Deathly Hallows' is Potter series finale

| Sunday, July 8, 2007

On the eve of July 21, the lines that will form outside of bookstores could make the queues for the roll-out of Apple's iPhone seem paltry.

"Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows," the final chapter in J.K. Rowling's wildly successful series, will be met with the type of frenzy that heralds the release of a new video-game platform. Amazon, the online bookseller, has received more than 1 million pre-orders in the United States, and 600,000 more globally. Since the series' inception in 1997, Rowling's books have sold more than 300 million copies worldwide. The release of the seventh and final book in the series comes just 10 days after the fifth film adaptation, "Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix," opens on Wednesday. The first four films have grossed more than $3 billion worldwide.

The publication numbers are staggering figures that dwarf those of other successful series directed toward children -- notably the "Goosebumps" and "Lemony Snicket" series -- over the past 20 years.

Which begs the question, why Harry Potter and his cast• Why did Hermione Granger and Ron Weasley, Draco Malfoy and Albus Dumbledore, Lord Voldemort and Severus Snape capture the fancy and devotions of millions of readers?

"I think the real appeal, for children or adults, is that they get attached to particular characters," says Lisa Dennis, coordinator of the children's collection at the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh. "They want to know what happens to Harry next. There's also an element of familiarity ... in the sense that you know the characters, who they are and how they are going to react."

According to Dennis, such affection for continuing characters is nothing new. The idea dates back to other popular series directed toward children, including the Bobbsey Twins and the Hardy Boys, Nancy Drew and Horatio Alger.

"Dickens wrote serials," Dennis says. "I think it's been a trend forever, and I think it particularly appeals to children because it's a way to practice and develop skills in reading."

Still, that does not quite explain the magnitude of Rowling's success, especially with children. Every year, there are thousands of books published that collectively don't come close to the sales of the Harry Potter series.

Rose Mary Mautino, director of the Reading Clinic in the school of education at Duquesne University, thinks the Scottish writer has succeeded because she not only entertains but also challenges young readers.

"She engaged kids because the vocabulary was so rich," Mautino says. "She didn't make it a children's book; she brought it up a little above their standard of normal reading for that age, but not so high that they became frustrated with it."

However adept Rowling's characterizations and phrasings, the books would have fallen flat without good stories. Mautino thinks that because Rowling chose to write her stories as mysteries -- not to mention the fantasy aspect of her work -- she was able to draw more young readers than usual.

"The kids who like that sort of genre seemed to get so engrossed in it," she says.

But kids also can be the severest of critics. If something seems false or contrived, they will be the first to voice their disapproval. Elisa Beshero-Bondar, an associate professor of English at the University of Pittsburgh at Greensburg, thinks it is Rowling's vision of Hogwarts Academy that is so enthralling to children, and adults. Like J.R.R. Tolkien's "Lord of the Rings" trilogy, Beshero-Bondar feels Rowling created a new world that seems plausible to readers.

"There's an appeal of a fully-contained fantasy world to a kid," she says.

The books also have a self-contained quality to them. Even though Beshero-Bondar read the Harry Potter books out of order, she never thought she was missing anything.

"At least with the first three or four books, I think you could start anywhere," says Beshero-Bondar, who uses the third book, "Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban," as a teaching tool in a class on fantasy and romance. "There is something about the way (Rowling) constructs a plot that makes that possible. That's so unusual in a fantasy writer, and I think that's one of the secrets of her success."

Certainly, booksellers haven't seen anything close to the phenomenon of the Harry Potter series. Mary Alice Gorman, owner of Mystery Lovers Bookshop in Oakmont, has witnessed the "Goosebumps" and "Lemony Snicket" series wax and wane. She agrees that the self-contained world of Harry Potter is marvelously drawn and attracts readers of all ages.

But the Harry Potter books also have a basic, primal appeal.

"All of us want to know that good triumphs over evil," Gorman says, "and (in Rowling's books) it's such a colorfully good evil. It's just such a daunting evil, and Harry's so good. We really want to know this is going to happen in the world. That's why people read mysteries; mysteries don't leave people with appeals pending in the courts."

No matter why people read the Harry Potter series, there's a certain amount of anticipation involved. Taylor Tobias, 26, of West View, started reading the series when she was 22. She resisted the books initially because she felt they were for kids, but relented when a few of her friends insisted she give them a fair reading.

"It's really the characters," she says of the books' appeal, noting that Snape is her favorite. "Rowling writes them so realistically, and when I read a book, that's the most important thing. If I read a book, the plot doesn't matter as much if I really don't like the characters."

Mathilda Blevins, of Greensburg, also came to the series late, but at least she has a good excuse: She wasn't even born when the first book, "Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone," was published in 1997 (it was later published in the United States as "Harry Potter and the Sorceror's Stone"). Now 7, she read the first six books in the series starting in February of this year.

"During the time she was reading them, she didn't put them down," says Martha Koehler, her mother. "She was reading up to six hours a day. It was fascinating to watch her."

Mathilda's favorite character is Hermione, "because she reminds me of myself." But all of the characters seem true to her "because they are realistic," she says. "They make mistakes like everyone else."

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