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December 5, 2010

Jessica Day George is WILD ABOUT HARRY . . . And Ron, Hermione, Neville, Ginny . . .

By Jessica Day George, Young Adult and Middle Grade Fantasy Author

I first discovered Harry Potter shortly before Chamber of Secrets came out. I was working at a bookstore, and Sorcerer’s Stone had been on the NYT Bestseller list for an incredible amount of time, and this is the adult list, mind you. This aroused my curiosity, and I thought, in the spirit of Good Bookselling, that I would give it a go and thus be able to talk knowledgeably about the book with my co-workers and customers. The cover was so pretty I decided to buy my copy, and I thought it would at least look cool sitting on my shelves even if it wasn’t very good.

Then I cracked it open, and read about Dumbledore and Professor McGonagall meeting up on Privet Drive, and Hagrid arriving on a flying motorcycle carrying The Boy Who Lived, and that was it for me . . . there simply was no turning back.

I instantly fell in love with Harry, looking out at the world from the cupboard under the stairs with a combination of dry humor and resignation. I fell in love with Mr. Dursley, who had no neck, and his wife, who had twice the usual amount.

When Hagrid showed up again, I was beside myself with glee, and when Harry met Ron on the Hogwarts Express I was jumping up and down, chanting, “Make friends, make friends, make friends!” I didn’t care if Harry learned a single spell at Hogwarts, I wanted him to have friends, to have fun, to have a life, because I loved little Harry, and felt a motherly tenderness for this little orphan.

And Ron? What a great best friend! Funny, awkward, knowledgeable about the wizarding world without being obnoxious about it, and with an enormous family ready and waiting to take Harry under their wing. (I cry every time I think about Mrs. Weasley and Bill coming to visit Harry during the tournament in Goblet of Fire. Is there anything more awesome than that?)

And once Harry and Ron made peace with know-it-all Hermione . . . well, Rowling had herself the most perfect trio of friends to grace the pages of children’s literature.

Harry is a man of action. You tell him there’s danger, and he turns and faces it dead on, at a run, even. He’s smart and talented, but not perfect. He’s lacking the background of someone born in a wizarding family, and he’s willing (like most students) to blow off studying in favor of fun. He’s serious when the situation calls for it, mourning his losses without being depressing.

Ron is more laid back, more cautious, but also more creative. He turns things over in his mind more than Harry, and worries about the consequences. But he’s also loyal, intelligent, and strong in many ways.

Hermione isn’t so much the brains of the operation as the book smarts. The most cautious, but she’s also a walking encyclopedia. She plans better and prepares better, but her hesitancy is sometimes trouble when they need to think (and move) fast.

Together, the three friends complement one another’s strengths perfectly, but I loved how often they disagreed, broke up, made up and misunderstood one another. They are human, and more tellingly, teenagers. They learn to trust one another more as the books go on, they develop their own strengths and understand one another better. Their friendship was real and believable, and the core of the books.

But the books aren’t just about Harry, Ron, and Hermione! There is a cast of hundreds supporting them, wizards, Muggles, and animals, good and evil and in-between. And there are no throwaway characters here, in fact, even people whose names are dropped casually, or who appear for just a single scene are, essentially scene-stealers.

Dumbledore’s brother Aberforth? Mentioned in one of the earliest books, plays a brief yet important role in a later book. (I bet you can even remember what shape his Patronus takes!) Stan Shunpike? Kreacher? Part of the fun lies in Rowling’s very creative names, both invited and from classical sources, which gives clues about a person’s character. Cassandra Trelawney. Remus Lupin. Sirius Black.

Let’s talk some more about Sirius Black, shall we? **MAJOR SPOILER ALERT** Still hoping they’d pull him back out of that whatever-it-was. Yep. Because not only was he, well, awesome (He could turn into a giant dog! He could simultaneously reassure his godson and plan terrible, terrible revenge on Pettigrew!), but he was also the closest thing Harry had to a father, before he was ripped away from him. And that’s a theme of the books which was both heartbreaking and yet necessary: whenever Harry would find a father figure to look up to, to learn from, they would be taken from him.

It’s a measure of how great her characters are that J. K. Rowling can make us cry when something horrible happens to them, not just because we will miss them, but also because of the impact on the other characters. With Sirius, I cried for myself and for Harry. Dobby, myself and Harry. Lupin? Tonks, Teddy, Dumbledore, I cried for Harry, for myself . . . and you get the picture.

And just as good as Rowling’s good guys are the bad guys. Lord Voldemort? The ultimate in evil, killing indiscriminately, cheating death, possibly insane . . . and with loads of back story that explain exactly how he got that way.

Dolores Umbridge is one of my favorite bad guys ever, and she’s an interesting case indeed. She is horribly evil, permanently scarring the children under her care, racist, and greedy for power . . . and not working for Voldemort.

Umbridge truly believes that she is right, and everyone else is wrong, which makes her absolutely terrifying. Umbridge isn’t the only person whose actions are more gray than black or white, either. Rowling has said that she feels deeply sorry for Dudley, whose horrible parents have ruined him, and I feel the same way for Draco Malfoy.

Draco Malfoy’s parents tried to force him to become a Death Eater. To kill people, beginning with Dumbledore. What kind of poisonous childhood did he have?! Good gravy, people! I started out hating Draco, with all his sneering, and his pointy little face, but by Order of the Phoenix I was starting think, How much of this is him, and how much is his father? Because Draco, like all of Rowling’s characters, was a many-layered creation, just like a real person. Because how could we hate him, if he wasn’t real? How could we feel badly for him?

We couldn’t.

We couldn’t love Harry, and Ron, and Hermione, if they weren’t real. We couldn’t laugh with them, cry with them and for them, cheer for them, if they weren’t real.

But they are real.

Neville Longbottom is as real a person as anyone I went to school with at my Muggle high school. So are Fred and George, Tonks, Luna, and all the others. By the time the books were over, I knew them better than some of my friends from high school, in fact. They were and are my friends, my family . . .

And my heroes.

Photo credit: Bookshop Talk obtained all photos for this post from The Leaky Cauldron


Kim said...

Good grief, this brought tears to my eyes! GO HARRY!!!!!!!!!!!!! I adore the HP books. Thanks, Jessica, for a wonderful overview, and for your insightful thoughts about Rowling's characters. They rock, don't they?

Valette M. said...

Harry forever! Amen!
"I want to win a book."