Monday, Apr. 26, 2004

J.K. Rowling

Kids don't much care about such things, but legions of adult Harry Potter fans are annoyed that author J.K. Rowling is dismissed by the world's literary gatekeepers, maybe because she happens to be the highest paid author ever and because she writes books that children love.

But no one need worry that this rather quiet, funny, passionate writer won't get her due. Even as Rowling maintains her reclusive lifestyle, writing her sixth Potter book while her baby sleeps, her power has become too great to ignore. You can measure it in the numbers—254 million books sold in 61 languages in 200 countries, earning her an estimated $211 million last year alone, which have made her personal wealth greater than the Queen's. (To spare the whole forests that must be felled to print her books, her next one will be on paper that's either recycled or made from "sustainable forestry practices.") You can measure it in the growing scholarly attention—the books and academic papers and conferences from Adelaide to Ottawa that explore Harry's connection to the Stoics, St. Augustine, Jung and Freud—and the renewed interest in children's literature that her books have fostered.

But even those who view her with alarm or disdain pay her the same tribute as those who call her a savior. Both attest to her power over readers and the lessons she teaches through the stories she tells. There are tales of conversion when some critics actually get around to reading the books and find a message about good and evil, courage and kindness, that speaks to universal values. There are testimonials from parents and teachers about kids tackling fat books for the first time, skipping whole grade levels in their reading, lured away from the screen to sink into the page. But mainly her influence is quiet, because it is private, a transaction between her imagination and ours, and it is measured in gratitude, to a woman who has used her power well.