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Published: Sunday, 6/15/2003

Harry Potter-mania

BY KAREN MACPHERSON
BLADE WASHINGTON BUREAU

At precisely 12:01 a.m. this Saturday, millions of children and adults will crowd into bookstores around the world to plunk down their money, grab their copies of “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix” and plunge into another year at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.

&tab;Amid unprecedented hype and hoopla, the fifth book in J.K. Rowling's mega-selling “Harry Potter” series will finally be released on the first day of summer to impatient fans in English-speaking countries around the world, from the United States to Great Britain to Australia.

&tab;Midnight parties are planned in hundreds of bookstores in countries around the globe, with young Harry Potter fans invited to come in costume or even in their pajamas to await the lifting of the military-style veil of secrecy surrounding the book. Many booksellers plan to close briefly after those events before opening again shortly after dawn for another round of festivities aimed at early-rising readers.

Postal workers in numerous nations will work overtime on Saturday, delivering copies of the book to those who ordered them via the Internet. Despite the use of extra light paper by Bloomsbury, the British publisher, the weight of the book - 3 lbs. per copy - has prompted postal officials in Great Britain to caution carriers against carrying too many at a time.

Overall, the release of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix is a cultural event of nearly epic proportions, stoked by a multimillion-dollar, worldwide marketing campaign.

At the moment of the book's official release, electronic billboards bearing the book's cover will light up in New York's Times Square and on Sunset Strip in Los Angeles. In London, the first-ever movie-style premiere for a book - complete with live coverage - will take place at the Piccadilly branch of Waterstone's, Great Britain's largest bookstore.

In New Zealand, a group of Potter fans will immediately begin a marathon read-aloud session of the newest book - expected to last 26-plus hours - in a bid to set a record for the longest-ever such event. Young Canadian baseball fans attending the June 20 game of the Ottawa Lynx vs. the Richmond Braves are invited to dress as their favorite character and stay at the Ottawa ballpark until midnight, when 1,000 copies of the book will go on sale there.

In Australia, more than 800 passengers are booked aboard a “Hogwarts Express” train chartered by a Sydney bookstore. Booksellers in Hong Kong, meanwhile, have been inundated with thousands of in-person orders for the book, despite lingering health fears over the SARS outbreak.

The Harry hoopla isn't a one-night media flash, however. Scholastic, the U.S. publisher, is sponsoring four Major League Baseball “Harry Potter” nights from the end of June through mid-July. On June 26, there will be a worldwide Web cast, expected to reach 34 countries, of Rowling's appearance before an audience of 4,000 schoolchildren in London's Royal Albert Hall.

Rowling, 38, who recently gave birth to her second child, will read from Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix and take questions from the hall audience and from the Internet audience. The Webcast, which is free and will be archived for seven days, is being hosted by Microsoft at http://www.msn.co.uk/harrypotter.

Just about everything about Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix will set records. At 896 pages, it's the longest children's book ever published. Scholastic's 8.5 million combined initial print run for the book also is the largest first printing ever in the United States, beating even John Grisham's blockbuster novels.

In addition, Book 5 has set a pre-sales record for online booksellers, including Amazon.com, which has taken more than a million orders worldwide for “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix.” And officials at Listening Library, the Random House division responsible for the simultaneous release of the audio version of the book, say their first “printing” of 375,000 cassette sets and 200,000 CD sets is the largest they've ever done.

Security surrounding the release of the books has rivaled that surrounding military secrets. Printers, book distribution center workers, and booksellers have been required to sign confidentiality agreements stating they won't violate the book's embargo. After one printing plant employee admitted stealing copies of the book in Great Britain, other printing plants have had security police and video cameras trained on workers to ensure they don't try to read the book.

Diane Roback, children's book editor for Publishers Weekly, said Scholastic is printing a “staggering” number of copies of Book 5. “But I think Scholastic will sell that many copies and more,” Roback added.

“There's enormous pent-up demand. The three years between this book and the last one is the largest gap ever in the series, and the audience for the books has grown in the interim.”

Some children's book experts worry that part of the core audience for the Harry Potter books, children ages 9-13, may feel that now they're “too cool” to read about the boy wizard and his adventures at Hogwarts.

But Roback and others dismiss that concern, saying most Potter fans are desperate to know what happens next to Harry and his best friends, Ron Weasley and Hermione Granger, as they gear up for the expected battle against the evil Lord Voldemort.

“There's also a large group of kids who have now grown into the right age level for the books since the last book came out. And there's a lot of adult readers who have become passionate about these books,” Roback said.

In fact, surveys have indicated that as many as one-third of the Potter books are bought by or for adults. But children as young as 4 or 5 also have become fans of the books through read-aloud sessions with their parents.

The popularity of the first two Harry Potter movies also has given a boost to the expected demand for the fifth book. The first movie, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, was the top grossing film of 2001, beating even Titanic. Filming on the third movie, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, is currently under way in Scotland.

While the movie connection and the blaze of marketing surrounding the books has certainly contributed to their popularity, librarians and children's book experts say the books can stand on their merits.

“Rowling has focused on character and plot,” said Anita Silvey, author of The Essential Guide to Children's Books and Their Creators. “Those characters have lived for her. She has taken tried and true forms - the orphan story, the school story, the class struggle, the friendship chronicle, the struggle between good and evil - and worked them well.”

Cynthia Richey, a Mount Lebanon, Pa., librarian who is the incoming president of the American Association of Library Service to Children, added that Rowling's books “are tremendously imaginative.”

“Her vocabulary is rich, there are lots of puns and allusions to everything from Greek myths to history to fairy tales. And her sense of humor is wonderful, with lots of laugh-out-loud parts,” Richey said. “There's also a sense of wonder about these books, not only of the supernatural powers that the characters have, but also about the powers within themselves.”

Richey, along with other children's book experts, lavishes praise on Rowling for helping millions of children, especially boys, discover the fun of reading. “The impact on children's reading has been far-reaching,” she said.

Some adults complain that some children will read nothing except the Potter books. Richey says that's just fine because “there's a wonderful benefit to reading the Harry Potter books.”

Many other readers, however, have used the books as a springboard to discover all kinds of other volumes, from fantasy books like C.S. Lewis' “Narnia” books to nonfiction books on owls and the chemistry behind some of Harry's potions, Richey said.

Rowling has pledged that the series will end with Book 7, and she has warned that the books will get darker and more violent as Harry and his friends battle Voldemort. In Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, Rowling has said there are “more deaths,” and added that at least one of them was particularly “horrible” for her to write.

In addition, the new book will have the strongest romance angle yet, Rowling said, with the characters' “hormones working overtime.” There may be something going on between Ron and Hermione, although Rowling said that Ron, being a “typical boy,” will be clueless about it. But Rowling has remained tight-lipped about Harry's love life in Book 5.

Potter fans in non-English-speaking countries will have to wait a few months longer for their translated copies of Book 5. But that hasn't seemed to slow demand in China, where the Chinese publisher of the Harry Potter books said it already has 130,000 orders for the book, despite the fact that it won't be available until Oct. 1.



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