Chances are, if you're a parent of an elementary school-age child, you've heard of Harry Potter. You may have even read his tale - either to your captivated progeny or on your own. With 35 million copies in print worldwide and another 3.8 million on the way, it's the current sensation in the book publishing industry. Even if you think you are a Potterhead, you might want to brush up on the previous three books before flying haphazardly into the fourth. To that end, we provide this primer on the young wizard and his adventures.
Warning: If you haven't read the series yet, you can turn back now before it's too late. Otherwise, strap in for some spoilers.
"Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone"
The shot heard 'round the world was released to an enthusiastic and appreciative British audience in 1997, but it wasn't until the American exposure in 1998 that Joanne Kathleen Rowling's life became topsy-turvy. At 309 pages, the first book is shorter than its sequels, and only 50,000 copies are initially printed. It is, however, expansive in the way it lays out central characters and conflicts for the ingenius mythology that will span seven installments.
When we meet Harry Potter, he is an orphaned infant with a lightning-shaped cut on his forehead (which will later become his trademark scar), oblivious to the larger forces at work in a world where paranormal phenomenon co-exist with the non-magical/ordinary (Muggle) world. Although his parents are murdered, he survives and the downfall of a powerful but evil wizard, You-Know-Who (only a few call him by his given name, Lord Voldemort).
Years pass and we find that Harry is living with his relatives, the dreaded Dursleys. In a family where normalcy reigns, the presence of such a strange boy - small and skinny, unruly jet black hair, oversized glasses - is an unpleasant aberration. They barely acknowledge Harry, giving him a dark cupboard under the stairs as a room and hand-me-downs as clothing. His is not la vida loca. On a dark and stormy night, Harry turns 11 and steps into the first phase of his destiny and legacy. To his relatives' chagrin, Harry is something special, a pivotal piece of a puzzle that unfolds more with each book. Harry's quest reveals itself as a search for the truth - what happened to his parents, why he was spared, what is expected of him.
In the immediate future, Harry is expected to attend Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. A shopping spree, his first, lands him the materials he'll need, from textbooks to robes and a wand. All this and more Harry buys from a stash of loot left to him by his parents, James and Lily Potter.
At school, Harry befriends Ron Weasley and Hermione Granger, creating an intrepid trio that stands together through squabbles, relentless academic schedules and general pre-teen angst. Harry's arch-rival appears in the form of Draco Malfoy, the son of aristocratic Lucius Malfoy, who has it in for Muggles and fiscally disadvantaged wizarding families. He's the kid you love to hate.
Two sides emerge with clarity: Malfoy's band (who are not above cheating and deception to get what they want) and Harry's good guys (which include the four Weasley brothers at Hogwarts), championed by the wizened Headmaster, Albus Dumbledore.
The main mystery is finding out what the sorcerer's stone is, and how it figures into the struggle between the forces of good and evil. Along the way, the kids meet dragons, three-headed dogs and unicorns. In a climactic 007-like sequence, Harry and his friends find betrayal, danger and redemption as they reveal an insider at Hogwarts in cahoots with the dark lord himself, Voldemort.
"Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets"
Released in June 1999, Book II in the series contains more pages (341) and receives a significantly larger press run (250,000 copies right off the bat).
In it, Harry returns home to the Dursleys for the summer, but can only think of getting back to his adventures at Hogwarts. His wish is fulfilled sooner than later when the Weasley sons borrow their father's flying car to break Harry out.
Once back at school, unusual events set the stage for our heroes' next adventure. Harry, Hermione and Ron find the grouchy caretaker's cat petrified next to an ominous message warning of the opening of the Chamber of Secrets. Although curiosity may have come close to killing the cat, our trio is more determined than ever to find out what secrets lurk within the castle's walls.
A History of Magic class uncovers a major piece of this mystery. The original founders of Hogwarts had a serious internal dispute regarding the make-up of the student body. Salazar Slytherin wanted to keep magical learning within all-magic families, disagreeing with the integration of Muggles. To that end, he constructed a hidden Chamber where an unimaginably vile monster awaits the rightful heir of Slytherin to set it free and cleanse the school of Muggle or mixed-blood students.
Now the game is afoot to find the rightful heir and prevent him (or her) from unleashing the horror within the chamber. Harry and Ron soon acquire a blank diary (it writes back when written on) that reveals more clues to the whereabouts of a decades-old scandal involving Harry's staunch ally, the behemoth groundskeeper, Rubeus Hagrid.
The last time someone tried to open the chamber - 50 years earlier - he was expelled. Corresponding with the diary leads to the revelation that the phantom writer - 16-year-old T.M. Riddle, a former Hogwarts student - is none other than Lord Voldemort. He is trying to regain power through manipulating an innocent (in this case, the youngest of the Weasleys, Ginny). Attacked by a giant snake, Harry's life is saved by healing power of phoenix tears and his own ingenuity. Voldemort is defeated again.
"Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban"
Within three months of Book II's arrival, along comes the third installment of Rowling's series. At 435 pages, it receives a first printing of 500,000, doubling that of its predecessor. Last fall, all four books (the first three and the paperback of Book I) occupied best-seller positions on the New York Times' list.
Harry's third year at Hogwarts follows now-familiar patterns. He eagerly awaits the school year's start while biding summertime with the Dursleys. But something goes wrong when Harry gets into a heated argument with his relatives and runs away.
His timing could not have been worse: A dangerous prisoner has just escaped from the confines of Azkaban and he's after Harry. The hunt for the escaped convict, Sirius Black, is the key to this volume. Each step toward him provides more insight into what happened to Harry's parents.
On the train ride to Hogwarts, the students encounter Dementors, soul-sucking creatures who guard Azkaban and are now eager to reclaim Black. A mystically charged map imbued with secret passageways and surveillance capabilities allows Harry and his friends to explore Hogwarts and beyond to gather more clues.
Once again, history becomes a vital part of the present as past wrongs are finally made right with the release of the truth - that Sirius Black is none other than Harry's godfather and that he was framed by a double-agent friend. The situation comes full circle with intertwining plotlines that create one of the most original escape plans ever conceived.
Who's who in Harry's world
Look at this list of names and phrases before leaping into the next Potter plot.
Harry Potter: Central figure in a far-reaching battle of good vs. evil.
Lord Voldemort: Master of the Dark Arts, weakened when he tried to kill Harry as an infant (succeeded in killing his parents), now in hiding.
Ron Weasley: Best friend to Harry, son of prominent pure-blood Wizarding family.
Hermione Granger: Best friend to Harry and Ron; Muggle-born, brilliant academic.
Draco Malfoy: Harry's arch-enemy, son of Lucius Malfoy; a follower of Lord Voldemort.
Albus Dumbledore: Headmaster of Hogwarts.
Professor Minerva McGonagall: Head of Gryffindor House; deputy headmistress of Hogwarts.
Professor Severus Snape: Head of Slytherin House, Potions instructor.
Rubeus Hagrid: Hogwarts groundskeeper, expelled from Hogwarts 50 years earlier for a crime he didn't commit.
Sirius Black: Escaped prisoner from Azkaban, wrongfully accused of betrayal; godfather to Harry.
Professor Remus Lupin: Well-liked instructor of Defense Against the Dark Arts; werewolf.
Quidditch: Official sport of the magical world played on broomsticks.
A list of area Potter events (Page 10E)