J.K. Rowling's first novel, Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone, was written in a cafe as the author's daughter napped. Rowling, a lone mother, had been teaching to support herself and her child and battling depression; she set herself the task of completing this book she had started some years before, and rose to the challenge. She sold the end result to Bloomsbury, which published it in 1997, (the American publisher, Scholastic, issued it under the title Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone the same year), and the book was a huge bestseller, capturing the imagination of tweens around the world. Rowling has gone from poverty to riches on the strength of the world she imagined and committed to paper.
This is the first of what will eventually be seven books about Harry Potter, each covering a year in his school life. Harry, when we first meet him, is ten. He is small for his age with round glasses and messy hair, and he has a distinctive lightning shaped scar on his forehead. He lives with his uncle Vernon, aunt Petunia, and cousin Dudley Dursley, and an unpleasant lot they are too. Uncle Vernon - he of the red face, brisling moustache, and short temper - seems to enjoy nothing more than finding fault with Harry; both Uncle Vernon and Aunt Petunia dote on the nasty Dudley, a fat spoiled boy who counts among life's joys beating on poor Harry.
Petunia is Harry's mother's sister; according to the Dursleys, Harry's parents died in a car accident when he was just a baby - which explains the lightning-bolt scar - and they took him in out of the kindness of their hearts. Or so they say, anyway. In reality, Harry is forced to live in a cupboard under the stairs and dress in Dudley's far-too-large castoffs; the Dursleys ignore him when they can and harrass him when they can't.
Then one day something very unexpected happens: a letter arrives, addressed in green ink to
Mr. H. Potter
The Cupboard under the Stairs
4 Privet Drive
Harry has never received a letter before, and is understandably excited, but Uncle Vernon will not give it to him; he opens it himself, reads it, and his face pales. Aunt Petunia reads it too, makes a choking noise, and they look at each other, clearly panicked. But then Uncle Vernon decides to ignore the letter; he burns it, and tells Harry - and Dudley, who's been trying to get to the letter as well - to shut up and go away.
The next day three letters arrive, the following day twelve, and Uncle Vernon, in a fit of apoplexy, nails the mail slot shut. When 24 letters arrive the following day (hidden inside a crate of eggs) Uncle Vernon calls the post office to complain loudly; on the next day - Sunday, no post, remarks the fat man with satisfaction - letters begin to flood down the chimney, and Uncle Vernon packs the family off, first to a nasty hotel where letters continue to arrive for Harry, then to a crude shack on a small, storm-tossed island. Uncle Vernon imagines they are at last out of reach of the persistent letters, but at midnight, just as Harry's eleventh birthday begins, a giant of a man arrives and knocks down the door. Introducing himself as Rubeus Hagrid, he quickly divines that the Dursleys have kept Harry in the dark about a number of important things, such as that he, Harry, is a wizard; that the letters are inviting him to attend Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, and that his parents were wizards too who were killed by a wizard skilled in the Dark Arts - a wizard who had tried to kill the baby Harry, but only succeeded in leaving the distinctive scar. Even more thrilling, Hagrid completely cows Uncle Vernon and takes Harry off to prepare for his first year at Hogwarts.
Much of the story follows the tradition of a typical English boarding school, but where typical English school children buy flannels and galoshes, Harry's list of supplies includes robes, a wand, and an animal (owl, cat, or toad) (first years are not allowed broomsticks). Harry does his shopping in Diagon Alley, a magical place in the middle of London where all his unusual supplies are easily purchased with money inherited from his parents and stored in a goblin bank. Harry is privy to a secret other world that he could never even have dreamed of, and in that world he is famous because he was able to defeat the dark wizard (everyone refers to him fearfully as "You-Know-Who", for he can't be killed and so is presumably lurking about somewhere, hoping to regain his powers).
With happy heart, Harry bids farewell to the Dursleys, figures out how to reach platform 9-3/4 at King's Cross station - you have to take a run at a seemingly solid brick wall, taking care that Muggles (non-magic people) don't see - and boards Hogwarts Express, a gleaming red steam train that takes the students north to Hogwarts. There the first years are taken by Hagrid in boats across an enchanted lake where a giant squid lives and into the school. Professor McGonagall calls each new student's name in turn, and they place on their heads a patched old hat, which sorts them into one of four houses: Gryffindor, Hufflepuff, Ravenclaw, or Slytherin. Harry has already met a sneering young first-year, Draco Malfoy, who has gone to Slytherin, and he worries that he might be placed there too, but he ends up in Gryffindor, along with his new friends Ron Weasley and Hermione Granger. The students feast from plates that refill themselves with typical English fare like mashed potatoes and treacle tart, and then proceed to their house dormitories, where they bed down, exhausted.
Classes for these students are rather different from what they are used to. History of Magic is taught Professor Binns, a ghost who reads droningly from mouldy old notes that don't seem to have changed in centuries. Charms is taught by Professor Flitwick, who is so small he has to sit on a pile of books. Professor Sprout instructs the students in Herbology, or how to deal with strange plants and fungi. McGonagall teaches Transfiguration, or how to transform things into something else; she becomes a large cat at will. Professor Snape, who seems to hate Harry, tells them about Potions, and stuttering Professor Quirrell, a new teacher, instructs them in Defence Against Dark Arts. Professor Dumbledore is the headmaster.
By the end of the story one of the teachers, possessed by the dark wizard, Lord Voldemort, will try to kill Harry, who, as you might have guessed, triumphs in the end. It's a classic storyline, but along the way are many interesting details that capture young imaginations: Quidditch, a game played by teams of seven on broomsticks; ghosts; candies that can taste like anything, including vomit; spells and magic and intrique and excitement.
Rowlings' books after this one feature letters at the end from young readers - aged 8-3/4, 10, 11-1/2 - gushing about how they loved this novel and begging breathlessly for hints about the next one and when it will come out. Her accessible writing style and inventive story have made this a much-loved children's classic that adults can enjoy too, and a successful movie brought Harry and Hogwarts to life most convincingly. Very enjoyable all around.