J. K. Rowling 1966–-
(Full name Joanne Kathleen Rowling) English novelist.
The following entry presents an overview of Rowling's career through 2000.
The basic premise for Rowling's “Harry Potter” series came to the author while riding on a train from Manchester to London in 1990. Her first book, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (1997) achieved immediate worldwide success, and Rowling followed the first novel with several sequels: Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (1998), Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (1999), and Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (2000). Combining many traditional elements of fantasy fiction and the fairytale, Rowling's stories provide a familiar backdrop for readers who can empathize with a young protagonist adrift in a sometimes cruel and challenging world. Full of clever wit, sly humor, high imagination, and brilliant invention, Rowling creates a world of mystery and magic in which Harry is able to free himself from the bonds of his cruel aunt and uncle, the Dursleys, and escape into the pleasant and peculiar setting of the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. Harry also finds refuge and friendship amongst his companions at Hogwarts. Critics acknowledge that the Potter books are masterfully inventive and display an acute sense of child psychology. While aimed primarily at a younger market, many adults have found the series to be a compelling, adventurous read, and take delight in the many humorous, macabre, and occasionally violent episodes.
Rowling was born in 1966 in Chipping Sodbury, Gloucestershire, England. Her father, Peter, was an aircraft factory manager, and her mother, Ann, a lab technician. Rowling grew up in Winterbourne, a hamlet close to the Welsh border, and lived four doors down from a family named the Potters, which is presumably where she drew inspiration for her main character's name. Her family moved again when she was nine, to Tutshill in the Forest of Dean. During her high school years, she was made head girl, despite the fact that she was generally a shy student. Rowling read often as a child, and began writing when she was six years old. According to interviews, she admired the works of writers such as E. Nesbit, Elizabeth Goudge, and Noel Streatfeild, among others. Although Rowling wanted to pursue a writing career, her parents convinced her to study French at Exeter University, with the hope that she would become a bilingual secretary.
Rowling's rise to her position as an acclaimed author is virtually one of rags-to-riches. According to reviews, Rowling began writing the first Harry Potter book in 1990 after her revelation on the train. She was working full-time and in a long-term relationship. Shortly afterward however, her mother died, and Rowling lost her job with the Manchester Chamber of Commerce. At the age of 26, Rowling moved to Portugal to teach journalism, and there met Portuguese journalist Jorge Arantes. They married October 16, 1992. During their brief marriage, she gave birth to a daughter, Jessica. Rowling separated from Arantes in 1993, and returned to Edinburgh, Scotland, to be near her sister. For almost a year afterward, Rowling lived with the aid of public assistance, struggling to survive and support her daughter as a single parent. Rowling recounts that during this time, she took daily trips to a nearby café with her infant daughter to escape their unheated apartment. Rowling's situation began to improve when the Scottish Arts Council gave her a grant to finish her first book, and she found a job as a French teacher. After a number of rejections, she eventually sold Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone to British publisher Bloomsbury for about $4000. A few months later, Arthur A. Levine Books bought the American rights, and Rowling was able to stop teaching. Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone, was published in the UK by Bloomsbury Children's Books in 1997. Renamed Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, the book was published in the United States in 1998.
Prior to writing about Harry Potter, Rowling wrote short stories and novels, but never attempted to publish them because of a lack of confidence in her work. Since the success of the first novel, Rowling has published three sequels: Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, and Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. Rowling intends to write a series of seven books, with each book chronicling one year in the life of Harry Potter at the Hogwarts School. Work on a film adaptation of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone is planned to start late in 2000. Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone was named Children's Book of the Year, and won the British Book Award and the Rowntree Neslte Smarties Prize in 1997. Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets received a Children's Book of the Year shortlist citation and the Rowntree Smarties Prize in 1998. Rowling won the Smarties Prize in 1999 as well, for Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. In addition to these awards, Rowling was named author of the year by the British Book Awards in 2000, and also received her first honorary degree, from Dartmouth College in New Hampshire.
Readers are introduced to Harry Potter in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone. Orphaned while still an infant, Harry has been reluctantly and negligently raised by his relatives, the Dursleys. At the approach of his eleventh birthday, mysterious letters begin to arrive addressed to Harry. His Aunt and Uncle intercept his letters until one is delivered in person by a giant wizard named Hagrid, who arrives to escort Harry to the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. Harry learns that he is a wizard, and that his parents died saving him from Voldemort, an evil sorcerer. Somehow, Harry survives Voldemort's attempt to kill him, leaving him with a lightning-shaped scar on his forehead. Harry's introduction to the life of a wizard begins with the purchase of school supplies: a wand, robes, cauldron, broomstick, and message-carrying owl. On the train to Hogwarts, Harry meets Ron Weasley and Hermione Granger. Upon arrival, the three students are placed into houses by a magical sorting hat. Harry, Ron, and Hermione are all placed into the house of Gryffindor. At Hogwarts, Harry takes classes such as Herbology, the History of Magic, Charms, Potions, and Defense Against the Dark Arts, and he becomes a star at Quidditch, an extremely complicated game played on broomsticks. He, Ron and Hermione spend their free time exploring areas of the forbidden third floor at Hogwarts, trying to discover the secret of the sorcerer's stone.
Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets relates events during Harry's second year at Hogwarts. Someone is turning residents of the school into stone, leaving threatening messages that refer to a mysterious Chamber of Secrets and to an heir to the house of Slytherin. Harry is frequently nearby when the attacks occur, and he is soon suspected of being the culprit. In addition, he hears a mysterious, threatening voice in his head that speaks of escape and murder. Harry, Ron, and Hermione discover that a figure known as “Tom Riddle” is seeking to destroy all students at Hogwarts who have any non-wizard, or Muggle, ancestry. The book culminates with Harry's fight against a giant serpent in the depths of the Chamber of Secrets. In Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, a reportedly dangerous killer named Sirius Black breaks out of Azkaban, the wizard prison, and is suspected of heading towards Hogwarts to murder Harry Potter. To guard Harry, the school is surrounded by Dementors, who are hooded, faceless demons that drain feelings of peace and hope out of those they encounter. In this book, Harry's Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher guards a dangerous secret; Hermione suddenly has the ability to be in more than one place at a time; and Ron's pet rat, Scabbers, is mysteriously wasting away. Using his Invisibility Cloak and a secret map, and with the aid of Ron and Hermione, Harry escapes the confines of the school's campus to lead readers through an intricately twisted plot with a surprising conclusion. Rowling designed Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire to be the culmination of books one, two and three. For the first time, she touches on themes such as political intrigue, jealousy, fame, and romance. Almost as long as the first three novels combined, the story opens with a description of events at the 422nd Quidditch World Cup before shifting to Harry's fourth year at Hogwarts. When Voldemort's sign, the Dark Mark, appears in the air at the Quidditch World Cup, the wizard world is thrown into a state of alert, and it appears evident that Voldemort's strength is returning. The fourth book focuses on the Triwizard Tournament held at Hogwarts, in which champions from three wizard schools compete for a thousand Galleons in prize money. Events throughout the story foreshadow a climactic future conflict between Harry and Lord Voldemort.
Rowling is praised for her highly imaginative and creative talent. Her work is intricately plotted, and she is often compared to authors Roald Dahl, P. L. Travers and C. S. Lewis. The first four books of the “Harry Potter” series have been translated into thirty-three languages, in 130 countries. In November 1999, Rowling's books occupied the top three spots on the New York Times Bestseller List. Overall, her books are liked by adults as well as children, and are favored by both genders. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire had the largest first printing ever recorded. Critics and readers alike have noted Rowling's ability to collect and use interesting words and names in her books. Though critics comment that the plots of the first three books are rather formulaic at times, almost all state that the books are nevertheless highly entertaining and well worth reading.
One of the most striking things about Rowling's works is the amount of excitement they have generated. Initial marketing of the series was minimal—most of its popularity spread by word of mouth. The books are upbeat, humorous and light-hearted, making them very different from much of the children's and young adult fiction currently published. Many people feel that the Harry Potter books turn non-readers into book lovers. Some factions, however, deem the books as anti-christian, and are working to have them banned from public schools and libraries. Christian parents, the driving force behind this movement, are suspicious of books that contain descriptions of sorcery and witchcraft. According to the American Library Association's Office for Intellectual Freedom, the “Harry Potter” collection tops the list of the ten books most challenged in 1999. Overall, however, the series has received the support of parents, teachers, and librarians who contend that the books have renewed the public's interest in reading.