Harry returns in a blaze of hype

YOU MIGHT be forgiven for thinking that Salman Rushdie's latest Booker-tipped epic will be the publishing event of the summer. But you would be wrong.

The real buzz in the book world concerns the new adventures of a small bespectacled orphan who, any child will tell you, is the son of famous wizards. On 8 July, the third volume in the acclaimed Harry Potter series arrives in Britain's bookstores.

Thousands of youngsters - and, more surreptitiously, many parents who have proved equally charmed - can barely wait.

"We get letters every day from children asking when the new Harry Potter is coming out," said a spokeswoman for the publishers Bloomsbury. "There is strong loyalty."

The Harry Potter books, written by divorced single mother Joanna (J K) Rowling, have become the children's publishing sensation of the past two years.

Sales of Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone and its sequel, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, have passed 500,000. Booksellers are confident the phenomenon will continue with Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban.

Ms Rowling, 34, of Edinburgh, has won the Smarties Book Prize (the children's equivalent of the Booker) two years running and missed the 1998 Whitbread by a whisker. And Warner Bros has snapped up the film rights to the first two books for a seven-figure sum.

The success has taken Bloomsbury from 20th position in the list of top children's publishing imprints in the second quarter of 1998 to 10th place in the second half.

Contributing to the sales are the special "adult edition" of the first book, published in a stylish black and white cover with orange lettering, so that adults who have fallen for the beguiling tale can read it without broadcasting the fact.

An adult edition of J K Rowling's second book will be published alongside the hardback third, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, this summer.

Analysing the sales data, the Children's Bookseller magazine said: "For high street booksellers in the UK this has been the year of Harry Potter." Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone was, it added, the "star at the top of the children's bestseller lists".

The books' eponymous hero is an orphan forced by cruel relatives to live under the stairs until his 11th birthday, when he discovers he is the son of famous wizards. Enrolled at Hogwart's School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, he learns magic and fights off the evil Lord Voldemort.

In the new book in the planned series of seven, Harry's adventures pitch him against Sirius Black, "possibly the most infamous prisoner ever to be held in Azkaban fortress".

In advance publicity, Bloomsbury is describing the publication as "the publishing event of the summer" and is anticipating such interest that a special collectors' cloth-bound edition is being prepared.

Even librarians consider the books a welcome addition to their shelves. Sue Roe, of the Youth Libraries Group of the Libraries Association, said: "They're very good. We certainly stock them - there's no question of librarians not stocking things that are popular.

"They're a good read because they combine a mixture of things," she said. "They're really quite an old-fashioned boarding school story, but with magic and fantasy and wizardry. They've got a lot of things that appeal to a lot of children."

The date of Harry Potter the third was inscribed on her memory. "It's 8 July, isn't it? You see, I'll be reading it as well."

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