The spotty schoolboy and single mother taking the mantle from Roald Dahl

A SINGLE mother of 34 and a bespectacled orphan schoolboy may not be the most promising combination, but together they have become the publishing sensation of the past two years.

The latest chapter in the remarkable story of Joanna Rowling's beguiling literary creation began yesterday with the paperback publication of the second book in her Harry Potter series, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets.

Potter is the schoolboy wizard whose enthusiastic adoption by children and grown-ups in their hundreds of thousands has had critics hailing Ms Rowling as the new Roald Dahl.

Platform One at King's Cross Station briefly becomes the mythical Platform 9 and three-quarters, the place from which young Harry departs for school at the beginning of each new term and which functions like the wardrobe in C S Lewis's Narnia chronicles.

Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone, the first in what will eventually develop into a seven-part series, introduced the eponymous hero to a generation of computer games junkies previously thought to have been lost to the charms of print. The results have been extraordinary. Sales of the two books are now nudging half-a-million, while the hardback version of Chamber of Secrets spent its first month on the shelf as the bestseller across all books.

Ms Rowling has garnered an armful of awards, including the Smarties Book Prize (the children's equivalent of the Booker) in consecutive years and a place on the 1998 Whitbread shortlist. Hollywood lent its validation last autumn when Warner Brothers secured the film rights to both books for a seven-figure sum.

Master Potter is an orphan forced to live under the stairs by cruel relatives until he learns on his 11th birthday that he is, in fact, the son of famous wizards, whereupon he is whisked off to Hogwart's School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. There he takes lessons in potions, herb lore and Quidditch, a kind of football played on broomsticks. Oh yes, and he saves the school and the world from the fallen angel Lord Voldemort, a former head boy of Hogwarts, who chooses to turn his magic against the institution. In other words, a ripping yarn of good versus evil that legitimately conjures up the New Testament, only with characters that recall Roald Dahl.

The names of Dahl and C S Lewis are frequently mentioned alongside Ms Rowling's, a comparison at which she has balks. "C S Lewis is quite simply a genius and I'm not a genius," she said. "And while I think Dahl is a master at what he did, I do think my books are more moral than his. He also wrote very overblown comic characters, whereas I think mine are more three-dimensional."

Either way, critics have universally lauded Ms Rowling's as she carries readers into a world of invention where Harry flies a car into a tree in flagrant breach of rules on the misuse of Muggle (as normal people are known) artefacts. In the second book Harry unravels the secrets of giant spiders, schoolmates turned to stone and an unpleasant creature that has taken to lurking in the school plumbing.

Potter was drawn with spectacles because, Ms Rowling said, she had worn thick glasses as a child and was frustrated that "speccies" were swots but never heroes.

Nominally pitched at 9 to 12-year-olds, Harry's appeal has been broader. Parents who were complaining about their children's refusal to turn off the light until they had finished one more chapter became the next Potter converts. The publishers Bloomsbury took the unusual step of bringing out an adult version of the first book last September. It was wrapped in a design-conscious cover featuring a black and white photograph of a steam train with the title flashed in citrus orange letter. The idea was to spare adult readers on public transport the chore of hiding the children's version behind their morning paper.

If Harry's adventures make for compelling reading, then Ms Rowling's story is also worth a chapter or two. After working for Amnesty International, she went to Portugal to teach English. There she married a journalist, but within weeks of the birth of a daughter, Jessica, they had separated.

Divorced, penniless and now a single mother, she returned to Edinburgh, where her sister lived. Much of the first novel was written in Nicolson's, a cafe in the city where she would escape her cold and miserable flat. While Jessica slept in her pram, Ms Rowling stretched out her coffees and scribbled furiously away in long hand.

The manuscript was dispatched to Penguin, who turned it down, and then HarperCollins, where it gathered dust for a year. Finally she enlisted the help of a literary agent and, within a day of sending the book, Bloomsbury gratefully snaffled it up. The rest could well be literary and cinematic history.

young bestsellers

Past bestselling books...

Watership Down, by Richard Adams (1972)

The Magic Finger, by Roald Dahl (1974)

Thunder and Lightnings, by Jan Mark (1976)

Each Peach, Pear, Plum, by Allan and Janet Ahlberg (1978)

Matilda, by Roald Dahl (1980)

The BFG, by Roald Dahl (1982)

The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole Aged 13-3/4,

by Sue Townsend (1984)

Going Solo, by Roald Dahl (1986)

The Witches, by Roald Dahl (1988)

Esio Trot, by Roald Dahl (1990)

Truckers, by Terry Pratchett (1992)

Flour Babies, by Anne Fine (1994)

Goose Bumps, by R L Stine (1996)

Children's Book of Books (1998)

Source: Bookwatch Ltd

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Voices
There will be a chance to bid for a rare example of the SAS Diary, collated by a former member of the regiment in the aftermath of World War II but only published – in a limited run of just 5,000 – in 2011
charity appealTime is running out to secure your favourite lot as our auction closes at 2pm tomorrow
Arts and Entertainment
James May, Jeremy Clarkson and Richard Hammond in the Top Gear Patagonia Special
tv
News
Claudia Winkleman and co-host Tess Daly at the Strictly Come Dancing final
people
Arts and Entertainment
Caroline Flack became the tenth winner of Strictly Come Dancing
tvReview: 'Absolutely phenomenal' Xtra Factor presenter wins Strictly Come Dancing final
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
News
news
News
Elton John and David Furnish will marry on 21 December 2014
peopleSinger posts pictures of nuptials throughout the day
Sport
SPORT
Life and Style
A still from the 1939 film version of Margaret Mitchell's 'Gone with the Wind'
life
Arts and Entertainment
J Jefferson Farjeon at home in 1953
booksBooksellers say readers are turning away from modern thrillers and back to golden age of crime writing
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Recruitment Consultant

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: We have an excellent role for a...

Recruitment Genius: IT Support Analyst - Bristol

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: An IT Support Analyst is required to join the ...

Austen Lloyd: Senior Private Client Solicitor

Excellent Salary: Austen Lloyd: SURREY - An outstanding high level opportunity...

Austen Lloyd: Construction Solicitor - London

Very Competitive Salary : Austen Lloyd: NICHE CITY FIRM - We are making a disc...

Day In a Page

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

Panto dames: before and after

From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

The man who hunts giants

A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
The 12 ways of Christmas: Spare a thought for those who will be working to keep others safe during the festive season

The 12 ways of Christmas

We speak to a dozen people who will be working to keep others safe, happy and healthy over the holidays
Birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends, new study shows

The male exhibits strange behaviour

A new study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf and Noël Coward reveal how they coped with the December blues

Famous diaries: Christmas week in history

Noël Coward parties into the night, Alan Clark bemoans the cost of servants, Evelyn Waugh ponders his drinking…
From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a hungry worker's rant to Russell Brand, says DJ Taylor
A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore: A prodigal daughter has a breakthrough

A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore

The story was published earlier this month in 'Poor Souls' Light: Seven Curious Tales'
Marian Keyes: The author on her pre-approved Christmas, true love's parking implications and living in the moment

Marian Keyes

The author on her pre-approved Christmas, true love's parking implications and living in the moment
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef creates an Italian-inspired fish feast for Christmas Eve

Bill Granger's Christmas Eve fish feast

Bill's Italian friends introduced him to the Roman Catholic custom of a lavish fish supper on Christmas Eve. Here, he gives the tradition his own spin…
Liverpool vs Arsenal: Brendan Rodgers is fighting for his reputation

Rodgers fights for his reputation

Liverpool manager tries to stay on his feet despite waves of criticism
Amir Khan: 'The Taliban can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'

Amir Khan attacks the Taliban

'They can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'
Michael Calvin: Sepp Blatter is my man of the year in sport. Bring on 2015, quick

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Sepp Blatter is my man of the year in sport. Bring on 2015, quick