The new Harry Potter novel is breaking sales records on both sides of the Atlantic. Some 9 million copies of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince were sold in Britain and the United States in the first 24 hours after its release on July 16. This is the 6th novel in British author J.K. Rowling's best selling series. Its appearance brought weeks of speculation and suspense to a climax, and bookstores around America held parties to celebrate the last few hours before sales began.
At A Likely Story, a children's bookstore in Alexandria, Virginia, staff and customers counted down the final three seconds together, then declared it "Magic Time" at the stroke of midnight. Eileen, 10, was among the crowd of kids staying up way past their normal bedtime to buy one of the first copies of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. She came hoping the book would answer a lot of questions, starting with exactly what happened to Harry Potter's godfather Sirius. "I'd like to find out whether Sirius is really gone," she explained, "and I heard somebody say that somebody good dies in this, so I was wondering who it is. And also I was wondering who the Half-Blood Prince is."
To be a Harry Potter fan is to enter a world with a language, set of customs and cast of characters all its own. Dinah Paul, who owns A Likely Story, says the books have become a cultural phenomenon. "Once so many people have started to read it," she says, "it's like, my friend's read it, just about everybody in the neighborhood has read it, I want to read it too. So it's word of mouth that keeps multiplying."
A Likely Story launched its Harry Potter party at the Alexandria train station, and ended with a midnight parade back to the store. It is at a train station that Harry passes through a magical brick wall on his way to the school where he and his friends study to be wizards. "They board Hogwarts Express to get to Hogwarts," Dinah Paul explains. "And I thought, Alexandria has a beautiful train station--why not use it to promote the book?"
Fans -- many dressed as their favorite characters -- entered the station by passing through an entrance painted to look like a brick wall. Inside, they could dine at a sweet shop offering its own version of chocolate frogs and other fantastic delicacies. They could also visit a fortuneteller to hear their futures predicted, or get a brief lesson in mixing potions. Put in "a little thyme to enjoy life," instructed the teacher, then mix with sage for wisdom, dry dragon scales to become smarter, and "for added strengthener, dried frog eyes."
All that wizardry is part of the charm of the books for Brian Portillo, 12, who helped organize the party's Harry Potter trivia contest. "I love the series," Brian declared, "having all this magic, and the whole fantasy and feeling powerful."
Wearing a black robe, hood and face paint to look like one of the ghoulish dementors, Kelly Dervarics, 10, said she too loves the magic in the books. "And I like the friendship and the bond between Harry, Hermione and Ron," Kelly added, "and the good versus evil."
Bookstore owner Dinah Paul is a Harry Potter fan herself, and she believes readers of all ages can identify with the way the young hero changes over the course of the stories. "We're all growing up along with Harry," she says. "You saw him start out -- he was orphaned, he had horrible people to live with who didn't treat him well. And now he's found his place. He's trying to fight all these different obstacles. Even though it is a fantasy, it does relate to our own lives too, I think."
Dinah Paul believes the Harry Potter stories often lead young readers to discover other books as well. "They come back and they say I love Harry Potter," she says. "What else do you have that's like Harry Potter? And that gives us a great opportunity to mention other books and fantasies."
But in recent days, Harry Potter fans have had thoughts for just one book. Samantha, 9, and her parents traveled some 4 hours -- from Pittsburgh to Alexandria -- to attend the party at A Likely Story. She planned to go right back to the hotel and start reading her copy of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. And judging by past experience, she expected to be reading for a long time. "The 5th book took a month," Samantha recalled.
Some readers were finished soon after they bought the 672-page story. Karen Landon and her daughter both raced through it in just a couple of days. She pronounced it excellent, but different from other books in the series. "I think they're getting darker," she says. "They're a little more violent, and I don't mean graphic violence. But they're just a little more serious."
But Karen Landon says she does not believe that makes the stories any less suitable for kids like her daughter. "She's 15," says Ms. Landon. "It's something we can talk about. But she (J. K. Rowling) does remove a main character."
Paulina Reichenbach, 13, finished the book in just 24 hours, with a few sleep breaks. "I thought it was good," she says. "The other books were more about classes and learning magic. This was more background information, but it was really interesting."
And after all this waiting, how does it feel to be finished with the book so soon? "Well, the 7th book is probably going to come out in about two years," Paulina says, "so I'm just looking at web sites and speculating about what's going to happen then."
And Paulina Reichenbach is not quite ready to put Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince behind her yet. She is now reading the British edition, the same story but with some different vocabulary words and illustrations.