When Harry Potter was just a baby, Voldemort, an evil wizard, killed his parents. When Voldemort tried to kill him, however, something happened that temporarily vanquished Voldemort. Since then, Harry has been celebrated in the wizarding world as the Boy Who Lived. Harry knows none of this, however, because he has grown up with the Dursleys, who hate magic, wizards, and anything that is even a little fantastical. They are ordinary and boring and resent and dislike anything that isn't as ordinary and boring as they are. They barely tolerate Harry and don't tell him about magic, his parents being wizards, or even how his parents really died. That's why it's such a shock when, on his 11th birthday, Harry is visited by a giant man named Hagrid, who tells him everything. Harry excitedly leaves the Dursleys to spend the school year attending the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. Adjusting to his new life isn't always easy, especially since one particular professor seems to hate him for some reason. Still, it's better than living with the Dursleys, and, for the first time ever, Harry makes a few friends.
Although much of the book deals with Harry's relatively ordinary experiences at Hogwarts (classes, homework, making friends, dealing with bullies), later chapters deal with Harry and his friends' efforts to prevent a supporter of Voldemort from helping Voldemort to regain his strength and powers.
This book was one of my comfort reads for years. I enjoyed it for some of the same reasons I enjoyed books like Mercedes Lackey's Arrows of the Queen – I love magical/fantasy school stories, and I love the basic premise.
When I was a teen, magical school stories gave me something that was relatable but more interesting than my own day-to-day life – in this case, Potions class instead of Chemistry, or Wizarding History instead of U.S. History. Hogwarts itself had the same effect on me – Harry being lost during his first days at Hogwarts was somewhat similar to what I remember about being lost during my first day in middle school or high school, only he had to deal with moving staircases and other magical oddities.
The basic premise was a satisfying fantasy: the main character is taken out of his horrible home life after he learns that he's actually special. Because Harry doesn't feel special, frets over being able to live up to others' expectations, and, out of everything new he begins to learn, is only a natural at flying and Quidditch, he's saved, for me at least, from being annoying. It's definitely not an unusual premise, but it's one that was consistently appealing to me when I was a teen, and I still enjoy it now that I'm an adult.
One thing that did strike me, listening to this book after having read it many times, is how over-the-top the Dursleys are. If they had been real people treating Harry like that, they probably would have found themselves visited by social workers (or so I assume – I'm not sure how things work in the U.K.). Their neglect was just over-the-top enough that I found it more humorous than horrifying. They didn't come across as real people so much as caricatures, which also made what Hagrid did to Dudley seem less horrific than it could have. Thinking about it now, though, geez, Hagrid did something to Dudley that required surgery to fix, and, as far as I know, he was never punished for it. True, Dudley was an annoying bully, but what Hagrid did shouldn't have been okay. And yet, I know when I first read this book that never even crossed my mind. I suppose something, maybe getting older or having read the later books, changed my perspective a bit.
For the most part, this book stood the test of time for me, although I'm amazed at how light and naive it feels after having read the darker later books. At this point, there are really no serious worries about anyone dying – all deaths have happened in the past, off-page, any emotional wounds aren't fresh, and Voldemort's evil is still at a level where a group of sharp kids can stand up to him. Voldemort is still more a cardboard monster-under-the-bed-type villain than anything.
Although I've read this first book many times, this is the first time I've listened to it in audio book form. I've heard people rave about Jim Dale and his reading of the Harry Potter books, so I was expecting to love him at least as much as I do Stephen Briggs when he reads Terry Pratchett's books...and I just didn't. While I do think the number of distinct character “voices” he creates is impressive (even if I don't agree with the kinds of voices he gave some characters), I kept getting distracted by the mismatch between the way Rowling's text said the characters should be saying their lines and how Dale actually spoke them. The text would say that the character said something “hotly” or “softly,” and the way Dale spoke didn't always match, changing, for me, the impact of those lines. I think I prefer reading the books myself to listening to Jim Dale read them. However, considering the size of my TBR pile, it's more likely that I'll be listening to them in the future than rereading them.
- Arrows of the Queen (book) by Mercedes Lackey - This is the first book in what is technically a trilogy, although it's part of a larger series - it's the first book Lackey ever set in this world, though, so no worries about being lost. The main character is a girl, and the bulk of the magical stuff comes a bit later. However, this book may still appeal to those who'd like another school story starring a young person who is the adults' best hope against villainous forces. The main character, Talia, comes from a small, isolated community where she didn't feel she fit in and where she would soon have been forced in an awful marriage. Talia encounters a beautiful white horse that is more than it appears and that carries her off to the palace, where she finds out she has a special role to play.
- Midnight for Charlie Bone (book) by Jenny Nimmo - Charlie Bone is able to look at photographs and hear what people were saying and even thinking at the time the photograph was taken. He learns that he is one of the endowed, a descendant of the Red King, and becomes a student at Bloor's Academy, an elite boarding school for other endowed children. Those who'd like another magical school story might want to try this.
- The Golden Compass (book) by Philip Pullman - This book is the first in a trilogy set in a world where everyone has a daemon, sort of like a physical, separate representation of a part of themselves (their soul?). Children's daemons can be any animal, but daemons settle into one form at some point during puberty. This first book stars Lyra, a wild young girl who ends up on a journey where she encounters armored bears, witch clans, and mysterious child kidnappers. Those who liked the adventure and magical aspects of Harry Potter may want to try this.
- First Test (book) by Tamora Pierce - The realm of Tortall has recently allowed girls to become pages and train to become knights. Ten-year-old Kel is officially the first girl to become a page (another girl became one before her, but she was pretending to be a boy at the time). Looking forward to being treated as an equal, she instead finds herself bullied. However, she perseveres, makes friends, and works hard. Those who aren't particularly interested in reading about magic but would still like a school story might want to try this. I've written about the audio book version of this book.
- Sandry's Book (book) by Tamora Pierce - Okay, so I just suggested one of Tamora Pierce's books, but I thought I'd add this one to the list for those who'd like a school story but who did want something with more magic in it.
- So You Want to Be a Wizard (book) by Diane Duane - Nita and Kit team up in a wizardly Ordeal to gain magical powers after Nita finds a book in her local library (So You Want to Be a Wizard) that tells her everything she needs to know. For those who'd like something else with magic and a bullied main character.
- The Lightning Thief (book) by Rick Riordan - I had a hard time finding a decent link for just the first book in the series, so my link leads to a page for a set including the first three books. The main character finds out he's the son of Poseidon and is taken to Camp Half-Blood, a summer camp for demigods. Those who'd like more magic and adventure starring a boy might want to try this.
- Artemis Fowl (book) by Eoin Colfer - Twelve-year-old Artemis Fowl is a criminal mastermind who, unlike adults, still believes in magic, which prompts him to try to steal a pot of gold from the fairyfolk. In order to accomplish his goal, Artemis kidnaps one of the fairyfolk and demands ransom money (er, gold). Those who'd like something else with magic, adventure, and humor might want to try this.
- Dragonsong (book) by Anne McCaffrey - Menolly's greatest wish is to become a Harper (basically, a trained musician - they also often serve as traveling sources of news), but her father doesn't think that's proper work and does everything he can to make her dream impossible. When Menolly is caught out during Threadfall (silvery stuff that falls from the sky and eats any living tissue it touches), she ends up accidentally bonding with nine young fire lizards (tiny dragons) and opts to try surviving on her own rather than go back to her restrictive father. Again, we have a main character growing up in horrible conditions who doesn't feel that she fits in. I think the focus of this book is more on survival, but the next book definitely has more of a school story focus.