If you buy or borrow nothing else this summer for the young readers in your family, you must get hold of a copy of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone by JK Rowley (Bloomsbury, £ 4.99). This is a book which makes an unassailable stand for the power of fresh, inventive storytelling in the face of formula horror and sickly romance.
The story of the book’s origins is a fairy tale all of its own. This first novel from an Edinburgh-based author has just received a six-figure advance in America. Yet it was written in snatches by an unemployed single mother. Joanne Rowling arrived in Edinburgh penniless following the break-up of her marriage. The book took shape as she scribbled feverishly in cafes as soon as her baby daughter dropped off to sleep in her pushchair. The fairy tale ending is now complete, with money and critical praise being showered on the adventures of young Harry. The sequel is already nearly completed.
In the first book, we hear of Harry’s early years, which following the death of his parents have been spent in Dickensian misery at the hands of his horrible aunt and uncle. But help is at hand and despite all manner of obstacles, he soon finds himself on platform nine-and-three-quarters at Waterloo Station, from which the train for Hogwarts School of Wizardry and Witchcraft departs.
What distinguishes this novel from so many other fantasies is its grip on reality. Harry is a hugely likeable child, kind but not wet, competitive but always compassionate. The scene in which he thwarts a bully’s attempt to unseat him from his broomstick during an exacting game of Quidditch - a cross between lacrosse and hockey, played on land and in the air - will ring bells with the most level-headed of readers.
He has much to live up to. His parents were both respected and much loved. The wizard who killed them, an individual so ghastly that his name can never be uttered, remains at large and a constant threat, and there are deliciously tense and frightening moments. Rowling uses classic narrative devices with flair and originality and delivers a complex and demanding plot to create a hugely entertaining thriller. She is a first-rate writer for children.