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Harry Potter's back again

The not-too-long-yet-breathlessly-awaited new Harry Potter book is here, thank goodness, offering perfect summer reading for both parents and child. It is the second in a planned series of seven. I'm happy to report it is as unput-downable as its widely popular predecessor, ``Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone.'' One need not have read the first to enjoy this second book in the series -- author J. K. Rowling swiftly (perhaps too swiftly) brings one up to speed in the first few pages. In ``Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets,'' new dangers and mysteries await the likable hero Harry, a magical boy raised by his Muggle (a.k.a. totally unmagical human) relatives, rescued in the first book, and sent off to the Hogwarts School for Witchcraft and Wizardry.

But all is not well this time around, neither for Harry, nor for the future of Hogwarts School. His new adventures begin when a high-strung house-elf named Dobby appears suddenly at the end of a dull Muggles summer to warn Harry of the troubles ahead:

``Harry Potter is valiant and bold! He has braved so many dangers already! But Dobby has come to protect Harry Potter, to warn him, even if he does have to shut his ears in the oven door later . . . Harry Potter must not go back to Hogwarts.''

Of course this signals a slew of magical adventures and misadventures; from spells to spiders; an inept new teacher of ``Defense Against the Dark Arts,'' and a ghost who mopes around the girls' bathroom. There are threats hissed from an invisible and (to all but Harry) inaudible enemy; dangerous midnight escapades; spells; an especially wild game of broomstick Quidditch (``the most popular sport in the wizarding world'') -- in short, everything imaginable or heretofore unimaginable, for all lovers of fantasy -- both genders, all ages. In the champagne exuberance of Rowling's inventiveness and wit, she recalls Lewis Carroll's classic Alice tales, or C. S. Lewis's ``Chronicles of Narnia.'' Such stories have been our modern-day answer to fairy tales, feeding on the stuff of dreams and nightmares: about-faces, puns, and a seemingly endless supply of magical creatures and events. Like these other tale-tellers, Rowling creates more archetypes than characters, with Harry and his two best friends standing out as real-life actors against a background of animated, enchanted beings, from flying cars to message-bearing owls.

It is in the details of their inventions that writers of magical fiction capture our ``suspension of disbelief for the moment,'' to quote Coleridge, and Rowling carefully oversees the details of her fantastical world:

`Ron presses a tiny silver button on the dashboard. The car around them vanished -- and so did they. Harry could feel the seat vibrating beneath him, feel his hands on his knees and his glasses on his nose, but for all that he could see, he had become a pair of eyeballs, floating a few feet above the ground in a dingy street full of parked cars.''`

If the first Harry Potter book was mostly a Cinderella story, this sequel is Hardy Boys at morph speed, written with an enhanced pen. The danger is that the Harry Potter books will become too much like the Hardy Boys for comfort, one event after another after another. So far at least, they have had neither the underlying meaning of the Narnia books nor the dreamlike, satirical planned non-sense of Lewis Carroll. After reading (and relishing) the first two volumes in the series, I'm uncomfortably unsure as to what these Harry Potter books are about, or if indeed they are about anything at all. All great fiction, of any kind and of any age, tests at least one or two of the Big Issues: friendship, loyalty, life, death -- whether the book is ``War and Peace'' or ``Charlotte's Web.'' In this sequel, Harry the boy wizard seems to be trying simply to stay out of harm's way, though he is an orphan with a mysterious past and an uncertain future -- surely the stuff of great fiction, and the story that seemed promised in the first book. Rowling may be so busy playing with the lovely surfaces of her fantasy that she's lost sight of its depths for the moment. Or -- since the third book is due out in September -- it may be that the heart and soul of Harry's story lies ahead.

I would go on reading the Harry Potter books for the joy of the ride, even if they never rise to be more than brilliant Nancy Drew or Hardy Boys. A generation of children adored those series, and they will love this one, too. But I have not given up hope. Rowling's genius stands far above the average series writer today. Having come so far on peerless inventiveness and grace, surely she will go further still. Meanwhile, the Harry Potter books remain a ray of strong summer sunshine in the world of children's literature.

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