Finally, booksellers, librarians, teachers and parents all around the world can say something other than "no, not yet." On Wednesday, Scholastic Inc. and Bloomsbury Publishing proclaimed that J.K. Rowling had really and truly finished "Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix" and that the fifth book in the internationally acclaimed series will be published on June 21. Of this year.
The announcement followed almost two years of publication date push-backs and countless articles speculating on the future of the publishing houses and film studios linked to the series, the particulars of Rowling's personal life (in the last year, she married and is expecting a child), and the possibility of that literary boogeyman -- writer's block.
But if Rowling suffers from writer's block, it is the most unusual case on record; the manuscript she handed in to Bloomsbury is Dickensian in length if not content. At 255,000 words, broken into 38 chapters, it's almost a third again the size of "Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire," which, at 734 pages, was itself more than twice the size of the classic "Little Women," once considered a hefty kids' book.
"It's a little overwhelming," says Patti Gonzales, a children's librarian at the Richard J. Riordan Central Library in downtown Los Angeles. " 'Goblet of Fire' is the longest children's book I've come across."
"Goblet of Fire," the fourth book in the planned seven-volume series about a young wizard, weighed a remarkable 2 1/2 pounds in hardback, which means this next one may well push past 3. "I don't know how the kids will handle [it]," says Jessica Campbell, a bookseller for Children's Book World in West L.A.
But both women laugh as they speak because mostly what they feel about the news is relief. Scant months after the July 2000 debut of "Goblet of Fire" people began asking them for news of the fifth book. Twice now, the women have had to inform children that, well, no, they thought it would be out by summer, or Christmas, but sometimes things happen and grown-ups make mistakes and....
For many who work with children's literature, and not just in the publishing end, time is now divided into the years B.H. and A.H. When she joined the staff 3 1/2 years ago, Gonzales says, her first instructions were to read "Chamber of Secrets" and "Sorcerer's Stone" so she could answer any questions about the text. Not that there have been many. "Oh, the kids all know the stories very well," she says.
Likewise, Campbell began working at Children's Book World right after the third book, "Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban" had hit American shelves. She remembers the day Rowling came to the store for a signing. "We had people lined up around the block at the crack of dawn," she says. "She was a trooper. It was the end of her tour and her hand was in a sling from signing so many books but she signed 1,000 in two hours. I can't imagine," she adds, "that she would do such a thing now."
In fact, Campbell wonders if the perceived delay has damped enthusiasm. "I haven't been getting as many requests lately," she says. "And, really, some of the kids who were reading the books have grown up a bit."
Rowling steadfastly contends that there was no delay because she never promised a book a year. Furthermore, she has said, she is counting on the maturation of her audience; the stories and characters are intended to become more complex as they near the final volume.
Which is why, on second thought, Campbell is less concerned about the length of the book. "It's aimed more at 14-year-olds," she says, "so it's not completely out of line. The problem will be the 8-year-olds trying to get through it."
And though Campbell doesn't quite agree with media reports that have Rowling single-handedly reinventing children's literature, she does believe that Harry Potter has revitalized the children's and young adult fantasy genre.
"Susan Cooper, Ursula Le Guin, the Narnia novels are all being rediscovered," she says. "And some authors, Diana Wynne Jones and Eva Ibbotson, have reached a whole new level thanks to Harry Potter."
So maybe June 21 will be a big day after all. "There's a whole new generation that's just starting them," she says.