Magical thinking

Times Staff Writer

FROM her UCLA days as an English literature major, Amelia Saltsman fondly recalls Victorian novels that painted a vivid picture of an imagined world, complete with loads of period details -- like the sprawling epic of upper-class passions and politics contained in Anthony Trollope’s six Palliser novels.

Trollope’s tomes aren’t the literary fare in her sights right now, though. Rather, she’s waiting with the eagerness of a child panting for a new puppy for Saturday, the day “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows,” the seventh (and supposedly final) book in the ragingly popular series about young wizards-in-training, goes on sale.

Saltsman, 56, and her husband, Ralph, 59, who live near Rustic Canyon Park, became enthralled with British author J.K. Rowling’s books years ago after reading the first two in paperback.


“They are novels of initiation and human growth, passionately written,” she said. “Diagon Alley and those sorts of things amused us. We loved that she took the trouble to create elaborate Quidditch” -- the airborne ballgame played on broomsticks -- “with all its rules.”

The Saltsmans are just two of the millions of adults who have fallen under the spell of Harry, Hogwarts and hippogriffs. Many of these grown-ups first started reading the books to their children nine years ago, when the series made its debut in the United States with “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.” They quickly became hooked themselves. In some cases, the adults’ interest has outlasted that of the younger set for whom the books were initially written.

Of the Saltsmans’ three grown children, their 29-year-old daughter is the most dedicated fan. In 2003, when she was living in Japan, her parents mailed her a copy of “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix,” the fifth installment in the series.

Many readers agree that Harry Potter quickly evolved to become as much an adult phenomenon as a children’s phenomenon. Some contend that Rowling’s prose has matured as the series has progressed, perhaps in response to the rising maturity of her books’ fans.

“I think they started out as a children’s read,” said Glennie Falzareno of Orchard Park, N.Y. “She has sharpened her writing style to go along with the fact that she attracted a wider age range than originally intended. I commend her for her growth.”

In a recent poll by Zogby International of 5,689 adults nationwide, nearly a third (30%) said they had read at least one book in the series. Adults with Harry fever tended to be on the younger end of the age scale: 48% of those ages 18 to 24 have read at least one book, the most of any age group. Parents with young children were more likely to pick up the books than were those without youngsters at home.

A quarter of adults say they plan to read “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.”

“Come midnight on Friday, you’ll see just as many adults standing in line as children,” said Diane Roback, children’s book editor for Publishers Weekly, a trade magazine. “Eight to 80 is no exaggeration in this case.”

Or 24 to 61. That’s the age spread of Potter-loving booksellers at Children’s Book World in West Los Angeles. Luke Robertson, 24, recalls that his parents and English teachers in the Coachella Valley encouraged him to read the books. “People have grown up with them and are emotionally attached,” he said. Rowling “paints a very vivid picture of a really exciting world, and that appeals to every age.”

Employee Kate Falzareno, Glennie’s daughter, was oblivious to the series until her mother passed the first books along. She finds the plots intricate and the themes complex. “You’re talking about growing up, disassociation from peers, things that no matter how old you become still strike a chord,” said Falzareno, 28. “According to some people, I’m too grown-up for Harry Potter. But so are my friends and my parents and their friends. It may be canted for children, but I don’t believe that’s where it stops, by any means.”

Bookseller Maureen Britt, 29, was attending college and working part time for Amazon, the online retailer, when Harry Potter began to grab attention. Having grown sick of seeing Harry’s scarred face everywhere in the warehouse, she was determined not to read Rowling. But then she devoured a copy of the first book in one night.

Now she rattles off character names -- Neville, Snape, Dumbledore -- and plot points at lightning speed.

Janet Zarem, 61, another Children’s Book World employee, “can’t wait” for Friday night’s release party, when booksellers will don costumes and dive into the world of Horcruxes and killing curses. Ten years ago, when the first book was available only in England and U.S. readers had to have a friend ship it to them, Zarem was part of a listserv of midcareer university professors, librarians and teachers.

“We all started talking about it,” she said. Most talked with enthusiasm, she said, although “there are some people who don’t like Harry Potter, amazingly.”

When the King’s English Bookshop in Salt Lake City holds its Harry Potter bookrelease parties, adults really get into the act as they wait in line to be sorted into houses (Gryffindor, anyone?). “I’ve even seen a few elbows flying,” said manager Anne Holman.

James Boyk, 64, a well-read West Los Angeles concert pianist and instructor who dabbles in fiction writing, has been through each Potter book at least three times. He admires Rowling’s attention to ideas big and small.

“I took to them from the first word, and I’m very much looking forward to the seventh one,” Boyk said. “We’ve had two copies ordered for six months already” -- one for him and his wife, Carol, and one for their 24-year-old son, David. Over the years, the three have discussed the books in detail. Boyk compares Rowling favorably with Jane Austen.

“I’m not saying she is as immortal as Austen or Dickens, Trollope or Nabokov,” Boyk added. “But I couldn’t care less. I’m a reader in the present, and Rowling is masterly.”

One Orange County family is taking Potter mania to a giddy extreme. Lisa Holland, 46, a librarian, has decided not to beat around the mangrove bush. She has ordered six copies of “Deathly Hallows” -- one each for herself, husband Craig, daughter Robyn (22), sons Ben (18) and Zach (16), and daughter Rebecca (11).

“Nobody,” she said, “will share.”