July 7, 2000 -- A bespectacled, British 12-year-old boy with a pet owl is told he may become the most powerful magician in the world.
The typical intrigues in a prestigious, coed English boarding school are complicated by the presence of wizardry.
Sound like Harry Potter? These are actually the plots of The Books of Magic, a comic book series started by Neil Gaiman in 1991, and Witch Week, a 1982 book by Diana Wynne Jones. The first Harry Potter book came out in 1997.
“There are terrific similarities, I don’t deny that,” says Jones, an acclaimed writer of children’s fantasy who is currently working on her 40th book in a 30-year career.
Jones’ popular “Chrestomanci” novels deal with young wizards and witches who are helped by Chrestomanci, a powerful, benign sorcerer.
“I suspect that this lady [Harry Potter creator J.K. Rowling] must have read all my books when she was quite young and let them go down to that marsh everybody has at the bottom of their minds, and out things came bubbling,” she says.
Peter Gross, who wrote The Books of Magic for two years until June, says he sees resemblances between his Tim Hunter and Harry Potter, but writes them off.
“When you talk about comparisons between Harry Potter and other works in the genre, it’s hard to tell what you can call borrowing ideas, because this is an idea that is as old as myth,” he says.
A Rising Tide
Jennifer Lavonier, manager of Books of Wonder, a children’s bookstore in New York City, says the Harry Potter tide has upped the overall interest in children’s fantasy fiction.
“It has boosted young-adult sales across the board. Kids want to know what else they can put their hands on,” she says.
That includes C.S. Lewis’ famed Chronicles of Narnia, Susan Cooper’s Dark Is Rising series, and Jones’s English-tinted fantasies, bookstore clerks in New York say.
“I’m getting letters from kids who have been into shops saying, ‘Isn’t the latest Harry Potter out yet?’ and they said, ‘Sorry, but try [Jones’s books]’ — they read them and enjoy them thoroughly,” Jones says.
She says Rowling’s fantasies are quicker reads than hers.
“[My books] take a little more trying if you’re going to read them. Kids don’t want to be trying all the time,” she said.
A Nod to Potter
The Books of Magic, whose hero is a dead ringer for Harry, hasn’t been caught up in the wave. DC Comics chose not to market the comic book to children, freeing Gross to write much darker story lines than Rowling — in one of the many alternate worlds featured in the series, Tim Hunter ends up selling his soul to a demon to save the world and becomes a bearded vagrant living in a cardboard box.
That didn’t stop Gross from putting in a nod to Potter in his final issue of The Books of Magic. Tim’s obnoxious stepbrother Cyril puts on a “glamour stone,” which turns him into a familiar face. Cyril steps onto a platform at King’s Cross Station … and he’s off to Hogwarts.
“What the hell,” said Gross. “It’s nice to acknowledge Harry a little bit.”