Book review

Why the illustrated Harry Potter actually tells us something new

Jim Kay was selected to bring Harry’s world to life and he has captured the characters in some of their most vulnerable moments.

The Harry Potter books have achieved something that very few others have: though they have ostensibly concluded, they’re not quite done. Every snippet of new information, every interview in which Rowling admits she might have revised something, every new detail of the world is pored over and taken apart by rabid fans, many of whom grew up through their teenage years with the series.

This year alone, there’s been news of three new movies, a new play, and an all-new Pottermore website, even enhanced ebooks available on Apple’s iBooks store. And now there’s a fully illustrated, hardbound edition of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone making its way to fans around the world.

The edition, released October 6, was announced in 2012. Spokespersons from Bloomsbury (the UK publisher of the series) stated then that illustrator Jim Kay had been selected to bring Harry’s world to life in yet another format. Kay has previously worked with the Tate Gallery and the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, as well as illustrated books for a number of publishing houses, most notably working on Patrick Ness’s A Monster Calls for Walker Books (2011). It was this book, Kay says, “that changed [his] life” and really made a difference to his career.

Bloomsbury has been releasing images from the hotly-anticipated book for nearly a year now, and even tempted fans with a “deluxe” edition that will be sold from November 5, 2015 till March 2016. This version will come in a slipcase, is gilded and clothbound, and will carry an exclusive double-spread feature illustration of Diagon Alley.

As a digital editor remarked to me, “Almost anything can be made worthy of demand if you slap a limited edition sticker on it.”

A mammoth challenge

But enough background. What about the book itself? Does the illustrated version give old fans something new, and work to entice newer readers into Harry’s world? Or is it naught but a cynical cash-grab?

There’s no doubt that Kay had a mammoth task before him. The Harry Potter world, or Potterverse as fans have dubbed it, is unlike that of other similar children’s books in that its first readers are still very much around, “emerging adults” in their late twenties and early thirties who might even have children of their own. To make matters more difficult, the last movie in the franchise, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 only left screens in 2011, and its stars and imagery are still incredibly visible in public memory.

But Kay seems to have gathered up his Gryffindor courage and set to work. What’s emerged is a lovely, surprisingly “new” take on Harry’s world. The pages of the Illustrated edition, when not playing host to visions of Hogwarts and its denizens, are spattered with droplets of paint and crinkles suggesting the folding of parchment, or littered with trinkets and tokens of the Potterverse. Devoted fans might be thrilled to see a double page spread on trolls, an extract from Newt Scamander’s Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, or an illustration of the various types of dragon eggs in the chapter on Hagrid’s infamous dragon rearing attempt.

These are not the movies

Kay’s evocation of this world is very different from the version presented in the movies. The characters in these pages populate a world that looks magical all right, but has the quirkiness of other children’s classics, like Roald Dahl’s books, or Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. The tone of wonder is very much evident in his illustrations, and the strangeness of this new world that Harry finds himself in is paramount, rather than the darkness that later books foreground.

The characters are captured in some of their most vulnerable moments, and my favourite was by far Kay’s depiction of the Mirror of Erised. Arguably one of the most emotionally charged moments in the book (when Harry stands before a reflection of his dead family, seeing his parents for the first time), this scene is beautifully illustrated by Kay; rather than focusing on the parents themselves, Kay presents us a picture of Harry pressed yearningly against the mirror, his expression telling us he understands that he can’t, no matter how much he may long to, cross over and join his parents on the other side. It’s really no wonder that JK Rowling has been quoted as saying that his illustrations moved her “profoundly”.

This is a book for new, younger readers, a great gateway into a world that’s entranced millions. This is a book for older readers who grew up with the books and might be looking to revisit them, or, perhaps, share them with their own kids. The Illustrated Edition of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone proves not just that people want to “buy anything” related to the boy wizard, but that there’s something about his tale that pulls them back, time after time.

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