Midnight Fire

Clerk Calvin Wood serves up copies of the book to some parents who are happier than the kids to finally score Harry's latest.
Deron Neblett

Garrett Samples read all three Harry Potter books in one night. And on last Friday evening, the 13-year-old gets primed to pull another all-nighter as he sits at the Bookstop, eagerly awaiting the midnight release of the fourth book, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. Like millions of kids worldwide, Garrett's a Harry Potter fanatic. "I just get into a frenzy about it," he says. He checks the Web site every day, plays Harry Potter trivia games, and he has read each Potter book at least five times. Determined to read all 734 pages, Garrett planned to drink a glass of water every five minutes to stay awake.

"It works," he tells his aunt, Carlotta Samples.

For the five people in the world who haven't heard of Harry, he's a ten-year-old Brit living a Cinderella lifestyle. Orphaned, he's raised by his boring aunt and uncle, Vernon and Petunia Dursley. They ignore Harry, rarely feed him and make him sleep in a closet crawling with spiders. Like many kids, Harry wishes that he could have a new family and a new life. Harry feels like an outcast in his own family. Nobody loves him.

"He hurts in ways that every little child can feel," says Mary Koenig, a 56-year-old English instructor at Houston Community College. She wore her black matriculation gown from Oxford and a sheer witch's hat to the Harry Potter party.

Koenig wears the outfit because Harry's birth parents were witches. A giant appears at the Dursleys' door on Harry's 11th birthday and whisks Harry off to Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. All the abnormal things Harry has always been able to do (like speak to snakes) suddenly make sense.

It's every child's fantasy. Harry moves to a world without parents where he has celebrity status, a bank vault full of gold and unlimited candy. The lightning bolt-shaped scar on his forehead is a reminder of when Lord Voldemort (basically an Oz-like Wicked Witch of the West) tried to kill baby Harry. In every book Harry defeats the dark lord in some new scary shape or form. Hence, the moral of the books: Good conquers evil.

The new book has the largest first printing in the history of literature. Excitement built as kids rushed to reserve their books, their tickets to midnight Harry Potter parties across the country. As the clock nears the witching hour, kids wearing round black glasses, capes and red lightning bolt scars pack bookstores.

At the Bookstop on Shepherd, kids sit shoulder-to-shoulder from the top of the rear stairs where the magazines are, all the way up the aisle to the front entrance. It's like a Backstreet Boys concert. In a quiet corner, Garrett looks at his aunt's watch; it's 13 minutes until midnight. "Ooh," he says, sucking in his breath. "Getting close."

In the middle of the crowd, Daniel O'Sullivan, 13, and his brother Connor are too excited to sit.

"I've waited a year for this," says Connor, ten, his fists clenched.

The boys reserved two copies (so they wouldn't fight over who got to read it first) and two more at another bookstore -- just in case this store runs out. They weren't taking any chances.

"It's hard to believe this one is finally here," says Daniel. Sweating and shaking, he looks like he has had two dozen Diet Cokes.

Midnight grows closer. "TEN-NINE-EIGHT-SEVEN--!" The kids scream the final countdown. "This is going to be a question on Jeopardy someday," says Kathy Butler, a lawyer standing with her nine-year-old son.

As the clock strikes 12, the real waiting begins. Kids are called up group by group to buy their books, a slow process. Adults, meanwhile, pass time arguing how to pronounce the name of Harry's friend Hermione. "That's the true test of a Harry Potter aficionado," says Dan Semetko. His son thought it was Her-moan-ee, Dan thought it was Her-moh-nee, but his wife says it's Her-my-oh-nee. "It's from the Greek," Debbie says. She saw it on Rosie O'Donnell.

On the floor near the cash register, 29-year-old Jenny Latham is a heretic on this night, reading from a Sidney Sheldon book. "I'm torturing my boyfriend," says the financial analyst. On their way downtown, she wanted to stop and buy the Harry Potter book. Two hours later they are still waiting. Even though her boyfriend isn't a fan, she loves Harry too.

"She doesn't think I'm ready for them yet," says Andy Zhmurovsky.

Many adults like Harry Potter books because kids like them: Children who haven't picked up a book since One Fish, Two Fish are dying to read the hefty hardback. "He gives kids a real feeling of empowerment," says Marilyn Gore.

Potter also extends bedtime because it's not easy to put him down; kids want to keep reading because almost every chapter ends with the arrival of a new mystery or Harry thinking he has figured out a mystery. Marilyn let her ten-year-old son, David, stay up an hour past his bedtime to finish the first book, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone. "At about 11 p.m. I heard this whooping and hollering coming from his room," Marilyn says. David was so excited when he read the last page he had to scream. She sat on his bed until after midnight while he described the whole book to her.

The book also captivates grown-ups because, like kids, a lot of them would prefer to live in a world where everything works out. Author J.K. Rowling was living on welfare when she leaped into her imagination and wrote the first book on napkins at a gray-walled cafe. Harry Potter books leave adults smiling because Hogwarts is a faraway happy place with solutions to problems. If someone bothers you there, you can turn them into a toad.

"It's refreshing," says Richard Harrington, the track and football coach at Northbrook High School. "I hear parents saying it's against God. That's so much bullshit. They need to have some imagination."

He refers to parents who (showing their true muggle colors) say witchcraft is satanic and wrong. (These are the type of people who held the Salem witch trials.) "Any book that fundamentalist Christians want to be banned is worth reading," says Geoffrey Hutson, a 41-year-old lawyer on hand with his three kids.

Harry's wizard world celebrates Halloween, but also Christmas and Easter (thus far we haven't seen them celebrate a seder, but the ADL seems to have let that slide). His universe is admittedly scary; even the author told Newsweek she thought the books were too frightening for her six-year-old.

Harry's not the greatest role model, but that's fine with HISD teachers Maribel and Joel Castro, who await their copies while seated in the Bookstop travel section. They think it's okay that Harry doesn't ask his teachers for help, and often sneaks around and lies to them. "Dumbledore [the headmaster] lets Harry be independent and learn on his own," Joel says. "That's the current trend in teaching."

Joel reads the books to his students in Spanish; it helps them learn the language. But the books also teach lessons of their own. Fans of earlier books discovered that evil can't touch Harry because his mother's love protects him, or that it's not what talents you have, but what choices you make that determine who you are. Harry finds out (stealing from FDR) that fear is the only thing to be afraid of -- and that thinking happy thoughts can ward off dark depression.

By 1 a.m. there's a struggle to ward off dark depression. The Bookstop's line is still a long, stretching snake. Parents should have brought sleeping bags; kids are slumped on the floor, their eyes half-closed, even though they insist they aren't tired.

"Do you want to come back tomorrow, Jack?" Jean Jeresi asks her eight-year-old.

"No," Jack says.

"We're not going to read it tonight," Jean says. Three other mothers swoop on Jean, urging her not to leave. "It'll be even worse tomorrow," one says. The store might be sold out then. She feels ill, she says. She's tired, she wants to go to bed, and she's sick of standing in line. But she wants to be a good mother, and a few minutes later Jack's number is called. Excited, he runs up to the cash register before she can give him money.

Coreen Roberts leads her five-year-old daughter, Kalei, out into the parking lot. Kalei's eyes are filled with tears. "I want my book," she says.

Maybe tomorrow.

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