Harry Potter author launches book for adults
J.K. Rowling’s ‘The Casual Vacancy’ was released this week. It is the first adult’s book from the celebrated children’s author. Has she succeeded in crossing the divide?
J.K. Rowling may just be a writer, but she has defined the childhood of millions. 15 years after the first Harry Potter book, Hogwarts is recognised by readers the world over and 450 million copies of the series have been sold.
Now, Potter’s creator has a new story. But those expecting magical adventures and spells may be disappointed. J.K. Rowling’s new book is a novel for adults, that deals with the very real issues of domestic violence, drug abuse and parish council elections.
The Casual Vacancy, which hit bookshops yesterday, begins with a sudden death in a small English town. The tragedy exposes the troubled relationship between two sides of a divided society: well-to-do Middle-Englanders, and the residents of a downtrodden estate, riddled with drugs, crime and deprivation.
The results are not suitable for children. Rowling’s novel features heroin addiction, rape and self-harm. It is full, one reviewer writes, ‘of cruelty and despair’.
The characters are not given a simple quest like defeating an evil wizard, nor do they have invisibility cloaks or flying broomsticks to save them. This is not an adventure, but a close look at complex characters and troublesome social issues.
The verdict is mixed. The Casual Vacancy, concludes The Guardian’s Theo Tait, is ‘no masterpiece, but it's not bad at all’. The The New Yorker says the book ‘will certainly sell’ and ‘may also be liked’; some reviewers call it ‘brilliant’, others ‘not dreadful, but dull’.
Rowling is following a rarely trodden path. Though many adult’s authors have tried their hand at writing for children – even modernist poet T.S. Eliot took a break from the bleak Waste Land to write a jolly book about cats – not many children’s writers have found success with grown-up material.
One of the few is Penelope Lively, who has won top awards in children’s and adult’s fiction. Her writing underwent a dramatic change: children’s book The Ghost of Thomas Kempe – the story of a mysterious poltergeist – made way for Moon Tiger, which portrays the life of a woman as she lies dying in hospital.
A different story?
But how different are children’s books to adult literature? Fundamentally, some say. Harry Potter books are stories: rollicking adventure tales that allow readers to get lost in magical imaginative worlds. Their purpose is to entertain: literature, on the other hand, explores ideas about people and society.
Such a division, others say, is too simplistic. The Potter books are great stories, but they also consider issues like love, morality and growing up. Children’s books may be page-turners, but they are about more than just entertainment.
- What is the difference between children’s and adult’s literature?
- Does a story have to be serious if it is to say something important?
- Think of a children’s book that you think might appeal to adults. Re-design the cover in a way you think would make it more appealing to that audience.
- Pick a serious, literary book – perhaps one you have been studying in class. Re-write the plot of the story so it can be told in a short time, to an audience. Perform your literary storytelling to the class.
Some People Say...
“Rowling’s latest book will ruin Harry Potter.”
What do you think?
Q & A
- The book sounds really dark.
- Not everyone is happy with the gritty change of course. Many have raised concerns that hordes of children and teens will be drawn to Rowling’s book – and be faced with content that no child should read.
- What does Rowling say about that?
- She is not especially concerned. ‘There is no part of me that feels that I represented myself as your children’s babysitter or their teacher’ she says. ‘I’m a writer and I will write what I want to write.’
- Won’t it change people’s image of her, though?
- Perhaps. One reviewer has written that the extreme content ofThe Casual Vacancy has ‘broken the spell’ cast by the Harry Potter books. For generations that grew up with the world of witchcraft and wizardry, the book might be a hard bump back to earth.
- Middle Englanders
- The term ‘Middle England’ is a derogatory term that some people use to refer to a particular social group in the UK. Considered to be middle-class, middle-aged, and living in the suburbs or countryside, Middle Englanders are thought to hold conservative social views and are not open to new ideas. In the Harry Potter books, the stereotype is represented by the closed-minded, right-wing and unadventurous Dursley family.
- Simple Quest
- A quest is a journey towards a goal. In literature, this can serve as a device to shape the plot of a story. In classical literature, works like Homer’s Odyssey depict characters journeying toward a destination, or striving to fulfil a task or acquire a trophy. In modern literature, Tolkien's Lord of the Rings also sets its main characters on a quest.
- T.S. Eliot
- Eliot is considered one of the 20th Century’s greatest poets. His most famous works include the long poem The Waste Land and Four Quartets, as well as a lot of important literary criticism. Eliot’s Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats forms the basis of the popular musical Cats, and it remains a popular book for both children and adults.
- Top Awards
- Lively won the 1973 Carnegie Medal in Children’s Literature for The Ghost of Thomas Kempe, before winning the 1987 Booker prize for Moon Tiger. In the publishing world both awards are considered a definitive judge of the best literature of the day.