Children's Corner: Few can hold a candle to these literary characters

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Harry Potter, the Little Prince and the Reluctant Dragon celebrated big birthdays this year.

Here's a closer look at these characters who have become part of our literary culture:

■ When she was writing the first book about the boy wizard named Harry Potter in the early 1990s, British author J.K. Rowling was a struggling single mother who worked in cafes on her manuscript while her baby daughter slept in a carriage beside her.

Ms. Rowling was in fairly desperate financial straits at the time and had trouble keeping herself and her daughter properly fed and warm in their unheated apartment. But she persevered, finally finishing her manuscript about a character named Harry Potter who had just popped into her head several years previously while she was riding a train.

Nine publishers rejected the manuscript for "Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone" until Bloomsbury, a British publisher, finally accepted it and published it in 1997. (The title was changed to "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone" for the U.S. market).

Once the book hit the American market in 1998, it became a sensation. Readers loved the characters of Harry and his friends Hermione and Ron, and reveled in their challenges of learning to become wizards and their fight to keep the evil wizard Voldemort from taking over the world.

Ms. Rowling went on to write six more volumes in the series, each one more eagerly anticipated than the next and each setting records for the millions of books sold. Movies created from the books also have set box office records. The final book in the series, "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows," was published in 2007.

"No matter how much anyone loved the first book, no one anticipated the Harry Potter phenomena," writes children's book expert Anita Silvey in her book "100 Best Books for Children." "Scores of young people, many of whom had remained oblivious to the charms of reading, found themselves beguiled by Harry."

(Note: An essay I wrote once appeared in a book, "Everything I Need to Know I Learned From a Children's Book," which was edited by Ms. Silvey.)

The books also have had their detractors; some parents have tried to get them banned because they feature witches and wizards. The books even have been burned in some places.

For the most part, however, the "Harry Potter" series is beloved by young readers and adults alike, and the books have become classics. Ms. Rowling has become one of the richest women in the world.

And now, to celebrate the 15th anniversary of the first U.S. book, Scholastic has just republished the series, this time with beautiful new cover art created by noted graphic-novel artist Kazu Kibuishi. There's a special bonus: When all seven books with Kibuishi's art are set together on a shelf, the spines show an illustration of Hogwarts, the wizard school attended by Harry and his friends.

What makes these books so beloved by readers, both kids and adults? Ms. Silvey notes that the books contain "a number of stock ingredients for successful children's books: a school story, an orphan story, a friendship chronicle and the struggle between good and evil.

"Nothing like Harry Potter -- with J.K. Rowling and her rags-to-riches personal story, and with the characters so quickly becoming part of the American lexicon -- has ever been seen in the book world," Ms. Silvey said.

■ Author Kenneth Grahame is most closely identified with "The Wind in the Willows," a book that has been a favorite of children and adults since it was first published in 1908.

But Grahame also wrote another, much more modest classic -- "The Reluctant Dragon," a brief but stirring tale of a boy who befriends a poetry-loving dragon and eventually saves him from the efforts of the townspeople to kill him.

First published in book form in 1938, "The Reluctant Dragon" celebrated its 75th anniversary this year. To mark the occasion, Holiday House publishers brought out a new edition, complete with gold lettering on the cover, the original illustrations by artist Ernest Shepherd, and a succinct and helpful introduction by children's book historian Leonard Marcus.

As Mr. Marcus notes, "The Reluctant Dragon" was written years before "The Wind in the Willows" and was included in a book of essays for adults titled "Dream Days." Years later, Holiday House co-founder Helen Gentry discovered the story and decided it would make a great story for children.

It turned out that she was quite right, and the book has had perennially good sales for Holiday House.

"A droll mash-up of the St. George legend, 'The Reluctant Dragon' features a mythic Boy who, much like the young hero of Hans Christian Andersen's 'The Emperor's New Clothes,' shows himself to be a good deal wiser and braver than his elders," Mr. Marcus writes.

He quotes Grahame as noting that "a dragon ... is a more enduring animal than a pterodactyl. I have never yet met anyone who really believed in the pterodactyl; but every honest person believes in dragons -- down in the back-kitchen of their consciousness."

"For the reader of any age who feels as Grahame felt," Mr. Marcus concludes, "this is your book."

■ He wrote only one children's book, but Antoine de Saint-Exupery's "The Little Prince" had an impact that has reverberated for decades around the world.

"The Little Prince," which celebrated its 70th anniversary this year, is hard to categorize, and can be enjoyed by both children and adults. In the slim volume, Saint-Exupery told the story of a little boy from Asteroid B-612 who encounters a downed pilot in the Sahara Desert.

"The Little Prince has journeyed from his tiny home planet, met a number of unpleasant adults on neighboring asteroids, and arrived on Earth, where he learns lessons about love, responsibility, friendship and beauty," wrote noted children's book critic Peter D. Sieruta in "Children's Books and Their Creators."

"The Little Prince" caused a sensation when it was published in 1943. Over the years, it has sold more than 150 million copies, in 260 languages and has become part of the literary landscape. Saint-Exupery -- himself a pilot -- disappeared a year after the publication of "The Little Prince" while flying a reconnaissance mission for the French air squadron.

To mark the 70th anniversary, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt published three different volumes. "The Little Prince 70th Anniversary Edition" gift set ($24.99) includes a copy of the hardcover book with a CD featuring actor Viggo Mortensen reading the book.

There's also a new paperback version of "The Little Prince" ($9.99). The third release is a graphic-novel version of "The Little Prince" as adapted by noted graphic-novelist Joann Sfar ($12.99).

Karen MacPherson, the children's/teen librarian at the Takoma Park, Md., Library, can be reached at

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