Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone tells the story of an eleven-year-old orphan who suddenly discovers that he is a wizard. J.K. Rowling began writing the book in 1990, prompted by a delayed train ride from Manchester to London during which she was struck by an idea of a young boy with magical powers. Describing her thought process at the time, Rowling writes: “A scrawny, little, black-haired, bespectacled boy became more and more of a wizard to me... I began to write Philosopher's Stone that very evening. Although, the first couple of pages look nothing like the finished product.”
Over the course of the next six years, Rowling steadily worked on completing the story of the young wizard. Despite the tragic death of her mother, an ugly divorce with her first husband, struggles with depression, and problems with unemployment, Rowling continued her work on Harry Potter with unsurpassed drive. She incorporated many of her personal difficulties into the narrative, particularly her sense of loss after her mother’s death (which was expressed in Harry’s struggle to cope with deaths of his parents).
At first, Rowling’s attempts to publish her book were not particularly successful. She had found an agent at Christopher Little Literary Agents who was willing to promote Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, but the manuscript was promptly rejected by twelve different publishing houses. The primary complaint was that the book was 90,000 words, far too long for a children’s book. After a year of rejections, Rowling’s agent finally received an offer from Bloomsbury Children’s Books in London. The 8-year-old daughter of Bloomsbury’s chief executive had loved the book, and her enthusiastic response prompted the publishing company to give the unknown author a chance. Bloomsbury was not as concerned about the length of the book as about Rowling’s name, listed as Joanne Rowling, which they feared would keep young boys from reading the book. Their solution was to give Rowling the androgynous pen name, J.K. Rowling (J for Joanne and K for Kathleen, the name of Rowling’s favorite grandmother).
In June 1997, Bloomsbury published 1000 copies of the book, under the title “Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone.” Soon after its publication, the book began to receive rave reviews from readers and critics alike as well as the first of many literary awards. Having won the publishing rights to the novel in the United States for $105,000, Scholastic Inc. published the American edition of the book in October 1998, using the title “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.” Scholastic, Inc. also changed some of the more British terminology in the original book to terms that would be more accessible to an American audience, such as “muffin” instead of “crumpet,” “sweater” instead of “jumper,” and “fries” instead of “chips.” Rowling later admitted that she did not approve of changing the title for American audiences, but she was not in a position to argue the point at the time.
Despite the minor changes in the American edition of the book, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone was equally successful in the United States, if not more so than in Britain. In addition to receiving excellent reviews from The Boston Globe and the New York Times, the American edition was selected as a New York Public Library Best Book of the Year, the American Library Association Notable Book, a Publishers Weekly Best Book of 1998, the School Library Journal Best Book of the Year, and the American Library Association Best Book for Young Adults.
In August 1999, Rowling’s novel achieved an unexpected coup by topping the New York Times Bestseller List for nearly an entire year. The book’s dominance was only halted when the New York Times succumbed to pressure from other publishers and created a separate Bestseller List for children’s books.
Despite its universal success, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone has also inspired a great deal of religious controversy, particularly in the United States. Religious conservatives in America argue that the novel promoted satanic beliefs and should be banned from public schools, while the Greek Orthodox Church and Bulgaria Orthodox Church both officially campaigned against the series. In 2005, while still a cardinal of the Catholic Church, Pope Benedict XVI openly argued against the series, describing Rowling’s books as “subtle seductions, which act unnoticed and by this deeply distort Christianity in the soul before it can grow properly.” At the same time, many religious groups have lauded the series, claiming that it promotes a Christian view of good and evil and explains the concept of self-sacrifice to children.