Learn about J.K. Rowling, author of the Harry Potter books, and incorporate the series into your classroom with these resources.
About the Books
Wizards and Hogwarts! Muggles and mudbloods! Quidditch and broomsticks! None of those things mean anything to Harry Potter, a small, skinny, bespectacled boy with an unusual lightning-bolt shaped scar on his forehead — until his eleventh birthday. That's when he starts receiving letters inviting him to Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. Harry learns that his parents did not die in a car crash but were killed by Voldemort, the Lord of Darkness, and that he's famous in the world of wizardry. So Harry leaves the home of his Aunt Petunia, Uncle Vernon, and their hateful son Dudley, who are mere muggles (humans without one drop of magic in them), and embarks on a new life. And the changes continue as Harry spends year after year at Hogwarts, a place where he not only learns about being a wizard, but also about friendship and loyalty and fear and courage, and about his own past and future, his family, and his destiny.
While the fun of fantasy might be its otherworldliness, its power lies is the truths it reveals about the real world. So the magical world of Harry Potter, a world of flying cars and dragons, unicorns and magic potions, invisibility cloaks and evil powers, becomes real as readers discover truths about bravery, loyalty, choice, and the power of love. Read the following quotations from the Harry Potter books and discuss the truth that each reveals.
- "The truth. It is a beautiful and terrible thing, and should therefore be treated with great caution." (The Sorcerer's Stone, p. 298)
- "...to have been loved so deeply, even though the person who loved us is gone, will give us some protection forever." (The Sorcerer's Stone, p. 299)
- "It takes a great deal of bravery to stand up to our enemies, but just as much to stand up to our friends." (The Sorcerer's Stone, p. 306)
- "It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities." (The Chamber of Secrets, p. 333)
- "You can exist without your soul, you know, as long as your brain and heart are still working. But you'll have no sense of self anymore, no memory, no ... anything. There's no chance at all of recovery. You'll just — exist. As an empty shell." (The Prisoner of Azkaban, p. 247)
- "You think the dead we loved ever truly leave us? You think that we don't recall them more clearly than ever in times of great trouble?....You know, Harry, in a way, you did see your father last night....You found him inside yourself." (The Prisoner of Azkaban, pp. 427-428)
- "Understanding is the first step to acceptance, and only with acceptance can there be recovery." (The Goblet of Fire, p. 680)
- "You place too much importance...on the so-called purity of blood! You fail to recognize that it matters not what someone is born, but what they grow to be!" (The Goblet of Fire, p. 708)
In a way, Rowling follows the classic fantasy formula of beginning each book in the real world (the Dursleys' home), moving into the fantasy world (Hogwarts School), and then returning to the real world (the Dursleys again). What other fantasies follow this same pattern? Consider classics such as Peter Pan and The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe. Compare these with other works that take place entirely in a fantasy world, such as The Prydain Chronicles and The Hobbit. In another way, though, the Harry Potter books are a mixture of these two styles. The world of Hogwarts is not entirely separated from the everyday "muggle" world, but is more a magical world-within-a-world, a world that exists in the real world, although ordinary people are unaware of it. Discuss how this affects your appreciation of the books.
Book 4, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, opens in Tom Riddle, Sr.'s parents' home, unlike the previous three books which opened in the Dursley's home. How does the change of setting for the beginning of this book affect the tone of the book? Why do you think Rowling departed from the expected setting for the beginning?
We believe in Harry because of his human qualities, especially his human frailties. Find instances where Harry is acting more like a bungling muggle than a great wizard. Why is it important for readers that Harry not always be a great wizard?
Rounded characters are characters who change and grow. Find instances of change in Harry. For example, Harry becomes angriest when taunted about his parents' death; however, by the third book, when he faces Peter, the person who led Voldemort to his parents, he stops Lupin and Black from killing Peter, saying, "I don't reckon my dad would've wanted them to become killers — just for you" (Prisoner of Azkaban, p. 376). In the fourth book, when Harry could have claimed the Triwizard cup, he instead offers to share it with Cedric. Find other instances of increasing maturity in Harry.
Find examples throughout all four books where Rowling helps us understand characters by telling us what these characters believe. Consider statements such as the one Dumbledore makes at the end of The Goblet of Fire when he says, "Differences of habit and language are nothing at all if our aims are identical and our hearts are open." (p. 723) or Quirrell's comment to Harry in The Sorcerer's Stone when he explains "There is no good and evil, there is only power, and those too weak to seek it." (p. 291).
In The Prisoner of Azkaban, Aunt Marge explains why some folks are no good: "If there's something rotten on the inside, there's nothing anyone can do about it (p. 25)." She thinks she's describing Harry. In fact, which characters is she more aptly describing?
Consider the professors and other staff that Harry and his friends meet at Hogwarts, especially Dumbledore, McGonagall, Lockhart, Quirrell, Lupin, Snape, Moody, and Hagrid. Generally, each is much more, or sometimes much less, than the person he or she claims to be. Is it significant that Rowling made each of these characters teachers? What lessons does each character really teach Harry?
If you were making a flow chart of how the characters related to one another for both the Dark Lord and his forces, and Harry Potter and his forces, how would the characters line up? Is Voldemort opposite Dumbledore or Potter? If Barty Crouch, Jr., is Voldemort's most loyal follower, who is Harry's? Which characters from The Goblet of Fire do you think will become increasingly important in the remaining books?
Harry and Voldemort provide the major conflict (good against evil) in each story. Compare their two characters and discuss how their differences provide the conflict for the novels. Consider each of the following instances:
- In The Sorcerer's Stone, when Mr. Ollivander sells Harry a wand that was the brother of a wand owned by Voldemort, Mr. Ollivander explains to Harry that "The wand chooses the wizard" and then tells him, "I think we must expect great things from you, Mr. Potter....After all, He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named did great things—terrible, yes, but great" (p. 85). How can Ollivander call Voldemort a great wizard? What makes Harry a different kind of great from Voldemort?
- In The Chamber of Secrets, Dobby says he knew of Harry's "greatness but not of his goodness" (p. 15). What is the difference between greatness and goodness? Could Harry be the great wizard everyone thinks he is if he were not also filled with goodness? Later in the story, Tom Marvolo Riddle reveals himself to Harry as Voldemort. He tells Harry "There are strange likenesses between us, after all. Even you must have noticed. Both half-bloods, orphans, raised by muggles. Probably the only two Parselmouths to come to Hogwarts since the great Slytherin himself" (p. 317). What does Harry think of these likenesses?
- In The Prisoner of Azkaban, when Harry has the opportunity to kill the character responsible for his parents' death, he chooses not to do it. How does that separate him once and for all from his archenemy, Voldemort?
- In The Goblet of Fire, when Harry faces near-certain death from Voldemort, he refuses to cower before him and refuses to answer his questions. At one point, Voldemort tries to get Harry to bend to his will by answering a question. Instead of succumbing to the Imperio demand, Harry's will takes over: "I will not, said a stronger voice, in the back of his head, I won't answer...." (p. 661). Then when Voldemort moves to kill him, Harry decides that "he was not going to die kneeling at Voldemort's feet...he was going to die upright like his father, and he was going to die trying to defend himself even if no defense was possible..." (p. 662). Did Harry have this much will power and courage in the first book? What significant events helped him develop the courage he now has?
1. In The Sorcerer's Stone, Dumbledore admonishes Harry to "always use the proper name for things. Fear of a name increases fear of the thing itself" (p. 298). Explain what he means. Why does naming something make it less intimidating?
2. In The Sorcerer's Stone, Harry disregards a direct order from one of the teachers at Hogwarts School and takes off on a broom. This infraction is normally cause for expulsion from the school. However, in Harry's case, it brings him the honor of being chosen as the "Seeker" for his Quidditch team. Can you find other instances throughout all the books where Harry's actions lead to quite opposite results from what is expected? Is Harry above the rules, or just lucky, or is there another explanation?
3. In The Sorcerer's Stone, readers learn that this stone is "a legendary substance with astonishing powers. The stone will transform any metal into pure gold. It also produces the Elixir of Life, which will make the drinker immortal." (p. 220). Are we surprised to discover that this fountain of youth and source of great wealth causes problems? Discuss other stories that have addressed the quest for immortality, such as Tuck Everlasting. Ultimately, this stone feeds the greedy. What other fantasies explore the consequences of greed?
4. In The Chamber of Secrets, we discover that Slytherin had wanted Hogwarts to be a school only for full bloods, with no mudbloods admitted. His prejudice against anyone different from himself creates all sorts of problems. How does this attitude compare with real prejudices people have had throughout history, for example against people of "mixed blood" regarded as inferior?
5. In The Prisoner of Azkaban, Lupin tells Harry that "James would have been highly disappointed if his son had never found any of the secret passages out of the castle" (pp. 424-425). Why would James want Harry to do anything other than follow all the rules?
6. In The Prisoner of Azkaban, Sirius Black is imprisoned for twelve years in Azkaban, and Pettigrew is imprisoned for the same amount of time in the body of a rat. Which character was more truly the prisoner?
7. How does the game of Quidditch represent Harry's life at Hogwarts? Consider the position he plays on the team — "Seeker." How is that role similar to the role he plays in the fight against evil?
8. Much of what makes the Harry Potter books delightful reads are the plays with language. Using a dictionary if necessary, find out what the following names mean, and discuss why they're good names for the characters they represent.
- Lucius Malfoy
- Madam Pince
- Remus Lupin
- Sirius Black
- Professor Binns (think of the sound, not the spelling)
- The books required for first year students (The Sorcerer's Stone, pp. 66-67)
9. In each Harry Potter book readers can find comparisons to traditional fairy tales, myths, or legends. For instance, the dog Fluffy which guards the trapdoor at Hogwarts School resembles Cerberus, the three-headed dog that guards the underworld of Greek mythology. Harry could be compared to King Arthur — both are orphaned boys who are raised by foster parents, and each is unaware of his true background but slowly begins to understand it. In The Goblet of Fire, Harry must complete three tasks. What other mythological characters face difficult tasks? Consider other characters — for example Hermione, Dumbledore, Hagrid, Narcissa (Goblet of Fire, p. 101), Mr. Malfoy, the Veela (Goblet of Fire, p. 103), Voldemort — and discuss their relationship to other mythical or legendary characters.
10. In The Goblet of Fire, Hogwarts students discover that 437 items have been banned from the school that year (p. 183). Those items include "Screaming Yo-yos, Fanged Frisbees, and Ever-Bashing Bommerangs." How is that list similar to objects that are from time to time banned in schools? Consider items such as yo-yos, Pokémon cards, and skateboards. Speculate on why Rowling would include such a comment about banned items in this book.
11. Would Harry have succeeded at the tasks he faced in The Goblet of Fire without outside assistance? If not, what does this reveal about Harry's greatest strength?
12. In The Goblet of Fire, mask-wearing wizards torment the muggles: "A crowd of wizards, tightly packed and moving together with wands pointing straight upward, was marching slowly across the field. Harry squinted at them....They didn't seem to have faces....Then he realized that their heads were hooded and their faces masked" (p. 119). Compare this moment of torment to other times when groups of people have worn hoods and masks to cover their identities. What does the masking of a face tell us about the nature of evil?
13. An important message throughout all the Potter books has to do with respect for differences and those who are different. By The Goblet of Fire, we see that, for some, a caste system is well-established: Wizards and witches are better than muggles and mudbloods; giants are outcasts; and house-elves are considered as sub-human. How do you suppose this caste system will play itself out in the remaining books? Next, consider Dumbledore's admonition that "Differences of habit and language are nothing at all if our aims are identical and our hearts are open" (p. 723). Which characters would agree with him?
14. In The Goblet of Fire, we learn that when Voldemort killed Harry's parents, Harry survived the attack due to his mother's loving sacrifice. Voldemort explains that "His mother died in the attempt to save him — and unwittingly provided him with a protection I admit I had not foreseen....I could not touch the boy" (p. 652). As a result of surviving that attack Harry is labeled a great wizard, but has Harry truly earned that title? To what extent would you say that Harry is not so much "great" as lucky? In all that Harry does, how much is he acting of his own free will, and how much is he simply living out what from his birth has been his destiny?
15. Although it may seem that Harry is pre-ordained to be a great wizard (see previous question), clearly he also acts of his own free will and at times makes difficult choices. Locate the times when Harry made critical choices and, in each case, discuss what would have happened if Harry had made different choices.
16. Here's a partial dictionary of charms that Harry and his friends used. Explain why each is a good name for the charm:
- Wingardium Leviosa: Charm to make things float (The Sorcerer's Stone, p. 171)
- Locomotor Mortis: Leg-locking curse (The Sorcerer's Stone, p. 222)
- Expelliarmus: Disarming charm (The Chamber of Secrets, p. 190)
- Finite Incantatem: Stopping charm (The Chamber of Secrets, p. 192)
- Rictusempra: Tickling charm (The Chamber of Secrets, p. 192)
- Tarantallegra: Leg jerking, quickstepping charm (The Chamber of Secrets, p. 192)
- Serpensortia: Blocks unfriendly spells (The Chamber of Secrets, p. 194)
- Riddikulus: Turns boggarts into humorous-looking creatures (The Prisoner of Azkaban, pp. 134-5)
- Fidelius Charm: Magical concealment of a secret inside a chosen person (The Prisoner of Azkaban, p. 205)
- Patronus Charm: Guardian against dementors (The Prisoner of Azkaban, p. 237)
- Accio: Calls things to you (The Goblet of Fire, p. 68)
- Obliviate: Memory-modifying spell (The Goblet of Fire, p. 77)
- Ennervate: Awakening spell (The Goblet of Fire, p. 133)
- Prior Incantato: Conjurs up previous spells (The Goblet of Fire, p. 136)
- Deletrius: Causes an image to vanish (The Goblet of Fire, p. 136)
- Reparo: Repairs things (The Goblet of Fire, p. 169)
- Imperius Curse: Gives total control (The Goblet of Fire, p. 213)
- Cruciatus Curse: Causes intense pain (The Goblet of Fire, p. 214)
- Avada Kedavra: The killing curse (The Goblet of Fire, p. 215)
- Impediment curse: Slows something (The Goblet of Fire, p. 574)
17. Consider Harry and Voldemort and rate each on the following continuum. Which qualities most separate these two characters? Compare Harry to Dumbledore. If you rate them at similar points, discuss what makes Harry the hero instead of Dumbledore? Do the same with Harry and Hermione and Harry and Cedric.
18. Millions of readers of all ages enjoy the Harry Potter books. That means J. K. Rowling must be writing in a way that appeals to lots of people — from children to adults. What do you enjoy most about her writing? Consider the following elements as you discuss your answer:
- Gripping plots
- Vivid characters
- Cliff-hangers for chapter endings
- Descriptive language such as similes and metaphors
- Puns and funny names for people and spells
- Important themes such as making friends, facing difficult problems, losing people you love, and surviving tough situations.
19. By the fourth book, Rowling has answered some important questions, including why Harry returns each summer to the Dursleys, as explained when Voldemort says "Dumbledore invoked an ancient magic, to ensure the boy's protection as long as he is in his relations' care. Not even I can touch him there" (p. 657). What other questions are answered in The Goblet of Fire? What questions do you still wonder about?
20. The Goblet of Fire, the halfway book in the series, leaves readers anticipating the conflict that will surely erupt between the Dark Lord and his forces and those who would oppose him. At the end of the book, Dumbledore begins to rally those who would fight against Voldemort, telling the students at Hogwarts to "Remember Cedric. Remember, if the time should come when you have to make a choice between what is right and what is easy..." (p. 724). With that statement, Dumbledore appears to be saying that what is right and what is easy are not the same. Do you agree with this? Think of examples from your own life where making the right choice was difficult.
21. The last chapter of the fourth book is titled "The Beginning." Why would the last chapter carry this title? What is beginning? What has ended? The last line of this book is "As Hagrid had said, what would come, would come...and he would have to meet it when it did" (p. 734). What do you anticipate Harry and his friends will have to meet next?
Discussion guide written by Kylene Beers, Assistant Professor of Reading at the University of Houston, Texas, editor of the NCTE Journal Voices From the Middle, and co-author of Into Focus: Understanding and Creating Middle School Readers.