Ben Schoen was an average 13-year-old, living in a house amid wheatfields in a Kansas town too tiny to have a McDonald's. Then, four years ago, he picked up a copy of "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone."
Ala-kazam. Now Schoen's touring the West Coast as part of a nationwide book tour. The volume he co-authored is about the upcoming final Harry Potter book from J.K. Rowling. That's right -- it's a book that speculates about the Harry Potter book. Schoen's book is on the New York Times children's best-seller list. He's flying to London for the premiere.
Autographs? That's nothing. Harry Potter, Schoen admits, has helped him meet girls.
"This kid from Moundridge, Kansas, never been to the big city before, and people want my autograph?" says Schoen. "If it wasn't for Harry Potter, I would have been just a normal kid."
You don't have to believe in magic to believe in the power of Harry Potter.
On July 11, "Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix" will be released in theaters nationwide. On July 21, "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows" -- the seventh and final of the series -- hits bookstores, wrapping up the seven-book series that made Rowling history's first billionaire author.
The new book has already sold more than 1 million copies on Amazon.com in advance copies.
Some 325 million copies of all the books have been sold in 65 languages, and the four movies have grossed about $3.5 billion worldwide so far. A recently announced Harry Potter theme park in Orlando, Fla., at an estimated $1 billion, aims to rival Disneyland.
Pottermania, it's safe to say, will not end on the last page of "Deathly Hallows." Three more movies will extend its reach to decade's end. Then there are the new readers the series attracts every day, who devour the works and find much to discuss on fan sites like MuggleNet.com, which Schoen helps run.
What's not clear yet is what Harry Potter might mean to the history of children's literature, said Melanie Kimball. "From a literary standpoint, I don't think it's done anything new," said Kimball, an assistant professor in the Department of Library and Information Studies at the University at Buffalo.
But at the same time, there's no denying it's a phenomenon. "I can't think of another book in my lifetime that has been so eagerly anticipated by kids."
Orphan stories and boarding-school stories are both recognized genres in English children's literature, Kimball said.
Rowling has written a "classic orphan tale, with magic laid over it," she said. Our heroes, deprived of their parents, strive to form another sort of family and make their way in the world.
Familiar or not, there's no disputing how Harry Potter rose to fame and fortune among the thousands of volumes published annually for children, said Kimball. "It came out of the books. It came out of the reading," she said. "It was a grassroots movement."
>Growing up with Harry
Harry Potter didn't arrive on the scene in a blaze of television ads, Happy Meal toys and Hogwarts pajamas. That came later. "It really grew from the books," she said, "and kids really tuning into the books in a major way."
For Megan Lawrence, it began when she was 8 years old. On vacation in Massachusetts with her father Kevin and older sister Brigid, they visited a family where Harry Potter was popular.
Her father would read a chapter out loud, and Brigid would take the book and read on her own, which made Megan jealous, the Kenmore teen said. "Her and my dad would talk about the book, and I would have no idea what they were talking about."
So in his own unassuming, completely nonmagical way, Harry Potter helped her become a better reader.
As the buzz in the United States started to build, Harry Potter release nights became midnight affairs at many bookstores. Lawrence and her sister took their place in the lines, arriving an hour early and spending the time comparing insights and favorite plot points with other fans.
Then, with their new books -- two copies, the time for sharing long past -- they rode home, turning pages under the glow of the dome light. When they got home, their father let them read until 1 a.m. "Then he comes in, turns off the light, and takes the book -- and he stayed up reading."
The Potter books were literally read to pieces in her house, Lawrence said, leading to a game of name-that-chapter. "It's funny to be able to pick it up, whatever page is on the outside, and say, 'Oh yeah, this is during the fourth book, during the second challenge.' "
After following his progress over the years, she feels like she's grown up with the boy, in a way. The author, Rowling, "really nails it in the fourth book," Lawrence said -- referring to "Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban" -- "this is how 14-year-olds act."
How's that? "Making stupid decisions sometimes, but figuring stuff out, eventually," she said. "I can relate to it."
The end of the series will leave her with only the movies to look forward to -- but the love of reading Potter helped inspire has moved to other works. Lawrence likes the "His Dark Materials" series, by Philip Pullman, and the "Uglies" trilogy by Scott Westerfeld.
Books like those are excellent ways to branch out for children who started their reading career with Harry Potter, said Kimball. She's also heard some Potter fans have liked the "Redwall" series by Brian Jacques.
If they find out precisely what drew young readers to the Potter books, parents can help find works with similar elements, she suggested. "If it's the magic and fantasy elements, there's tons and tons out there. But if what they like is the relationships between the friends, that's another story. Maybe it's the gadgets. Maybe it was Quidditch."
The wait for "Deathly Hallows" might be the best time to get hard-core Potter fans interested in something new, said Kimball. Children's librarians can help because "they're supposed to be keeping up on what's out there for kids to read," she said.
Meanwhile, the building wave of prerelease excitement is keeping professional Potter fans like Schoen on the move.
Schoen's path to becoming an author himself started when he joined MuggleNet.com, one of the leading Potter fan sites. It was started by a 12-year-old named Emerson Spartz in 1999.
Now its largely unpaid staff tops 120, with sections of fan art, stories written by fans using Rowling's characters, critical essays and other major slices of Potter obsession. With more than a million visitors each week to its advertising-laden pages, MuggleNet has been generating six-figure annual revenues for years.
It's paying for Spartz' Notre Dame education and more. Spartz himself has been a celebrity for years, inspiring fans to create a Web site specifically dedicated to discussing him.
Schoen, now graduating from high school, is joining Spartz at Notre Dame. Inspired by the MuggleNet experience, he's decided what to study.
Not literature. Business.
"Harry Potter is what got me really into reading," said Schoen. "The skills that I've learned though the Web site have primed me for getting a business degree."
Harry Potter's story might be ending, but Schoen's career is only beginning. "There's always going to be new readers," said the 17-year-old. "MuggleNet isn't going anywhere."