In September 1998, J.K. Rowling's first novel, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, was published for the first time in the United States. Released under the title Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone a year earlier abroad, it took a slight name change to get the book over to the U.S. Looking back 20 years later at a time where Harry Potter was not a well-known property yet, it's fascinating to see what the initial reviews and reactions to the now-famous novel were.
For the most part, the reviews for Sorcerer's Stone were just as you'd expect them to have been all these years later: People were enchanted with it. Kirkus Review called it "a rousing first novel," just the start of its raves.
"This hugely enjoyable fantasy is filled with imaginative details, from oddly flavored jelly beans to dragons' eggs hatched on the hearth. It's slanted toward action-oriented readers, who will find that Briticisms meld with all the other wonders of magic school," the review concludes.
To Booklist, the novel was "a brilliantly imagined and beautifully written fantasy that incorporates elements of traditional British school stories without once violating the magical underpinnings of the plot."
"In fact, Rowling's wonderful ability to put a fantastic spin on sports, student rivalry, and eccentric faculty contributes to the humor, charm, and, well, delight of her utterly captivating story," Booklist added.
It was clear from the start that the book's appeal wouldn't be limited to children. The review by USA Today's Cathy Hainer pointed out that the book could definitely be enjoyed by adults as well. Hainer also notes that it had "echoes of children's classics Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and C.S. Lewis' The Chronicles of Narnia," and she was far from the only one to relate Rowling's novel to classic children's books and authors.
To Publishers Weekly, the book was "a delightful romp… from a British author who dances in the footsteps of P.L. Travers and Roald Dahl." Yvonne Zipp of The Christian Science Monitor called it "a gleeful, impish descendant of classic fantasies" like The Wizard of Oz, and predicted that it would join such classics "on the shelf of childhood favorites."
The Deseret News mentions similarities to James and the Giant Peach, Dragonsinger, and The Giver. Right in the headline, they call the book "a magical concoction." The review states its "themes are those found in many successful fantasies of the past" and that Sorcerer's Stone is already "being championed as one of the best fantasy novels of the century." Little did they know what was to come!
"Much like Roald Dahl, J. K. Rowling has a gift for keeping the emotions, fears, and triumphs of her characters on a human scale, even while the supernatural is popping out all over," Michael Winerip of The New York Times said.
Rowling is continually praised for how she pulled off this debut novel. The Chicago Tribune said the book "succeeds because she's observant about preteen psychology and school politics, and because she's an excellent plotter, able to twist the ending even at the very ending."
It's also fun to see how people tried to explain aspects of the Wizarding World that are so familiar to many of us now, but at the time were still so new. Quidditch is referred to by the Kirkus Review as "a sort of mid-air ball game," whereas USA Today called it "sort of like soccer played high up in the air on broomsticks." Zipp compared it to three games in one sentence: "a high-flying combination of dodge-ball, capture the flag, and basketball played on broomsticks."
There wasn't just praise for Harry Potter, though. There was some disapproval for religious reasons, and The New York Times had some criticisms of the last four chapters. Winerip thought "storytelling begins to sputter," "characters begin behaving out of character," and he found certain twists "irritating and contrived." Still, he ultimately said these were "minor criticisms" and concluded that the book is "funny, moving and impressive" and that Rowling does "achieve something quite special." Even The Christian Science Monitor found "the only flaw" at the end, which to Zipp "doesn't completely satisfy. But that may be partly due to a reader's unwillingness to put down the tale."
Overall people seemed excited by Rowling's book as the start of something truly fantastic, and as we know now, it would indeed spark a series that would be a memorable experience for readers for years to come.
As Publishers Weekly put it, "Rowling leaves the door wide open for a sequel; bedazzled readers will surely clamor for one."
And clamor we did.