October 27, 2016


Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets: The Illustrated Edition. By J.K. Rowling. Illustrated by Jim Kay. Arthur A. Levine/Scholastic. $39.99.

     Jim Kay is doing something amazing with his illustrated editions of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books – the second of which, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, is now available. The visual elements of Rowling’s books were always important to their effectiveness: Jonny Duddle did the British children’s editions, Andrew Davidson the British adult paperback versions, and Mary GrandPré the U.S. editions published by Scholastic. But as fine as these illustrators’ works were, they were incidental to the stories that Rowling told, not integral to them. Now, however, the Harry Potter books are affirmed as modern classics on the level of the works of C.S. Lewis, E. Nesbit, perhaps even J.R.R. Tolkien (three other British authors known by their initials rather their full names). And this makes it possible for Kay to envision the novels with illustrations that are completely integrated with the story from start to finish, drawing upon and expanding the textual elements and turning the series into something lying somewhere between graphic novels and traditional illustrated books.

     This approach would never work without an artist of exceptional skill undertaking it. Kay has the skill – and, equally important, the willingness to look at the Harry Potter books anew, not being bound by the images created by previous artists or in the eight-film series based on the main Harry Potter sequence. Rowling does give some clear descriptions of certain characters and places, with the result that some of Kay’s work resembles what others have done – for example, his portrait of Dobby the house-elf, who appears for the first time in this book, is, except for the extra-long nose, unsurprising (although rendered with exceptional care). But even when Kay follows others in general terms, he gives his illustrations their own individual character – for example, by showing Dobby rushing downstairs in the Dursleys’ home, his bare bottom protruding from his ill-fitting garment. More frequently, Kay puts his own inimitable stamp on Rowling’s work, often through the way he handles minor scenes or subsidiary characters. A beautiful two-page spread of the flying car rescuing Harry as birds flap all around it uses perspective beautifully, for example, and the garden gnomes infesting the Weasley homestead are drawn as a perfect blend of the cute and the troublesome. Elsewhere, Harry’s fireplace-mediated trip to Diagon Alley is suitably scary, the first appearance in this book of Hagrid is quite ominous enough, and the view of Diagon Alley itself, which stretches across four pages, is so enthralling that repeated visits to the illustration are an absolute must – it is jam-packed with suitable, superbly rendered detail.

     Indeed, detail is a specialty in Kay’s illustrations and a major reason they significantly increase the depth and seeming reality of Rowling’s story. A page about the mandrake root, for example, really does look like something out of a medieval manuscript. And pages in which background and type color are reversed – dark background with white type – are beautifully placed throughout the book, in such a way that they enhance the story and expand its effectiveness. On top of this, character portraits are excellent: one showing Hermione carrying a stack of books almost as big as she is fits her perfectly, one of Moaning Myrtle manages to combine scariness and pathos in just the right mixture, and the colossal fraud Gilderoy Lockhart looks exactly as phony and self-important as he should. There are marvels throughout the book, often showing up unexpectedly: the full-page illustration of the label of the bone-growth medicine “Skele-Gro,” in which a large grinning skeleton is feeding a baby bottle of the liquid to a small skeleton wearing a top hat, is both gruesome and hilarious. Again and again, Kay finds ways to make both the small details of the story and its grand events and important characters come brilliantly to life – even more brilliantly, in many ways, than in the films based on Rowling’s novels, as good as those movies were.

     What Kay has done with Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s [or Sorcerer's] Stone and, in this second volume, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, is to re-launch a now-classic series in an entirely new way. The books are not better this way – they are, after all, still driven by and dependent on Rowling’s prose, which is standing the test of time very well indeed. But they are different, even more involving than before and often more intense – the two-page view of Harry being pulled inside the mysterious diary, to cite one example, is both extremely colorful and deeply unsettling. There is pervasive darkness in Kay’s view of the Harry Potter books, darkness that creeps in earlier and more furtively than in the novels as originally illustrated: practically every view of Hogwarts, for example, is a dark one, and even the happy ending of Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets retains a sense of gloom, thanks to the spiders that crawl all the way into the endpapers. Kay is a superb interpreter of the world of Harry Potter, an artist whose vision enthralls in and of itself while never stepping beyond the bounds of the novels as Rowling created them. These illustrated versions of the Harry Potter books are the best possible way for readers who already know the series to revisit it – and an unequalled path into this world for anyone new to the novels to use in experiencing the Harry Potter tales for the first time.

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