I’ve been watching Pottermania unfold since fall 1998, when Bonnie Bernstein, Cotsen’s first Outreach Coordinator, predicted glory for Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by a then unknown British woman writer. I’ve gone back and forth about collecting Harry Potter in depth for Cotsen. Strictly speaking, the original Scholastic edition didn’t have enough illustrations to be in scope as Mary Grandpre was commissioned to create just chapter and jacket art for it. Her unpublished color illustrations were only made available recently.
Harry Potter lends itself to full illustration, but it seemed to take a long time to commission this edition. J. K. Rowling is one of the very few children’s book authors consulted about the choice of illustrator for her works, so she must have been on board when Bloomsbury announced in 2013 that Sorcerer’s Stone would be reissued in 2015 lavishly illustrated by Jim Kay, the 2011 recipient of the Greenaway Medal for Patrick Ness’s A Monster Calls.
Kay’s wizarding world has nothing of Grandpre’s pastel “soft geometry.” If the publisher wanted to kickstart the creation of a body of contrasting interpretations appealing to different parts of the Harry Potter fan base, Kay was a perfect choice, as he tends towards the dark. His Gothic-tinged style adds a more contemporary fantasy-sci-fi-horror twist that makes Harry Potter look edgier than it is, although not as unsettling as the imaginary worlds of Mervyn Peake.
With carte blanche to create an indelible sense of place, Kay rises to the occasion in these representations of two key locations: Hogwarts and Diagon Alley.
There’s none of Hogwarts’s grand thrusting geometry in the whimsical four-page spread of Diagon Alley. Will Honeyduke’s in Hogsmeade inspire something similarly playful in the colorful, cluttered, surrealistic manner of Colin Thompson?
Fleshing out the creatures in Hogwarts also plays to Kay’s artistic strengths–and a peculiar predilection. Unlike Ron Weasley, Kay does not suffer from arachnophobia. Here is an elaborate border design about the life-cycle of a moth from George McGavin’s Bugs, the next children’s book Kay illustrated after A Monster Calls. It makes a nice contrast to the headpiece for chapter 15, “The Forbidden Forest.”
Rowling doesn’t provide much detail about the inside of the cupboard under the stairs at Privet Drive, but Kay draws it as a paradise of spiders, which makes for a pretty nasty bedroom. Imagine the attention the monstrous Aragog will receive in The Chamber of Secrets…
Kay’s warty, lumpy, scaly things look as if you could reach out and touch their disgusting bits. Three illustrations are devoted to the dim mountain troll and four illustrations of dragons, including an exquisite guide to dragon eggs, the somewhat schematic double-page spread of the Norwegian Ridgeback, and the headpiece of baby Norbert, whose fangs and wickedly curving claws only Rubeus Hagrid could love.
All the things that go bump in the night down Hogwarts’ corridors are deliciously menacing, especially the ghosts on pages 94-5 that look like animated three-dimensional x-rays. The transparent figure of Nearly Headless Nick with the gaping hole above the ruff is gross yet elegant. His fatuous expression makes him look more pathetic than scary.
Kay has said that it was critical for him to establish character in the first of the seven-volume fantasy-cum-school-story. His representations of the flesh-and-blood inhabitants of Rowling’s wizarding world do not hit off their characters quite as successfully as the magical and macabre ones, but I’m looking forward to see how he develops them in future volumes.
Among the full-page color illustrations is the sumptuous series of portraits, where Hogwarts’ faculty members are immortalized in the high Northern Renaissance style. Dumbledore is shown with the signature knitting needles and sherbet lemon candy and McGonagall is resplendent in green velvet (I am counting the portrait of the back of Quirrel’s turbaned head as a double portrait of him and the Dark Lord). Kay’s models look something like the actors in the films, with the exception of the potions master. His Snape may disappoint the fans of the late Alan Rickman’s fans. Rickman may have been twenty years older than the character he played, but when he strode away, black robes billowing, or cradled Lily’s body in his arms, it didn’t matter. Perhaps Kay is still thinking how to put his mark on Harry Potter’s most complicated character.
The portraits of the major characters raise an awkward question about anxiety of influence. There’s every reason to think that films impress themselves on artists’ imagination the same way Tenniel’s Alice has. But could Kay be under pressure (spoken or unspoken) to make the characters conform more or less to their film likenesses so as not to ruffle the fan base?. Or is he paying tribute to the many great British actors like Gary Oldman, David Thewlis, Imelda Staunton, and Jim Broadbent whose performances as Sirius Black, Teddy Lupin, Dolores Umbridge, and Horace Slughorn are so memorable?
If I were to take issue with an aspect of Kay’s interpretation of Sorcerer’s Stone, it would the handling of the theme of friendship. Enjoyable as the slapstick pictures for the Privet Drive section are, there could have been fewer, as they are less important overall than scenes where Harry, Ron Hermione, and Draco form the alliances and enmities that play out over the series. Draco being fitted in his Slytherin robes, with Madame Malkin’s tape measure rising up like a snake poised to strike, brilliantly establishes him as Harry’s antagonist, even without Harry in background. But with Harry nowhere to be seen in the picture of Draco stealing Neville’s Remembrall, it is a gorgeous fall landscape, not the unfolding of a dramatic rivalry.
The busy full-color plate of the wizard’s chess board fails to communicate the urgency of Ron, Hermione, and Harry racing to reach the philosopher’s stone before Voldemort. Instead showing Ron’s cool nerve as he advances Harry and Hermione across the board, Kay draws a crowd of playing pieces that threaten to crush the children. To an American, the pieces look more like cocktail lounge tikis than grotesques based on the Lewis chess set.
Maybe it was a conscious decision to keep the illustrations featuring two or more people to a minimum, as Kay seems more comfortable drawing posed single figures. He shows that he can create an emotional encounter between a child and an adult.
Or a child’s sense of embarrassment at being in public with a grown-up who is nice but peculiar. Perhaps there will be more intimate images like these in the later volumes.
Sorcerer’s Stone in red paper-covered boards is a nice piece of commercial bookmaking for $39.99. The atmospheric double-page spread of Harry on platform 9 3/4 is repeated on the dust jacket and the gold foil stamping and embossing on the jacket is more tasteful than tacky. Two lovely views of Hogwarts appear on the endpapers. The book opens flat so no text or illustrations disappear into the gutter (caveat: some Amazon customers complained they received copies with damaged or defective bindings). The heavy coated paper pages has been printed with streaky ink washes and ink splatters to give them a well worn and vaguely medieval look. Overall the illustrations are rather well printed, although some pictures are not as sharp as the digital previews, according to Potterheads. There’s even a red ribbon marker and imitation headbands.
The large trim size allowed for setting the text in two columns which gave a great deal of leeway to the uncredited graphic designer. Smaller ovoid illustrations are placed between columns, long narrow rectangular images are run across the bottom or down the side of a page, and little square vignettes are tucked in corners. The two-column format also made it possible to fit the text and 115 illustrations into a 252-page volume measuring 27 x 23 cm. about 1 inch thick (the original edition was 320 pages, 20 cm. tall and an inch thick).
The Kay edition will look grand on a table or on a shelf, but the original Scholastic edition was more reader-friendly. Devouring the Kay Potter under the covers with a flashlight seems as unlikely as throwing it in a tote for beach reading. And volumes 4-7 are much longer then the first three, so will the number of illustrations be increased, making it necessary to issue Goblet of Fire, Order of the Phoenix, Half-Blood Prince, and Deathly Hallows in one stout or two slimmer tomes?
With the demands of producing a new volume every year between 2016 and 2022, let’s hope Kay can keep up the pace and the quality… This fall I’ll be waiting in line for my copy of Chamber of Secrets.