Jim Kay’s Wizarding World 2: Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets begins with an assault on the reader, who is suddenly confronted by a large pair of green eyes staring out from the hedge.  Does the reader want to escape the gaze?  Or put out the eyes of the spy?The startling pink-rimmed eyes belong to Dobby the house elf, the first, least, and bravest of Harry’s protectors in The Chamber of Secrets.

It’s the first of many images of wide open eyes (and references to eye sockets) in a story stalked by an unseen beast whose gaze kills.  The terror it arouses is foreshadowed at the end of the Philosopher’s Stone in the illustration that shows the reflection of Professor Quirrell lifting up a fold in the back of his turban.

At the climax of Chamber of Secrets, Harry senses with eyes wide shut the stone serpents’ empty eye sockets tracking his movements in the dark.  Then Tom Riddle disarms him and twirls his wand while they talk to break his spirit.  Even after Harry learns that Ginny was the pawn in Riddle’s scheme to destroy him, he refuses to deny that Dumbledore is the greater wizard of the two, a statement that summons the phoenix Fawkes to the chamber Slytherin built.  What Riddle has forgotten is that Fawkes will be able to blind with the basilisk with its beak and cure any wound inflicted with its tears.  Reinvigorated by the phoenix’s bravery, Harry is able to give the basilisk a mortal blow with Godric Gryffindor’s sword and to thrust the monster’s fang into Riddle’s diary, unknowingly destroying the first Horcrux.

At their best, Kay’s illustrations capture an uneven story’s  grandeur.  One of the volume’s functions is laying down material that will drive the complex plot forward in the series’ successive installments, not unlike Pullman’sThe Subtle Knife or Tolkien’s The Two Towers.  The shifts between low comedy and heroism are not always managed skillfully from scene to scene and some of that awkwardness is reflected in the pictures.

It’s quite noticeable in the illustrations of Dobby, a crucial supporting character who unites servility with bravery.  Like Hagrid, he speaks in an awkward dialect that demotes him to a caricature.  Dobby is first compared to “an ugly rag doll” and Kay obliges with a picture of the house elf perched on the edge of Harry’s bed.  His pink slab of a lower lip, enormous pop eyes, huge ears fringed with fine bristles, and filthy feet with long untrimmed nails do not make him appealing, although the resemblance to a cute Frank Oz creature is unmistakable.  At the fantasy’s end, the equally unattractive portrait of Dobby cradling Harry’s filthy sock to his face (here pristine) gives the reader permission to laugh at the moment Dobby is freed from slavery.  His toughness, loyalty, and misdirected ingenuity is captured best in the vignette of him intent on the destruction of Aunt Petunia’s pudding with the pillow case riding above his buttocks.   His appearance is funny but without being as hideous or ridiculous as in the other two pictures.

Creating portraits that blend the admirable with the risible was perhaps one of the biggest challenges the text presented to Kay.  Moaning Myrtle has a mug right out of a cartoon when a better model would have been Shirley Henderson, who played the ghost in the film with a crafty yet infantile expression.

More satisfying is the second of the two portraits of Mrs. Weasley, holding up a flower pot of Floo powder, her red hair in need of a good hair cut under the crumpled green witch’s hat.  Kay was perhaps a little cruel in his depiction of an older woman’s body, who has had seven children, but Mrs. Weasley’s warm, unguarded expression makes her individual and likeable without sacrificing the realistic edge.

Kay proves he can do gross in the sketchy picture of Ron vomiting slugs followed by a full-page spread decorated with more slugs making trails of bright yellow bile.  The artist’s attempts to create something like cinematic special effects are more mixed than magical.  Harry’s figure on his maiden voyage on Floo powder should look as if it were speeding out of control instead of frozen in one moment (if indeed that’s possible).  When Harry bursts through the window in Tom Riddle’s diary, he seems to have fallen into an Abstract Expressionist painting instead of a memory strategically selected by his nemesis.

The October 2016 publication date for The Chamber of Secrets must have obliged Kay to repeat himself, not having the time to realize more of those important but potentially difficult scenes like the magnificent aerial view of St. Pancras,  Hagrid making his way down Knockburn Alley, or the tense interview between Aragog, Harry, Ron, and Fang.  For my money, the three following illustrations help establish the mood (and play to  Kay’s strengths) than do the two pictures of Dudley stuffing his face or the crowds of garden gnomes, Cornish pixies, and spiders.Architectural subjects are one of Kay’s fortes.  Yet it is easy to understand  why he chose to draw a frieze of high relief figures romping in medieval bathrooms instead of the entrance the Chamber of Secrets.  Moaning Myrtle’s bathroom may be in desperate need of remodeling, but that sink cannot have survived intact after a thousand years’ of abuse by school children with magical powers! More to the point, where is Dumbledore’s office, a scene tailor-made for Kay, which I would have been willing to trade for the four new blocks of Diagon Alley?  Why no stupendous view of the Chamber, with its columns, serpentine decorations, and ominous statue of Salazar Slytherin with the weedy beard down to his feet?  The spread with the basilisk’s gigantic moulted skin with small figures of Ron, Harry, and Lockhart in the middle distance is nothing more than a teaser.

Nor is it clear why there are no pictures of the two most important actors-Ginny Weasley and Tom Riddle.  Perhaps Kay was unable to find the right models in the time.  As wonderful as the pictures of Sir Patrick brandishing his severed head astride his skeletal steed, a rueful Hagrid, or the label for Skelegro are, they are no substitute for seeing how Kay would visualize the handsome, charming and utterly ruthless sixteen-year old shimmer in and out of focus.  Those missed opportunities ultimately diminish the Chamber of Secrets.

I wish the publisher had done away with most of the black pages, which are the equivalent of movie music that tells members of the audience what to feel.  Sections with the pages specially patterned with shadowy outlines of snake scales, spider webs, lime green triangles, and imitation foxing are no substitute for the chance to see Fawkes fly off with Harry, Ron, Ginny, and Lockhart, after those tantalizing pictures of soaring birds (and magical cars) in the novel’s opening chapters.  If it were up to me, I’d give Kay the time he needs to draw the illustrations The Prisoner of Azkhaban  that will bring the story to life.

Jim Kay’s Wizarding World: Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone



Animage Minerva McGonagall killing time until baby Harry is delivered on p. 2.

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.


View of Hogwarts on the front free endpaper.

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?


Detail of one of Diagon Alley’s most famous emporiums on p. 64.

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.”


Detail from “The Life of a Bug” spread.


Where’s the spider on p. 196? Kay’s curatorial experience at Kew Gardens is evident in the sensitive handling of the leaves.

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…


Harry at home on p. 16.

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.


Little Norbert staring down the reader on p. 183.

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.


Gryffindor’s ghost, Sir Nicholas Mimsy-Porpington, who bears an unmistakable resemblance to Basil Fawlty on p. 103.

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 potions master.


Harry under a Sorting Hat pieced together from fabric scraps too splendid by half on p. 99. If he is afraid of being placed in Slytherin, his expression does not show it.

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.


Draco taunting Harry and Neville with the Remembrall high over head on p. 122.

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.


Playing wizard chess on p. 226.

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.


Harry notices Dumbledore after looking into the Mirror of Erised for the third time on p. 173.

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.


Harry and Hagrid in the Underground on p. 56.

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…

There are also reviews of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child  and Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets on the blog…


The four friends celebrating the Great Hall on p. 245. To be continued!