A lot or a little?
The parents' guide to what's in this book.
What parents need to know
Parents need to know that J.K. Rowling continues her great plotting and pacing, but this book's edgier themes will appeal more to older kids. For most of the school year, Harry believes he is marked for death and stalked by an escaped prisoner. He also battles a creature of kids' worst nightmares: the Dementors are black-robed floating beings that suck out happiness and feed on your worst fears, which is why Harry hears the sound of his mother's last scream when he sees them. While this can be tough for young and sensitive readers, the bright spot is the Boggart lesson in Defense Against the Dark Arts. Boggarts can turn into what a person fears most, but the kids learn to yell "Ridiculous!" and turn it into something to laugh at. Parents who want to learn more about the series (and spin-off movies and games) can read our Harry Potter by Age and Stage article.
Scary, but better than the first too, don't be surprised if you find yourself reading over your child's shoulder.
What's the story?
This third entry in the series is scarier and more intense than the last two -- and even more exciting: When he can't stand his relatives' tormenting any more, Harry runs off, only to be picked up by a magical bus and taken to the Leaky Cauldron Inn. There he learns that Sirius Black, who supposedly betrayed his parents, has escaped from the wizard prison Azkaban, and is coming to kill him. The soul-sucking Dementors, guards from the prison, are dispatched to protect him back at school, but Harry finds that whenever one comes near he can hear his mother dying. But Black seems to get into the school anyway, Hermione and the new Dark Arts teacher each have secrets, and Ron's rat Scabbers and Hermione's new cat act strangely. When Harry obtains a map showing all the secret passages in the school, he makes discoveries about his parents, Snape, Black, and the new teacher. But what he learns may pit him against the Ministry of Magic.
Is it any good?
J.K. Rowling has sidestepped the usual series-writer trap of sticking so closely to a successful formula that each book is just more of the same. With Harry about to enter adolescence, the series, too, seems to be changing; this entry is darker, more complex, and morally more ambiguous than the first two. As he is forced by the Dementors to confront his parents' deaths directly, Harry -- who was always so cool in the earlier books -- is more emotionally unstable. Unlike the static characters in other series, Harry is getting older, with all that entails.
Rowling is a master of careful plotting, and the author is rumored to have planned out the whole story of the series in advance, for a total of seven books. In this volume, her planning shows, and the complexity is so great that, at times, it even inspires rereading. Rowling knows her readers, but even as she stretches their intellect, she never loses them.
Talk to your kids about ...
Families can talk about the more mature content in this book, which marks a turning point in the series. Did the book scare you more than the others in the series so far? Did it make you think more? Why do you think the author made this one for slightly older kids?
Even though the Harry Potter books are considered fantasy, this book contains a big mystery and lots of twists and surprises. What do you like best about it -- the fantasy part? The mystery? The surprise ending?
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