Outside, it's a typical Thursday evening in Lenexa, as suburbanites dart in and out of the strip malls along 87th Street. Inside the Lackman Library, however, it's lesson time at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, where "Miss Bartholomew" is teaching a class in Muggle Studies to 20 eager pupils. As she extols the accomplishments of ingenious Muggles (those strange humans who don't use magic), the children show a keen interest, raising their hands to answer questions and volunteer for demonstrations.
But they're not really here to talk about who invented the compact disc. That becomes apparent when Miss Bartholomew (really storyteller Te Holmes) hands out sheets of Harry Potter trivia questions. Suddenly, the energy level in the room skyrockets as the students pounce on the hapless pieces of paper, ready to show off their vast expertise on the young wizard and his adventures.
Several brag aloud about how many times they've read author J.K. Rowling's four novels (out of a planned seven) or how young they were when they first started the series. Most finish the questions in well under the allotted time limit, and wait semi-patiently for the activities to continue. Their parents, seated in the back of the room, exchange knowing chuckles. They see this sort of thing all the time.
Welcome to Harry Potter Mania. Since the 1997 publication of "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone," kids and adults alike have thrilled to the tales of the poor British boy who discovers his wizarding heritage and goes off to Hogwarts, where students learn such things as Transfiguration and Defense Against the Dark Arts. The series has thus far sold more than 100 million copies worldwide, and on Nov. 16, the $125 million film version of the first book will hit theaters. Directed by Chris Columbus ("Mrs. Doubtfire," "Home Alone"), the movie will reportedly open on more than 5,000 screens, accompanied by a marketing blitz that nearly puts the "Stars Wars" franchise to shame. If all goes well, Warner Bros. could have the biggest hit of the year and some say possibly of all time on its hands.
The fate of the film depends on the response of fans like Andrew Viola and Lesli Amos, two participants in the library's Muggle Studies class.
"I know pretty much all the books by heart," boasts 9-year-old Andrew, who arrives dressed in a robe and wizard's hat. "I spend almost all my free time that I have on the computer on harrypotter.com."
He's even started a Harry Potter fan club at his school, which currently boasts 21 members.
Lesli, 11, isn't quite as devoted, but her love for the books is obvious as she describes their appeal.
"J.K. Rowling just writes the characters and the settings and everything just really detailed," she enthuses. "It gets me so into it; it's like I can't stop reading it. I tell my mom, 'Just one more minute,' and then, like, 20 minutes later, I'm still reading."
Andrew is equally disinclined to put the books down.
"I like how they make it so that it seems so real when you read it," he says, noting that he's even been known to finish chapters in the dark after bedtime.
Both youngsters are, predictably, looking forward to the movie, and are remarkably sophisticated about what to expect.
"It's not going to be the same," Lesli points out, "because a lot of what they say in the book is what they think, and you can't really have (them) thinking."
As for cutting certain elements of the story for the film, Andrew doesn't mind as long as they keep the "good, good parts."
Storyteller Holmes, who is originally from England, presents her program around the region with the help of her 9-year-old daughter, Sarah, and has been using the Harry Potter motif for three or four years.
"I love the books," she says. "I think they're brilliant. (Harry) is just a child that everyone can identify with, because he isn't super, super, super to start with. Kids can really identify, I think, with a lot of the characters."
In all the time she's been doing the Muggle Studies presentation, Holmes has only encountered controversy once, and it ended up helping in the long run. In Oskaloosa, Kan., the local public library canceled her appearance after someone in the community complained.
"It turns out that she'd never read the 'Harry Potter' books, and she honestly thought that we were going to teach witchcraft in the library," Holmes says, somewhat incredulously. "The publicity was great, and I think a whole bunch of people came to the Kansas City program just to see what it was all about."
Like many in her audience, Holmes is looking forward to the movie, although she plans to wait a little while before buying a ticket.
"I really want to hear what everybody says and get the reactions of the children first before I go and see it," she says. "Once you've gone to see it, all the suspense is gone, (and) we're going to have to wait a year or two years to see the next one. Part of it is the anticipation, so part of me wants to prolong it as much as possible."
For Sue Vance, manager of the Children's Book Shop in Lawrence, enthusiasm for the film is tempered with a booklover's trepidation about seeing it translated to the screen.
"I think people might be disappointed in the movie because it doesn't match what they expect," she says. "I always mention that when you read a book, you get to put your own movie together, so that's one of the advantages of reading. I've had some adults say they definitely were not going to go to the movie because they didn't want their image ruined."
Although Vance's store has not done special promotions for the series, she praises Rowling's whimsical writing style and refusal to talk down to her readers. She's also impressed with the way the books handle the issues of good and evil.
"There is evil in the world. We have proof of that," Vance says. "You can't always be reading something light and fluffy and feel-good. I think 'Harry' is a good combination of those traits, of (portraying) good and bad."
Aside from the incident in Oskaloosa, neither Holmes nor Vance has had much trouble with people protesting the books, but many others have not been so lucky. Opposition to "Harry Potter" materials and activities has sprung up in more than a dozen states, and the series topped the American Library Assn.'s list of Most Challenged Books in both 1999 and 2000.
Most of the opposition comes from evangelical Christians who believe the books promote the occult.
"My take is that the books are practicing witchery, and as Christians, we should not be supporting the books," says the Rev. Fallon Procter of the Wyandotte Baptist Church in Kansas City, Kan. "I don't think it's something that's going to enhance the children in school, nor will it enhance the community. (It's having an effect) on the education system. It's being presented as a character that the kids should imitate. We have a problem with that."
Procter doesn't object to depicting magic in children's fiction, as long as it doesn't go beyond light entertainment. His concern is with the scale of the series' influence and its impact, especially since it portrays witchcraft as a positive thing.
"When you're talking about running it to the magnitude where we're spending millions of dollars with advertising and all this other stuff, this is taking it a little further," he says. "This is encouraging kids a little more to get involved in that type of religious practice."
To counter these influences, Procter is planning an educational program at his church later this month, in an effort to help people understand what he sees as the destructive messages inherent in the "Harry Potter" books.
"Pastors like myself are going to have to start embracing that this is a reality," he says. "Hollywood is trying to present this. The school system may be trying to encourage it. So now we have to go into church and start teaching."
California-based writer Connie Neal agrees with these sentiments up to a point but takes a different approach to the subject. Her book, "What's a Christian to Do with Harry Potter?," tries to present a balanced perspective, encouraging parents not to "throw the book out with the bathwater" and trying to find common ground between those who oppose the tales and those who enjoy them.
"I respect the sensitivities of people who have fought against 'Harry Potter,'" she says. "I agree we have to make sure that kids don't get into practicing real witchcraft."
To that end, she has read the series with her three children, and used the opportunity to compare its messages with Biblical teachings, identifying which behaviors should and should not be imitated.
"I don't want to take my kids and expose them to all the real occult stuff," she says, "so here we have these delightful fantasy stories that have some elements in them that can correlate to real-world occult practices I don't want them doing, and also wonderful lessons if you can get beyond the initial objections."
She specifically points out Harry's willingness to risk his life to fight evil and his ability to resist temptation, qualities which square easily with Christian teachings.
Neal has been one of the few evangelical leaders to speak out in defense of the books, and she hopes Christians can find a way to use them in a positive manner.
"I object to the spirit of fear I see spreading like wildfire through some Christian circles," she says. "(Some) Christians have been trying to run away from this tidal wave as fast as they can, when the other option is, by the grace of God, we can ride it, and use the power of it to be in our world, not of our world, and to be a light."
At the other end of the spectrum is the very religion to which Neal and others object, whose adherents are often misrepresented by the popular media. Among real-world witches modern pagans who generally identify with the Wiccan tradition there has long been debate about the stereotyped portrayal of their faith. Images of people in pointy hats, waving wands and riding broomsticks don't often sit well with those who are trying to promote a greater understanding of their beliefs. However, the light, fantastical tone of Harry's world, coupled with the depiction of witches as largely benevolent, seems to have headed off most criticism from pagan quarters.
"'Harry Potter' does not portray witches correctly, but it is tongue-in-cheek and, for the most part, a lovely lark," writes Ravynwolfe Moondancer, a frequent poster to the Internet newsgroup soc.religion.paganism. Another poster, Victoria Chapman, claims "the 'Harry Potter' series is no more 'real' than dragons or elves or Lion Kings ... It has nothing to do with anything pagan at all."
Childhood interest in supernatural stories is nothing new, and "it may encourage and foster creative thinking and open-mindedness," writes Michael Vondung. "But those are things that can only benefit society and this generation positively. Stating that Harry Potter turns kids into pagan 'witches' is as accurate as saying that seeing a Christian church turns our children into Catholic priests."
Although interest in pagan religions is growing, its practitioners are quick to bring up that the witchcraft in the "Harry Potter" books bears no resemblance to the real thing, and is unlikely to encourage many serious conversions.
"I would expect that some people will be drawn to study," writes a poster using the screen name Bard, "but many end up disappointed that being a pagan is not that easy or powerful as films/books/TV depict it."
Ultimately, none of these discussions will mean much to the countless children whose love for Rowling's books has turned into a pop-culture phenomenon. They're just thinking about how to obtain tickets to the movie, which board games they want, and how long it's going to take for the next book to come out. For them, the magic of "Harry Potter" doesn't come from spells or wands anyway. It's in their imaginations, where the best magic always lies. And nothing not a movie, or a protest, or any other Muggle invention can take that away.