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Harry Potter's homework

Last year, Richard Curtis, co-founder of a charity called Comic Relief U.K., asked Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling to help the group raise funds by donating an item that could be auctioned off.

Instead, Rowling spent a month writing and illustrating two new Potter-related volumes, Quidditch Through the Ages and Fantastic Beasts & Where to Find Them, directing that all of her royalties from the books' sale were to be donated to Comic Relief U.K.

Cunningly offered as wryly written textbooks (Fantastic Beasts masquerades as Harry's own copy, complete with "handwritten" notes' by him and his friends Ron Weasley and Hermione Granger), the new paperbacks are expected to sell millions of copies around the world. Scholastic, the U.S. publisher of the books, planned an initial print run of 2.5-million for each of the books, which were published on March 12.

About $3 of the $3.99 price of each book will go to Comic Relief U.K., thus giving the group a $35 million-plus boost for its work at improving the lives of children around the world. To underline the charitable enterprise involved in the books, Hogwarts Headmaster Albus Dumbledore, who has "written" an introduction to both volumes, notes that those who read them without purchasing them risk attracting a "Thief's Curse."

So, it's clear that by buying the books, Harry Potter fans will be doing a good deed. But will they be purchasing worthwhile reading as well?

The answer is a resounding "Yes!" These two slender volumes (Quidditch is 56 pages, Fantastic Beasts only 42 pages) will enlarge and enlighten readers' view of the wizard world created by Rowling.

The two books also contain some of Rowling's best-ever writing and most creative thinking. It's clear that she reveled in writing these books, perhaps viewing the assignment as a way to give herself a bit of comic relief from the toils of writing the last three, ever-darker books in the Potter series. (Book Five, tentatively titled Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, is expected to be published next year.)

For Potter fans, too, these new books will provide some comic relief from the anxiety-producing last pages of Book Four, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. As that book concludes, it's clear that difficult days are ahead for Harry and other wizards who will be called upon to fight the evil Lord Voldemort, whose great powers have been stunningly resurrected.

Interestingly, in both Quidditch and Fantastic Beasts, Rowling displays a writing talent that has not always been evident in the four Potter books. Although her plot and characterization in those books are first-rate, Rowling's writing has often been clunky and cliche-ridden.

But Rowling's writing in Quidditch and Fantastic Beasts is top notch. The books are witty, full of droll and fascinating wordplay, and replete with both ingenious creatures and ideas. The fun begins with the pen names under which Rowling writes the books: "Kennilworthy Whisp" for Quidditch and "Newt Scamander" for Fantastic Beasts and continues through right to the end.

Rowling carries off with aplomb the idea that these are textbooks used by Harry and other Hogwarts students. At the same time, she cleverly satirizes the style of writing used in schoolbooks and even includes a number of hilarious footnotes, such as those featuring the hapless "Uric the Oddball."

Rowling also has included a number of black and white drawings, which add to the comedy and help readers to visualize such imaginatively named creatures as the "Golden Snidget" (the bird who was the precursor of the Golden Snitch in Quidditch), the "Plimpy," the "Runespoor" and the "Billywig."

In addition, Rowling once again exhibits her decided talent for the type of low and slapstick humor beloved by children. In Fantastic Beasts, for example, Rowling describes one impish creature, the Puffskein, which likes to drink out of toilets and "has a particular preference for sticking its tongue up the nose of sleeping wizards and eating their bogies."

And in Quidditch, she delights in detailing the types of win-at-all-costs behavior that has sometimes characterized this wizard world sport. Among the fouls she describes are "blatching" ("flying with an intent to collide") and "flacking" ("sticking any portion of the anatomy through the goal hoop to punch the quaffle out. The Keeper is supposed to block the goal hoop from the front, rather than the rear.").

Overall, Rowling's two newest volumes offer impatient readers a delightful way to pass the time until the next Harry Potter book is published.

For more information on how money from the sale of the two books is being used to help children, log onto www.comicrelief.com/harrysbooks.

This article originally appeared in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. It was distributed by Scripps Howard News Service.

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