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What Harry is reading

It's asking a lot of Harry Potter fanatics to wait months, even years, for subsequent installments of the series. So to help stave off the urge for a Hogwarts fix, author J. K. Rowling has created two new Harry Potter companion books, "Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them" and "Quidditch Through the Ages."Rowling writes in an afterword that she's long had a "sneaking desire" to write books on Quidditch (the competitive sport Harry plays) and on the beasts that populate his wizard world. She finally invented them (along with their authors) as a way of helping the charity Comic Relief, U.K., which focuses on children's issues around the world. She and her publisher, Scholastic, will donate net proceeds to the cause.

This alone is a reason to rush out and buy the two small paperbacks, designed to look thumbed-through and doodled-upon, as though they were the property of Harry or of the library at his Hogwarts School. But it may be the only reason. However cleverly conceived, they are unsatisfying if you expect a good read.

If, for example, you have found yourself ruminating over whether there are any circumstances under which a Quidditch player's feet may touch the ground (only in a "time out"), or what the functional value is of a Swedish Short-Snout (its skin is used in the "manufacture of protective gloves and shields"), then you will want these books for your reference shelf. Otherwise, you should wait for the next "Harry Potter."

Both books do, of course, have flashes of Rowling's originality and wit - witness Harry's doodles in the margins of "Beasts," with his age-appropriate scatalogical humor and his drawings of smelly trolls. You can't help admiring Rowling's genius for imagining herself fully into the world she's created. "The necessity for keeping the game of Quidditch secret from Muggles [non-wizards] means that the Department of Magical Games and Sports has had to limit the number of games played each year," she notes, writing under the pseudonym of Kennilworthy Whisp, the renowned Quidditch expert.

Or consider this account, in "Fantastic Beasts," of how wizard officials will intervene in the unwelcome event that a Muggle happens to spot a magical beast: "The Office of Misinformation will in such a case liaise directly with the Muggle prime minister to seek a plausible non-magical explanation for the event."

But these "handbooks" (essentially) won't advance plot or develop character. As an 11-year-old Potter addict in my household said of one of them, "If you wanted to fly Quidditch, it's very useful. Otherwise, it's not quite the greatest."

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