When I look over the facts and the honest-to-god evidence of my childhood reading habits, the answer to the question What’s your favorite book? is clear as day: Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban.
This is, most notably, because I literally read my copy to pieces. When I moved away from home and my mother sent off occasional book packages, my copy of Prisoner had to come sealed in a Ziploc bag so it wouldn’t fall apart. The spine is cloven in two—er, well actually three—places, and the entirety of the second act and then some floats between what were clearly my favorite passages.
Some simple sleuthing tells me exactly what my childhood self saw as the most important parts of that book, namely the first encounter with Professor R.J. Lupin and the climax in the Shrieking Shack.
But I guess I should digress for a moment and say a bit about the plot for anyone who decided Harry Potter isn’t their thing or who was hit by a stray memory charm and tragically needs a refresher.
Prisoner follows young wizard Harry Potter—lone survivor and defeater of the dark wizard Voldemort and child celebrity in the wizarding world—as he makes his way through his third year at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. As has become his habit, Harry can never have a normal year at school, and this time he must come to terms with the fact that a deranged mass murderer and former right-hand man to Voldemort has escaped from the wizarding prison Azkaban and is now out to kill Harry.
When asked why this book, out of all seven, is my favorite in the series, at first I struggled to put my finger on it. The book has all the usual components that make a Harry Potter novel great—magic, mystery, a ragtag group of children fighting evil—but it also gives us one of the first glimpses into the wizarding world before Harry joined it through my favorite character: Remus Lupin.
As evidenced by my mangled copy of Prisoner, the arrival of Remus Lupin into the Harry Potter canon is one of my favorite scenes. In this book particularly, Rowling gives us some fascinating juxtaposition between expectation and reality. We are introduced to the mysterious, but rather dusty looking, Professor R.J. Lupin, who looks, according to Ron Weasley, “like one good hex would finish him off.” Sickly and shabby, Lupin is one of the kindest characters in the books, an unassuming man with a secret that’s quite the opposite. He struggles almost his entire life with lycanthropy and is barely able to make ends meet due to society’s treatment of him.
Despite his talent and congeniality, Remus lives every day of his life looking over his shoulder, hoping this month isn’t the one where someone will put the pieces together, where his absence at the full moon might be met with sympathy and understanding rather than revulsion and fear. Even his own friends, who do all that they can to help him during the full moon, still see him—and use him—as something to fear when they vengefully send a curious Severus Snape to his doom into the Shrieking Shack to be met with a transformed Remus.
Fortunately, we get to see Lupin through the eyes of Harry, who after years of abuse at the hands of his aunt and uncle, knows a thing or two about being loathed for something that others perceive to be inherently dangerous. Unlike Ron, who grew up in wizarding society and has been taught to loathe and fear werewolves, Harry is barely fazed by Lupin’s revelation about his condition, instead only questioning his trustworthiness when it seems Lupin must be in league with a murderer.
As a child, this sort of empathy spoke to me, as I think most children grow up with a fear of being misunderstood and judged for our differences. But Rowling does teach us that, while Lupin could have easily taken matters into his own hands and sought revenge for the prejudice he faced since childhood, he instead counteracts the perceptions of others with the genuine compassion and integrity he is so often denied. Not only did Harry find a role model to look up to in school, but I found one as well.