Sometimes it seems like the only thing the internet likes more than Harry Potter is ranking things. This week’s celebration of the 20th anniversary of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (as the first book was known when it was initially published in the U.K.) therefore seems like a perfect opportunity to combine them.
But Harry Potter is such a beloved series that means so much to so many people, it would feel almost icky to present one qualitative ranking of the series and call it definitive. Everyone has their own favorites and their own reasons for loving them. So we recruited seven EW staffers, each of whom weighs in on a Harry Potter book to share why it sticks out from other books in the series and why it still resonates with them years later.
THE SORCERER’S STONE
Every phenomenon starts with a single spark, and for so many of us, the entryway into J.K. Rowling’s magical world came with Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (or Philosopher’s Stone, depending on which side of the Atlantic you’re on). As Harry learned the ways of the wizarding world, readers followed him every step of the way. His first trip to Diagon Alley was also ours (ditto Hogwarts), and we discovered the thrills and dangers of that world right alongside him. It’s the most innocent book of the bunch, and has the lowest stakes, but who knew that at the time? That first Quidditch match was so exhilarating, the journey past the stone’s protections so suspenseful, and the first meeting with Lord Voldemort so intense — it all had me completely engrossed when I first read the book nearly two decades ago. But it was an even greater joy to later read it aloud to my youngest brother — with different voices for each character, because I commit to these things with Hermione-level intensity — and watch him become enchanted as well.
We didn’t know then what joys and tragedies would come over the next six books, but it’s amazing to think it all started with a little boy under a staircase, and a magical author who shared him with us. —JESSICA DERSCHOWITZ
THE CHAMBER OF SECRETS
It’s probably been about 15 years since I was holed up in my old house, reading Chamber of Secrets — the first book to really make me fall in love with reading. It was easier to get hooked than with the first book because we already knew and fantasized about Hogwarts. (Yes, this was before I turned 11 and my letter got lost in the mail.) Returning to that school of witchcraft and wizardry meant its halls and houses were already familiar to us, and, most importantly, Harry, Ron, and Hermione were well on their way to becoming family to anyone looking for a bit of magic.
Between the flying car and the basilisk wreaking mayhem upon Hogwarts, Chamber of Secrets lays some essential groundwork for the series’ future — we didn’t know it at the time, but Tom Riddle’s diary was our first glimpse at a horcrux (and the coolest, by far, aside from Harry himself). It also introduces us to Harry’s beloved home away from Hogwarts, the Burrow, and marks our first encounters with Dobby (and his self-degrading neuroses), the insufferable Gilderoy Lockhart, and, of course, Moaning Myrtle. Of course, we had no idea then just how many memorable adventures Harry & co. would have by the end of the series, but Chamber of Secrets raised the stakes. —JAMI GANZ
THE PRISONER OF AZKABAN
Many people say that Goblet of Fire is the turning point for the whole series, but that’s fake news; it’s definitely Prisoner of Azkaban. For starters, the book begins with Harry, and the entire Wizarding World, believing that newly-escaped-from-Azkaban Sirius Black is hellbent on murdering Harry to help Voldemort “finish the job.” And then there are the Dementors, the literal soul-sucking guards of Azkaban that feed off of human happiness, inspired by Rowling’s own struggles with depression. It’s the first book that introduces something more than just a year-by-year adventure series with Harry, Ron, and Hermione defeating Voldemort before going on summer vacation. It’s darker, deeper, and grittier in the way it sets up every major twist and turn (read: Scabbers) and shows us just how much Harry, as both an adolescent boy and the all-mighty chosen one, wants and needs his own family to love him. In Azkaban, Rowling is making it explicitly clear that this series isn’t just for children. —SARAH WELDON
THE GOBLET OF FIRE
Rowling’s fourth book — the only one in the series to win one of the sci-fi/fantasy genre’s prestigious Hugo Awards — has a practically perfect structure. The concept of the Triwizard Tournament gives it a fast-paced plot, conceptually familiar without being predictable, and the introduction of other wizarding schools Durmstrang and Beauxbatons opened up the magical world beyond Hogwarts — one we’re still exploring through films like Fantastic Beasts. The Goblet of Fire also thrust its young audience (and its characters) into maturity: Aside from James and Lily Potter’s murders, which effectively happened “offstage,” Cedric Diggory’s death was the first of the tragic, gone-too-soon slayings that would mark the series’ later books. He was the first good, innocent character we fell in love with, only to have our hearts broken by his death — which also gives us a more personal reason to hate Voldemort. He didn’t just take bad guys or people in the past; he took our friend, Cedric, someone who’d done nothing wrong.
Harry, Hermione, and Ron start to grow up, too. Harry deals with his major crush on Cho, and when Viktor plucks Hermione out of the Hogwarts crowd as his date, Ron is shocked by his jealousy. The Goblet of Fire marked a turning point in the series: You may have started these books when you were kids, but by the end of this one, you’ve grown up a bit, and so have they. —ISABELLA BIEDENHARN
THE ORDER OF THE PHOENIX
The single longest Harry Potter book is arguably the series’ most unique. Although Prisoner of the Azakaban ratcheted up the darkness, and Goblet of Fire first brought death to what had until then been a mostly innocent children’s series, Order of the Phoenix is the first book where Hogwarts truly feels unsafe. Dolores Umbridge is one of Rowling’s more inspired creations — an iron authoritarian dressed up in polite cuteness, Margaret Thatcher swathed in pink. Under her thumb, Harry and his friends must contend with their own lying government even more than Voldemort himself (surely resonant for everyone calling themselves #TheResistance these days; they might as well be Dumbledore’s Army). It all leads up to one of the most evocative sequences in the entire series: their journey through the Department of Mysteries. The road through rooms of time loops, death veils, and floating brains leads to an epic Dumbledore-Voldemort duel and a heartbreaking demise. The chapter after Sirius’ death, in which an enraged Harry destroys everything in Dumbledore’s office because he just doesn’t know what else to do, is legitimately hard to read in its vivid depiction of pure, heart-crushing grief. Kudos to Rowling for making the book’s 890 pages pay off. —CHRISTIAN HOLUB
THE HALF-BLOOD PRINCE
With this penultimate book in the series, Rowling expands her world to mind-boggling proportions, writing an entry that both furthers Harry’s story and dives deeply into the past and the history of the wizarding world. Here, we finally learn not only how Voldemort became the most powerful and feared wizard in history, but also why. Rowling also deftly captures how, even in the midst of tragedy and terror, life goes on. She begins to pair off our heroes with her bemusing, spot-on takes on the pangs of teenage love. All of this dominates the plot so well that you nearly forget about the equally compelling mystery of the identity of the Half-Blood Prince (a reveal that will have deeper implications in Deathly Hallows). It also includes one of the most shocking plot twists in the series — Dumbledore’s death by Snape’s hand. This book is jam-packed with developments that carry us into the series conclusion — so much so that you wish some of its potent action was inserted into the mind-numbing, interminable camping trip that kicks off the next book. The film adaptation struggles with the jumps between past and present and the tonal shifts of the adventure and humor. But the book is the work of a writer at the top of her game, taking us on an adventure that expertly prepares us for its conclusion (and perhaps even exceeds it). —MAUREEN LEE LENKER
THE DEATHLY HALLOWS
The great misconception about praising book seven as the series’ best is that such a ranking over-sentimentalizes Deathly Hallows simply because of its finality. And sure, the magnitude of emotion in the book is certainly part of the case for its greatness, but it’s far from the whole story. Unlike its predecessor volumes, Deathly Hallows is unabashedly, consistently cinematic and provocative. Its action sequences are dangerous, uncharted, and electric — chapters end and you’re lucky to catch your breath before the next begins. Its quiet moments are just as thrilling; no place is safe for Harry, Ron, and Hermione, and the augury of jeopardy that hangs over every word, every interaction, and every decision is one of Rowling’s most extraordinary feats. Danger has always lurked in this series, but never with such palpable, pressurized heat. And if you’re still not convinced that Deathly Hallows’ noir mystery is the series’ most complex, its characters at their most fully realized, its world at its most piercing and realistic — then the Battle of Hogwarts starts. and literature’s last great children’s war epic begins. —MARC SNETIKER