This is an expanded version of a reply to Mark S during a LiveJournal conversation about the Harry Potter books. It was written before the final book was published.
Magic in the HP books is really unlike magic in almost any other novels (kids’ or otherwise) in that it’s used, by and large, simply to recreate the “mugglish” life the wizards can’t join in with. So you have wizard banks, wizard shops, wizard GCSEs and A-Levels: the amazing world of magic promised at the start of book one turns out to be a funnified version of the “real world” – and as the series goes on not even that: you realise that the wizards are actually recreating stuff like job anxiety, bureaucracy, petty jealousies and professional rivalries as well as the school and administrative systems of Muggle-land. I think the secret to Rowling’s success is how un-escapist the books are: one of the most sympathetically presented characters in the series is Ron Weasley’s Dad, who is a kindly, bumbling, Pooter-ish kind of wizard with a mournful fascination with muggledom. The ordinary family is what Harry P aspires to all through.
I guess a lot of child Potter readers aren’t especially bookish or nerdy, or the books wouldn’t sell quite as well as they do, but a lot are, and their ‘magical’ world captures the agonies of the bookish kid as well as anything I’ve seen: it’s not just about wanting to get away from the horrible bullying real world into fantasyland, it’s about wanting to fit in to that world AND get away from it – to recreate it fairly precisely but with you and the stuff you care about as the hero somehow. Most shy clever kids are clever enough to realise on some level that the “muggles” who make their lives (directly or indirectly) a misery aren’t actually horrible, or having a horrible time: most escapist fiction gets very ostrich about that!
The only characters who want to break out of the simulation of the “muggle” world are the villains, who want to dominate or annihilate the muggles and institute a society presumably based on relative levels of magical power (I say presumably because, like most supervillains, Lord Voldemort doesn’t come equipped with any kind of actual plan beyond “Beat Harry GRRR” – he’s keen on the idea of ‘old magical families’ being in charge, but that’s as far as it goes). I think that by making her villains a lot more radical than her heroes – though still definitely villainous – Rowling has managed to create bad guys with a more seductive than usual contrarian appeal.