The Harry Potter hype shows all the symptoms of past hysterias, from the death of Diana to tulipmania

My wife and I - I always have difficulty with that phrase. It makes me feel as if I should be cutting a ribbon or making a speech. "My partner and I" isn't much better. It manages to be coy, evasive and ambiguous, all at the same time. Anyway, whoever we are, we've just finished reading a very enjoyable book to the children. It's about a boy, an orphan, who knows there is something unusual about him. He isn't sure what, but suspects it has something to do with the legacy of his dead parents. It turns out that it has to do with magic, and he moves to a boarding school that, although it has a normal sort of curriculum, is also an academy for apprentice witches and magi. He gets caught up in a terrible cosmic battle involving dragons and suchlike, but through his own endurance - and his relationship with the head of the school - finally (although barely) survives.

This is not the first Harry Potter book, which we read to the children a couple of years ago, but Charmed Life by Diana Wynne Jones, which was published in 1977 and is the first in her sequence of children's books, The Worlds of Chrestomanci. I'm sure that Wynne Jones is a person of great wisdom and stoicism. I hope so anyway, because it must have been pretty galling to see J K Rowling become the most successful children's writer in the world, with books that were so similar (although, in my view, inferior) to her own, virtually forgotten sequence. It has now been reissued, by Collins (which, incidentally, rejected the first Harry Potter book), with strikingly Potter-like covers, no doubt in the hope that it may be dragged along in Harry Potter's slipstream.

I'm surprised by the wide success that the Harry Potter books have had among adults, as well as children. In a savage attack on the books in this week's Observer, Anthony Holden compared them to the Billy Bunter stories - except they don't have Billy Bunter, who, as George Orwell wrote, is an authentic creation, a schoolboy Falstaff. The Harry Potter academy reminds me more of the Jennings stories, which seemed to have been written for those who found Billy Bunter and Just William over-exciting.

And there is so much ground-breaking children's fiction being written in Britain at the moment. Try David Almond's beautiful Blakean parable, Skellig, about a boy who finds an angel in his garden shed. Or, better still, Philip Pullman's Northern Lights and The Subtle Knife.

How to describe them? Imagine a British Catcher in the Rye crossed with The Lord of the Rings and Paradise Lost. These books really are for both children and adults, perhaps because they are partly fables about that murky territory in which children start to turn into adults. (I sometimes think that, just as the greatest literature must be partly about death, so all the greatest children's literature must be about the inevitable loss of childhood.)

The Harry Potter phenomenon belongs to a different realm altogether. I don't see it as a triumph of hype or commerce - who could have bargained on such a success? It's difficult even to deplore the success. Compared with the Pokemon craze, it's positively benign. But it has tipped over into a form of insanity, with books locked in warehouses, staff signed to secrecy. It has become one of those events in which the enthusiasm feeds off the enthusiasm and becomes an epidemic like some of the great hysterias of the past: the South Sea Bubble, for example, in which the dealing in one street became so frenetic that a hunchback rented out his back for people to sign documents on. Or the Dutch tulipmania, in which 12 acres of building land were bartered for a single bulb. And, of course, the death of Diana.

I know it's all familiar, but it is salutary to recall the details in the sober light of day. Remember the talk that the crowds in the Mall would actually storm Buckingham Palace and institute a republic because they were dissatisfied with the response of the Queen? Remember the claims that the proceedings for Diana's canonisation were about to begin? Remember when Earl Spencer was regarded as a spokesman for British radicalism? Remember William Hague joining the campaign to change the name of Heathrow Airport to Diana, Princess of Wales Airport? What happened to that?

The symptoms of the Harry Potter disease involve boys switching off their computers and reading books, so it's difficult to get too angry about it. It would be nice, though, if they read something else as well.

This article first appeared in the 03 July 2000 issue of the New Statesman, And is there honey by the Tees?