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What's that adage about books and covers?

For Harry Potter's faithful fans, the release of cover illustrations inspires as much rejoicing as the announcement of a title or publication date in J.K. Rowling's phenomenally popular series. The most avid among them scour the artwork for clues to the new book's plot; U.S. publisher Scholastic, ever helpful, provides a virtual magnifying glass on its Web site.

Where and when does the confrontation between Harry and Voldemort - shown on the cover of the seventh and last volume, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows - take place? Why aren't these mortal foes using wands? Is the color scheme significant? Who or what are those shadowy figures in the background? What's that around Harry's neck?

Mary GrandPré isn't telling. "I'm sworn to secrecy," the illustrator of all seven Potter books said from her Sarasota, Fla., home. "I have to just let you make your own conclusions until you read the book."

Unlike most of Earth's population, which must wait until 12:01 a.m. Saturday to read Deathly Hallows, GrandPré received the manuscript several months ago. The timing could have been better - she and her husband, artist Tom Casmer, had just returned from China with their newly adopted daughter a month earlier. But as GrandPré has done since the first Potter novel, 1997's Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, fell into her lap, she set aside everything else and sat down with two highlighters - one for possible cover material, the other for chapter headings.

"I go through and see what I've got," she said. "I read and re-read until I feel I've got a good visual understanding of what would make an exciting scene or a meaningful scene." After discussions with her art director and editor, she got out the pastels and charcoal. GrandPré said she spent a week and a half reading and making notes, a week on the cover, then another couple of weeks on the chapter headings.

How many? GrandPré, who shredded the manuscript when she finished, couldn't divulge even that detail, but each of the last three books has had more than 30 chapters. "Every chapter heading is supposed to tell you something, to pull you in and tease you," she said. "Not that you need them - it's a little something extra."

As Harry and the novels have matured, GrandPré's depiction of Harry has evolved. The primary-colored palette and cartoonish style have become more subtle and refined. The artist said her last effort is her favorite.

Melissa Anelli, webmistress of leading fan site The Leaky Cauldron and author of a forthcoming book on the Potter phenomenon, has pored over not only GrandPré's artwork, but the covers released by British publisher Bloomsbury as well. "The British covers are more about a particular scene; the American ones are overall tonal stuff," Anelli said in a phone interview from Albuquerque, N.M., where she and other members of The Leaky Cauldron staff, in the midst of a nationwide podcast tour, were about to square off in a wiffle-ball match with wizard-rock pioneers Harry and the Potters.

Bloomsbury's Deathly Hallows art, by Jason Cockcroft, is "like a little treasure hunt," Anelli said. It shows a battered-looking Harry, Ron and Hermione surrounded by treasure. A sword-wielding creature - is it a goblin or perhaps a house-elf? - lurks behind Harry.

"It looks like they're falling back," Anelli said. "You can tell by their hair. This is how deeply we analyze these things!" Anelli said her fellow Potterati refer to Cockcroft's dashing Harry as "Abercrombie Harry." They speculate that the goblin or elf is holding the fabled Sword of Gryffindor; they ponder the significance of the colorful dress robes Ron and Hermione sport.

What strikes Anelli about GrandPré's cover? The combatants' expressions, for starters. Harry looks confident and determined - or "badass and unconcerned," as Anelli put it. "But Voldemort is all concerned."

The figures in the background? Possibly the ghosts of people Voldemort has killed, or possibly his henchmen, the Death Eaters.

The rosy color palette, a departure from the cool blues and greens of recent Potter covers, also strikes Anelli as significant. "It's a phoenix-related color scheme. Or it's near dawn and the end of the series. . . . That kind of color represents the beginning of something new. There's a hopeful feeling, nothing gloomy about it."

Then there are those curtains, which GrandPré included once before on a Potter cover - on Sorcerer's Stone, the first installment. Now, Anelli said, the curtain is falling on Harry's story. "It's very sad."

An international appeal

J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter novels have been translated into dozens of languages - 67 by Wikipedia's count. Of the 325 million copies now in print, nearly a third are in languages other than English, the British paper The Guardian reports. Most of the international editions use the cover art from the original Scholastic (U.S.) or Bloomsbury (U.K.) editions; in other countries, particularly in Europe, the books sport distinctive jackets of their own.


What do blazing colors represent?

A departure from past books, the bright colors are reminiscent of the phoenix bird; perhaps they connote a dawning or awakening.


What is Harry reaching for?

Judging from Harry's determined look (and Voldemort's two-handed desperation), Potter appears close to grasping victory.


What's that around Harry's neck?

Perhaps it's the Horcrux that he and Dumbledore came heartbreakingly close to securing in book 6. Perhaps it's an amulet.


Who are those shadowy figures?

Maybe they are Voldemort's victims, or perahps his henchmen, the Death Eaters.


Why don't they have wands?

Good question. Maybe it's because their wands neutralize each other.


What do curtains represent?

Alas, this is the final chapter in the boy wizard's story.