Tina Jordan
October 20, 2007 AT 06:20 PM EDT

First things first: At last night’s talk at New York City’s Carnegie Hall — an event for thousands of young Harry Potter fans and their parents — J.K. Rowling outed the kindly headmaster.

Responding to a question from a child about Dumbledore’s love life, Rowling hesitated and then revealed, “I always saw Dumbledore as gay.” Filling in a few more details, she said, “Dumbledore fell in love with Grindelwald…. Don’t forget, falling in  love can blind us. [He] was very drawn to this brilliant person. This was Dumbledore’s tragedy.” She added that in a recent meeting about the sixth movie, she spied a line in the script where Dumbledore waxed poetic about a girl, so she was forced to scribble director David Yates a note to correct the situation.

So how did all those lucky kids get to sit in the baronial gilt and red velvet splendor of Carnegie Hall? First they won a sweepstakes event created by Rowling’s publisher, Scholastic, and then they flew to New York from all over the country. As I waited in line in the unseasonal muggy New York heat to enter the famous concert hall, I chatted up the father and daughter in front of me. They’d just flown in from Nashville (what’s more, their plane had been delayed, so they’d arrived at the concert hall with mere minutes to spare). As I canvassed more families, I found they’d come from all over the country — from as far away as Arizona, Washington, Minnesota, and Texas (it was rumored some came from Hawaii, but I didn’t verify that).

When the line, snaking around the block, began moving at 6:30, it moved fast. By 7:00 everyone was seated, the red-jacketed ushers were shushing and closing the box doors, and the event host, MSNBC news anchor Keith Olbermann, took the stage. But not center stage, which was dominated by an enormous, velvet-upholstered, carved wooden chair — a throne, really — planted on a Persian carpet. Gesturing to it, Olbermann joked, “That’s not sufficient for someone who’ll be signing that many copies” — a reference to the fact that, after the reading, Rowling would be signing a copy of Hallows for every single sweepstakes winner.

The crowd was polite to Olbermann, but when a smiling Rowling finally strode on stage, perfectly blonded and coiffed, fingernails shellacked to a brilliant red, stilettos clicking, they went absolutely mad, screaming, jumping to their feet, even crying. Gently, in true mom fashion, she shushed them, and began to read from the seventh book. She’s a brilliant reader, funny and quick, doing all the voices with comic perfection — Ron was abashed and sullen; Hermione, squeaky with rage; Harry, exhausted with the effort to appease the two. (She even made herself giggle in places as she read.) When she finished the crowd rose to its feet again, even as she tried, in vain, to get them sit. “Don’t make me cry!” she kept saying. Finally everyone did sit, and the question-and-answer session could begin. The lucky questioners had mostly been chosen in advance (though a few were plucked at random); at least one little girl — 8 years old — could barely reach the microphone.

Neville’s love life? “He marries Hannah Abbott!” she announced as the crowd squealed its appreciation. (What’s more, Hannah becomes proprietress of The Leaky Cauldron, so Neville becomes cool to his students.)

Why is it Molly Weasley who kills Bellatrix? One, “Molly is a very good witch,” even though most people don’t realize it. And two, “Bellatrix is as obsessed with Voldemort as Molly is consumed with maternal love.” What was it like to finish book seven? “It felt like a bereavement.” Were there intentional similarities between Voldemort and Hitler? Yes, there were. The books, she said, were “a plea for an end to hatred, to bigotry” as well as a lesson for kids “to question authority…. You should not assume the establishment tells you the truth.” Did Hagrid ever find love? Alas, no (though that had something more to do with the rarity of giantesses than any personality defect on Hagrid’s part). To one boy, who revealed his dad had read the series, but not his mom, she said, “If I’ve got time to write ’em, she’s got time to read ’em!” As the crowd roared with laughter, she added, “Is your mom here? Who did you come with?” (Dad, not Mom.)

By 8:20 it was over — the talking part, anyway. Rowling, flexing her hands, announced she had to limber up in order to sign all the books, which were stacked in enormous piles next to the stage. Was she really going to do scrawl her distinctive signature that many times? Yes, she was — and the kids, who were now going to be within touching distance of her, became downright emotional.

As for me, a member of the press, I was shunted back out into the hot October night, where it had started to rain. “That was great!” shouted a reporter next to me. Yes, it was. Like those kids, I’ll remember it for the rest of my life.

On the train ride home, as I mulled over the evening, I kept trying to figure out which my favorite book of the series was. Four? Seven? Five? I’ve got a great argument for each of those. But I just couldn’t make up my mind. All of you out there — can any of you say what your favorite is?

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