If you live with anyone under the age of 20, you might have noticed them looking longingly at the calendar and marking off the days (indeed, you might be marking off the days yourself). School's already out, summer's well along, the final Star Wars movie hit the screens weeks ago, and Christmas . . . well, even the stores don't start playing carols until October. So what's causing the sighs and anticipation? Why, it's the magical arrival on July 16 of the sixth book about the young wizard in training.

<b>Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince</b> (or <b>HBP</b> to fans) has a first printing of 10.8 million copies, the largest initial print run for any book in American history. But exactly what happens in book six, no one, except J.K. Rowling and her tight-lipped editors, can say. The book has been treated with a level of security worthy of a state secret, and with remarkably fewer leaks to the press. It's harder to get an advance copy of HBP than it is to Disapparate from Hogwarts. Unless you have the Inner Eye of Professor Trelawney, you'll just have to wait with the rest of us Muggles until July 16. (Bookstores around the country are hosting midnight parties and will start selling the book just after 11:59 p.m., July 15.) Depending on your budget, you can choose between the regular edition of <b>HBP</b> and the deluxe edition, a slipcased beauty with special artwork and a retail price of $60.

Needless to say, the secrecy hasn't stopped a steady stream of speculation and even outright wagering as to the plot, events and characters. Whole Internet sites are dedicated to analyzing the least little clues, from the cover art to offhand remarks by Rowling. Recently, bookies in the U.K. refused a flurry of wagers on who gets killed off in book six, in part because the wagers originated from the town where the books are being printed. Rowling has since downplayed the rumors, though not so far as to rule out the prediction.

The two great mysteries of <b>HBP</b> are the identity of the Half-Blood Prince and the question of which favorite character will die. As for the latter, Rowling has stated that no one (except Harry and Lord Voldemort) is 100 percent safe, and has kept mum otherwise. The identity of the Half-Blood Prince has seen a few more tidbits spilt; it is not (as some speculated early on) either Harry or Voldemort (or his teenage counterpart from <i>Chamber</i>). Could it be a character whose mixed heritage is already known (such as Hagrid, Seamus Finnigan, Dean Thomas and a few others) or a character who is well-known but whose origins are not (Snape is a favorite, as is Dumbledore) or a character not yet introduced or one mentioned but never encountered (such as Godric Gryffindor, co-founder of Hogwarts and ancient defender of Muggle-born students)? If you want to join the speculation, a great place to start is Rowling's official website. It's a delightfully animated exploration of Rowling's cluttered desk, brimming with clues, hints and hidden oddities. From there you can follow links to Potter-fan web sites and Rowling's American and British publishers. The Scholastic site offers a glossary and an audio pronunciation guide for wizardly words a great boon to Muggles like me, who discovered that I said many things woefully wrong.

<i>Howard Shirley is a writer in Franklin, Tennessee, who is convinced that Godric Gryffindor is the Half-Blood Prince. Unless, of course, it's Hagrid. Or someone else.</i>

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