The three amigos -- Mike Howard and Kyle Dodd, both 11, and Kyle's kid brother, 10-year-old Jake -- bounded out of Spring Hill Elementary in McLean yesterday afternoon to participate in an international publishing phenomenon.

In a scene that was replicated at bookstores throughout the Washington area and around the nation, more than 50 kids, most with moms as chauffeurs, crowded into the Borders in Vienna for a party celebrating the official publication of "Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban" -- the third in a series of explosively popular children's books by British author J.K. Rowling about a young sorcerer named Harry Potter.

In a nation distracted by greed and grandeur, by tinsel and technology, by disasters natural and man-made, let history record that at the ledge of this millennium, Americans are making a mad dash to buy books about a gifted boy wizard with a good heart, noble intentions, extraordinary powers and a lightning-bolt scar on his forehead.

To say the book was eagerly awaited would be a dramatic understatement. The Potter books have become a genuine sensation, with sales figures planting the first two firmly at the top of bestseller lists nationwide -- the adult lists, that is, since they are being marketed to grown-ups as well as kids -- and advance orders for "Prisoner" have topped the charts of online booksellers like Amazon.com for weeks. Americans were ordering the British edition on the Internet in droves -- enough to put pressure on the U.S. publisher, Scholastic, to release its own edition as quickly as possible.

Yesterday was Potter Day. In Atlanta, Chapter 11 books opened at 7 a.m. to sell "Prisoner," which was embargoed by the publisher until Sept. 8. Early-rising book buyers got free coffee, doughnuts and a chance to buy the new Harry Potter opus at a discount off the $19.95 list price.

At the two WordsWorth bookstores in Cambridge, Mass., employees knew the day would be wild. About 500 books were preordered; the stores shifted their hours to accommodate the demand. The main store on Brattle Street was open from midnight Tuesday to 1 a.m. so the books could be sold just as soon as the release date rolled around. During that witching hour, 50 people stopped by to get copies. WordsWorth's children's store opened its doors at 6 a.m. yesterday.

In the first three hours, "we sold about a book a minute," general manager Sanj Kharbanda said. "Kids were dragging their parents in to buy copies."

Barnes & Noble in Georgetown uncrated a couple of hundred books yesterday.

The Potter books seem to be succeeding, at least in part, because parents seem to enjoy them as much as their children. The books also are finding an enthusiastic readership among boys in particular.

At the Borders in Vienna, Mike Howard, sporting an end-of-season buzz cut, said that he finished the first two books -- "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone" and "Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets" -- over the summer.

Glancing at his brother, Kyle Dodd said, "I liked the second book better. It was funny through the whole book, but at the end it got extremely exciting." He said he's dying to find out what happens.

Jake, who reads faster than Kyle, said the family is getting two copies. "I don't want to wait."

Mother/chauffeur Karen Dodd said, "The books are so refreshing. They just remind me of old-fashioned literature. No edge to them at all."

She said that the series has helped her two sons become better friends. "It's so good to hear them talking about books," she said, smiling.

And, she added, pointing to Kyle, "they took my non-reader and turned him into a reader."

As the Dodds talked, the small amphitheater in the children's section filled up with kids -- pretty much equal numbers of girls and boys. The shop's community relations coordinator, Gail Wellock, spread purple cloths on tables, then placed plates and bowls of Harry Potter-inspired food here and there -- Fried Newts (cheese curls); Wizard Wands (red licorice twists); Dragon Drops (Hershey's Kisses) and one of Harry's favorites, Exotic Jellybeans.

Katherine Forsyth, 8, and her mom, Mita, drove over from Arlington. "It's something different," Katherine said. "Not the kind of stuff you read every day."

Ram Das Khalsa, who is almost 8, said his family had ordered a copy a while ago on the Internet. But he and his mother, Shakta, showed up for the party and to buy an American edition. "He wanted his set to match," she explained.

Lisa Feibelman brought her 9-year-old son, Paul, to buy a copy because, she said, "650 people are on the waiting list at the public library."

At some stores, like Chuck and Dave's in Takoma Park, the book has been on sale since Friday, when the first shipment came in, despite the embargo. "I had no idea what the on-sale date was," said Charles Dukes, co-owner of the store. It sold one case of 25 on Friday and another case Tuesday.

When "Prisoner" was published in England in July, there were similar outpourings of Pottermania. Schoolkids stood in front of bookstores and counted down the moments until they could rush in.

There are precedents for this biblio buzz, this page rage, this folio furor.

In the early 1800s, London readers were so revved up over Lord Byron's poetic travelogue "Childe Harold's Pilgrimage," said James Koger, professor of English at Lynchburg College, that booksellers were passing them out the windows to the piranha-like public below. In the mid-1800s, Charles Dickens's serialized novels were so popular that Americans waited on the docks at New York Harbor for the next episode of "David Copperfield" and "Bleak House."

And, Koger recalled, there was a "kind of fan fervor" over J.R.R. Tolkien's "Lord of the Rings" trilogy in the 1960s. "It was difficult to find in America," he said. "Pirated paperback editions appeared almost immediately."

Rowling has been compared by some to Tolkien. Both novelists traffic in magical mayhem and fantastic creatures.

The Rowling books follow the charmed, and alarming, life of Harry Potter, a schoolboy whose parents were killed by the evil wizard Voldemort. In the first volume, published in 1997, Harry discovers that he's not like all the other kids. He discovers, for instance, that he can talk to snakes. He enrolls in the Hogwarts School of Wizardry and Witchcraft.

In "Prisoner," young Harry is spending his summer vacation with his adoptive -- and abusive -- family, the decidedly unmagical Dursleys. Once again he plays Quidditch, a supernatural form of polo that uses broomsticks. Dastardly Sirius Black, the most infamous prisoner ever incarcerated in Azkaban -- the wizards' prison -- escapes and goes after Harry. While eluding Black, Harry must also deal with the Dementors, Azkaban guards who rob people of their happiness.

The story of Potter's creator reads like one of her magical tales. Rowling, a graduate of Exeter University, a teacher and a divorced mother, was living on the dole in a small Edinburgh apartment with her baby daughter. She wrote the first book, "Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone," while her child napped. When the book was published in the United States, the word "Philosopher" in the title was changed to "Sorcerer."

"The idea that we could have a child who escapes from the confines of the adult world and goes somewhere where he has power, both literally and metaphorically, really appealed to me," Rowling says on the official Harry Potter Web site, at www.scholastic.com/harrypotter

The Scottish Arts Council provided Rowling with a grant so she could finish the first book. She sold it to Bloomsbury in England and to Scholastic Books in the United States. It won the British Book Awards Children's Book of the Year, and the Smarties Prize.

"I was very low, and I had to achieve something. Without the challenge, I would have gone stark, raving mad," she says on the Web site.

At Borders yesterday afternoon, some of the kids were near madness for the new book. And for the goodies. Wellock was overwhelmed by the success of the promotion. The trivia game went well. The children joined in her cheers for the book and the author. But she hadn't made nearly enough poster-board hats. And within a few minutes, she had run out of newts and wands. Cheese curls and M&M's were smashed on the floor.

Still, she proclaimed, "This is a great, wonderful crowd."

A mother beside her seconded the notion. "And look at all the boys!" the mom exclaimed.

On the top step of the amphitheater, smack in the middle of the madding crowd, 10-year-old Nora O'Malley of Vienna was oblivious to all of the noisy wizards and witches around her. She was quietly reading the book. Asked why she would rather read than join the Potter party, she said she had no idea what was going to happen to Harry. And she wanted to find out.