Hermione did everything perfectly until she reached the trunk with the boggart in it.
After about a minute inside it, she burst out again, screaming.
"Hermione!" said Lupin, startled. "What’s the matter?"
"P — P — Professor McGonagall!" Hermione gasped, pointing into the trunk. "Sh — she said I’d failed everything!"
J.K. Rowling, The Prisoner of Azkaban (1999)
PoA is my favorite HP book, an opinion I share with countless others. Erin thinks it’s good because it’s the only one in which Voldemort doesn’t feature, an observation by which I’ve been too interested to question why it might really matter. But re-reading PoA I notice that it’s a really interesting Hermione book, and, as I’ve already told you, Hermione is my favorite character.
The dramatic focus of the book is that Harry’s apparently threatened by the convicted murderer Sirius Black, and that this puts him in grave danger. But quite apart from this melodrama, we see the separate awfulness of Hermione’s school year. Hers is a year that revolves around the comparatively trivial problems of an excessively ambitious fourteen year old girl, and they’re intriguing because they are comparatively trivial.
Hermione is stupidly studious and so she takes on academically as much as she possibly can, and because she’s a smart girl, she’s allowed to do so. But throughout the entire book we are painted a picture of Hermione overwhelmed by her frantic consumption of knowledge. Even after she throws a tantrum in Divination class and quits, she remains irritable and anxious about the work she has taken upon herself to do.
Further, she is keeping the — SPOILER — time-travelling means she is able to continue her excessive courseload secret from her best friends, and much of the time, she is even on the outs among these guys: Ron is furious at her because he believes she is unconcerned about her cat’s attacks on his rat. (And it seems clear that part of the problem here is her own stubborn refusal to empathize with Ron’s feelings.) We hear too, from Hagrid, of Hermione’s isolated, contained misery:
She’s in a righ’ state, that’s what. She’s bin comin’ down ter visit me a lot since Chris’mas. Bin feelin’ lonely. Firs’ yeh weren’ talking to her because o’ the Firebolt, now yer not talkin’ to her because her cat —”
This is an awful picture of what we already know to be a pretty nerdy fourteen year old girl! It’s safe to say that the obnoxious and bossy Hermione has few friends outside of Ron and Harry, and then we hear from an actual adult that she’s been spending her time holed up in his cabin to escape the hostile school environment? Not to mention that she continues to try to do right by her friends, by making sure that Harry’s mysteriously gifted broom isn’t cursed, and receives only hostility in response? This is a fucked-up year for Hermione!
I think, also, that I love that the book combines two of my favorite plotlines from ongoing fictional series. I love stories featuring firm friends fighting (no idea why, perhaps because it explores the limits and strengths of loyalty, something I value immensely?) — the best other example of this is the part of “Gilmore Girls” in which Lorelai and Rory are feuding — and because it features a realistically angsty teenager angsting (and so, Hermione’s angst predates Harry’s in the Order of the Phoenix by two school years — girls).
Just as important to a good friends-feuding plotline is the making-up, and Prisoner of Azkaban's is wonderful:
"Yeah, it will," said Ron fiercely. "You won’t have to do all the work alone this time, Hermione. I’ll help."
Hermione flung her arms around Ron’s neck and broke down completely. Ron, looking quite terrified, patted her very awkwardly on the top of the head. Finally, Hermione drew away.
"Ron, I’m really, really sorry about Scabbers…" she sobbed.
"Oh — well — he was old," said Ron, looking thoroughly relieved that she had let go of him.
The emotion of this excerpt, by the way, makes no sense unless you’ve been reading the book, and you know how thoroughly exiled Hermione has been from the triumvirate.
Anyway, Hermione’s exam scene (as quoted above) is great because it features Hermione terrified by a corporeal metaphor for failure; one that is clearly a facsimile, and yet, she is cowed completely by it. I adore her.