In honor of Harry Potter’s 34th birthday, I wish to discuss my experiences with this very popular fictional character. Like many readers, I grew up with the Harry Potter series and I even recall the first time I saw the books in a bookstore. It was the late 1990s and the first two books were available for anyone to purchase and to read. I was still reading the Animorphs series, and while I was curious enough to read the blurb on what the first book was about, I was unsure whether or not I would enjoy this series. No, I did NOT get the book that day, but keep in mind, I just started my adolescent years and I still wanted to read The Babysitter’s Club and Goosebumps.
After my junior year in high school, Harry Potter caught my attention again when someone recommended the books to my younger sibling. By then, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban was published and the plot of that book caught my attention. Keep in mind, I was still unsure if I should read the novels or not. However, one of my childhood best friends—I am still friends with this person—explained to me both the plot and the subplot of the series, and that it was more than the traditional stories of witches and wizards we read as younger children. Then, I asked if I had to read the books in order (most children’s series do not have to be read sequentially) because I wanted to read the third book first. My friend told me that I had to read them in order because of the references made to the previous books in the current ones. My friend understood my eagerness to read Prisoner of Azkaban—my friend enjoyed that one the best as I did—but warned me against skipping Sorcerer’s Stone and Chamber of Secrets. I had my secondary exams that year (both college and high school), so I had to read them during summer vacation.
The books were not just about the protagonist’s identity and school life, but learning about what to do with yourself when faced with a decision. Harry, Ron, and Hermione make decisions in which they can get killed, or expelled, but they do so because they believe them to be the best choices at the time. Most of the time, they are the better decisions: going after the teacher who is trying to steal the Stone, going into the Dark Forest to gather information, making the decision on who to trust based on what everyone else believes or what you alone know. Plus, these books read more like mystery novels rather than fantasy because readers were not sure what the “big secret” was and/or who the “betrayer” is within the magical world. Keep in mind that these people did not have to be tied with the main plot of Lord Voldemort in order to go against Harry and Albus Dumbledore. Remember how Harry gets treated by everyone at Hogwarts when it is believed that he was the “Heir of Slytherin” and when the Triwizard Tournament begins? And, Harry gets shunned by the entire community when he attempts to warn the other witches and wizards about Voldemort’s return. Let’s face it, just about everyone was ignored by their classmates and friends at school for something we did or did not do. It was then up to us, as an individual, either to stick with that one decision, or to change our views to reflect what everyone else (wanted to) believe.
The Harry Potter series allowed readers to grow up with the characters as well. As the characters grow from children to adolescents, we see the changes they go through because we were currently going through those phases ourselves. Indeed, J.K. Rowling went further and included a little of everything a student could go through while growing up, and not just with the main characters. We learn that Hagrid’s mother left him when he was very young and his father died while he was at Hogwarts, Severus Snape’s parents divorced when he was a kid, and Neville Longbottom is raised by his grandmother because his parents are hospitalized (in the mental ward). Then there is the issue of balancing school and homework with after school activities. Hermione helps Harry and Ron with their studies and she has to learn to balance her own school schedule (one can only take so many classes). Friendships and romance begin to merge as they decide whether or not you want to date one of your best friends or a classmate. Then, we witness the losses that occur during the school year. Classmates and relatives die during the school year due to accidents and/or murder.
This brings me to the end of my senior year in high school. After I finished the last of my exams (they were in May), I picked up Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, and almost dropped the book after reading the first chapter. Even now, I cannot think of any children’s and/or teenaged fiction I’ve read—except for the ones where the tragedy occurred before the beginning of the novel—where someone, anyone, dies that quickly into the novel. Then, there are the other two deaths; yes, there are two more, read the book again! I think it is safe to say that the surprising, and somewhat expected, deaths in Harry Potter prepared me for when I started reading A Song of Ice and Fire series. And, numerous characters get killed off in that series too! Once, I completed that novel, I was floored by everything that had taken place, and I was already checking the internet for when ‘Book 5’ was to be released (thank you mugglenet!).
Between book release parties and the midnight showings of the movies, Harry Potter introduced another level of fandom to the world, and this time it was for children and adults. These events gave me something to look forward to with my friends and my relatives (my mother is a fan too!). In addition, it introduced me to popular culture on a larger scale, especially the merchandising (DO NOT EAT THE VOMIT FLAVOR JELLYBEAN!!!). My father is a huge James Bond fan and I thought it was always weird how he would get excited for the next movie and watch the movie marathons on T.V. like it was no big deal. Ironically, he did not understand anything about Harry Potter and for a time believed them to be ‘silly kids’ books.’
By the time Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix and Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince were published and released, I came up with my theories as to who was going to die and what the latter part of the titles were referenced to (one of my college buddies correctly guessed the identity of the “Half-Blood Prince”). And, by the time Deathly Hallows was released in 2007, Harry Potter was fixated into everyone’s minds everywhere. Those ten days of celebrating Harry Potter—between the fifth movie and the seventh book—had everyone, everywhere anticipating their releases. Not that everyone was interested in reading the books and watching the movies, but people knew that it was a pretty big deal.
The main reason I enjoy Harry Potter as much as I do is because one, it made reading thicker books cool. Since the series was extremely popular, no one cared that the later books were over 600 pages long. In fact, I remember classmates and coworkers asking if the series were worth reading. Another reason is because unlike The Chronicles of Narnia and A Wrinkle in Time Quartet, you were not sure whether or not your favorite characters, including the protagonist, were going to survive to the end. In most children’s novels, even if they were in danger, you knew that the characters were not going to die. Last reason is because the “Harry Potter Universe” was supposed to take place within the actual ‘Muggle World;’ thus, elements of the real world must be written into the fictional series. It made that magic world more realistic and on the same level within human society.
J.K. Rowling wrote a fantasy series for children and adolescences that included adult themes which served as an emergence into adulthood because the child characters grew up as the story continued. So, the aspects of growing up and seeing the world for what it really is like, and learning how to control magic within the boundaries of our world, the real world, makes this series on equivalence with the real world. Some muggles know about the existence of magic and they have different reactions to this knowledge, some like it and others do not like it. And, what happens when both worlds collide? This we saw in Half-Blood Prince. Except for maybe Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials Trilogy, I am not sure as to what other children’s/adolescent fantasy series reflects our reality that well.
So in honor of both Harry Potter and J.K. Rowling, I want to wish them ‘Happy Birthday.’ And, to J.K. Rowling, thank you very much for sharing both your story and your creativity with the rest of the world. I will continue to read all of you works (except maybe Causal Vacancy) and watching all of the Harry Potter movie marathons.