Reflecting on 20 Years of Harry Potter
Today marks the 20th anniversary of the publishing of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s (or Philosopher’s) Stone, so if you'll allow me a moment of sappy self indulgence here, I'm about to get real nerdy. People like to smile indulgently at me now when I say I grew up alongside Harry and his friends, but I’m really not over exaggerating. From the time I was six years old, through all the misery and trauma and loneliness and heartbreak of childhood and adolescence, they were there. They were a crutch, a comfort, an escape, an identity. As J.K. Rowling once said, Hogwarts will always be there to welcome you home, and some days that was the place that felt most like home to me.
Whenever I felt lonely or scared or unhappy, which was often the case, I knew I could find comfort in the familiar waterlogged, dog-eared pages of those books, the binding creased and failing in places.
I remember the first time I read them like it was yesterday. I was six years old, tiny but precocious. It was hard to tell what I had more of then – hair, brains, or spunk. I was in the library at my elementary school, where I was on first name terms with the librarian, clutching a stack of books half my height and five times my grade level when I spotted it there on the display rack, all blue and red and purple and magic.
In 2000, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone was a hot commodity, even in my lower elementary school. It was surprising that it was even in stock, and I couldn’t help but think that it must have been a sign, waiting there just for me to find it.
When I got home from school that afternoon, I retreated to my room and didn’t come out until the third time I was called to dinner. There, laying on my purple and white bedspread, I met my new best friends for the first time. Harry, with his heart of gold and unfailing courage; Ron, always loyal and quick to laugh; and Hermione, who was, to borrow more of Ms. Rowling’s words, my ink and paper twin.
From then on, Harry’s story and mine were intertwined. At age 13, crying over the final chapter of Deathly Hallows at one in the morning. On my 17th birthday, visiting the Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal, feeling like I could breathe for the first time in months when I saw the castle I’d inhabited in my head for years. My first year of college, meeting two of my best friends at a Quidditch game the first week of classes.
Sometimes I feel that, even with all the words I’ve learned since age six, all the things I’ve experienced and felt, I will never be able to adequately describe the bottomless pool of love I have for this series. It isn’t so much a book series, a movie franchise, a set of characters, as it is part of my identity. I truly don’t who or how I’d be today if I hadn’t picked up that worn hardcover book in first grade.
It taught me the value of love and loyalty and light and friendship. It taught me that courage is never the same thing as fearlessness. It taught me how to speak my mind, how to stand up for what I believe in, how to fight for those who cannot defend themselves, and how to appreciate the little moments of joy amidst the chaos.
Now, two decades have elapsed since Harry Potter entered our collective lives. Hundreds of thousands of fans and friends have come to love this series. Some have already begun passing it on to their children, the second magical generation.
Harry’s story has come to mean so many things to so many different people. A whole generation who learned to love reading, to stand up for their beliefs, to make their own magic.
I know so many people, personally and by reputation, who have used Harry Potter as a way of coping with the ugliness that reality often throws our way. So many stories of strength and bravery and survival, fueled by the magic of rustling pages, midnight premieres, a common bond that draws us all closer.
Even as I sit here in my sunny corner office at my “big kid” job, my eyes rest on the thin piece of resin and wood, fashioned into a replica of Hermione Granger’s wand. After all these years, she’s still helping me be the woman I always wanted to be. While I’ve come to fall in love with half a dozen other ladies of the wizarding world - Tonks and Luna and Ginny and Lily and Molly - Hermione will always have a special place in my heart.
At six years old, I was all frizzy hair, big words, and unfettered, self-righteous bossiness. I was what many over the years, both kindly and unkindly, have referred to as an insufferable know-it-all. Hell, at 23, I still am. Because Hermione Granger taught me that being bossy is a good thing, that breaking the rules is okay sometimes when you have a cause you believe in, that books and cleverness are important, but not as important as friendship and bravery.
So what can I say, nearly 20 years later? Thank you seems too trite, but it’s all I have. So thank you, J.K. Rowling, for changing and saving my life in ways I am still only beginning to unravel. Thank you to Harry and Ron and Hermione for teaching an entire generation to be better and braver and bolder.
The other day, I picked up my well-worn 17-year-old copy of the Sorcerer’s Stone. It’s been awhile since I took the time to sit down and read it, but as I did, I felt like I was rejoining my six year old self. Somewhere, lost in time, she’s always been there, hiding in a blanket fort with a flashlight and a book twice her size. She’s been waiting patiently for me to come find her again, reunited after all these years. It’s been a long time, she says. Sit down. I’ll read you a story about love and dragons and magic and some kids who changed the world. I think they’re friends of yours.