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Monday, June 26, 2017

20 Years of Harry Potter: The Boy Who Changed Everything

“He’ll be famous—a legend—I wouldn’t be surprised if today was known as Harry Potter day in the future—there will be a book written about Harry—every child in our world will know his name!”

J. K. Rowling, author of the Harry Potter series, penned these words thirteen pages into what would become a worldwide literary phenomenon.

Exactly 20 years ago, the first Harry Potter book was published, June 26th, 1997.

Whether or not you are a Harry Potter fan, J.K. Rowling's series about a boy wizard changed the world--especially the reading and writing industries. Just the other day I was editing a really well written story that was obviously inspired (directly, or indirectly) by Harry Potter

So today, let's talk about the Boy Who Lived. And if you would like to answer any of these questions, feel free to put them in the comments, social media, or your own blog. I'd love to hear your stories. Mine got rather lengthy (unsurprisingly), so feel free to skim.

How did you meet Harry?

I was in 5th grade when Harry Potter started getting traction. I remember the first time I saw Sorcerer's Stone and Chamber of Secrets at a book fair at my elementary school. My best friend, who shared Harry's last name, was with me and pointed them out to me, telling me how cool they were. To be honest, I didn't really think twice about it (my friend would later tell me that the real reason she first liked them so much, was because her last name was Potter).

During that school year, my 5th grade teacher decided we would read (or rather listen) to the first book in class. Because of all the controversy around the series, with it being called "evil," my mom told my teacher she'd have to read the book first to decide if I could follow along. (20 years later I now laugh because every famous book series is riddled with "controversy," and those are often my favorites.) I remember Jim Dale (who does the audio) didn't know how to pronounce Hermione's name (who did?), which is funny, because I've since learned it is a real, though uncommon name. So my whole 5th grade class called her "Her-mon-ee."

To this day, I still remember being shocked to find Quirrell at the end of the book instead of Snape. After the book was finished, I remember talking about it with my friends. I thought it was good, but not amazing.

But then I got the second book for Christmas. That's when the ten-year-old me was floored. I distinctly remember reading over Christmas break and getting to the part where Harry, Ron, and Lockhart find a giant snake skin. I also remember being shocked about how everything that had been foreshadowed in the story fit so well together, and even related to the first book.

Ultimately, it was those realizations that made me fall in love with Harry Potter. (I've since done a whole post about how to write them.) And I needed the third book. And the first (since I'd used a classroom copy). I remember being in the kitchen when my mom brought them home, along with plastic bags of groceries. I remember reading the third book during reading time in my fifth grade class, and my friend insisting it was the best one. I remember being surprised Voldemort wasn't in that one.

Between the third book's release and the fourth's, things really changed.

What did you do when books were released? 

Oh Goblet of Fire--how you changed everything!

Really though, can we take a moment to appreciate how crazy Goblet of Fire is and was? Look at the length of that thing! That's WAY too long for young readers, let alone a middle grade novel! And leading up to the release, there was soooo much controversy about the fact that J.K. Rowling said that in it, a character dies (lol, look how naive and unprepared for the rest of the series we all were). Media went crazy over that fact.

The morning of the release, it was on the news, and I was watching it in the living room. My mom came in and said something like, "Don't you want to get dressed and go?"


"To go get that new book!"

I got dressed, and we went.

And guess what? Guess what?!

Every single copy of the book was sold out. Every. Single. Copy. How often does that happen? We went to several places. A lady at the bookstore in the mall explained and emphasized to us that every single book was sold--every one that had been printed! She said they had to do a whole other print run for it, so I got put on a waiting list.

. . . while many of my wiser friends already had copies. During this time, we had a sleepover in my tent outside. Get this, for parts of our sleepover, we just sat and read. They read Goblet of Fire, while I read some sorta boring book from the library that I don't even remember the title of. (But really? a group of 11-year-olds who wanted to read during their sleepovers? Did that exist pre-Harry Potter? )

Order of the Phoenix

Between Goblet of Fire and Order of the Phoenix, there was a three-year gap. THREE YEARS. After Goblet of Fire, where Voldemort had returned!

Well, I did not make that same mistake with Order of the Phoenix that I did Goblet of Fire and got it first thing that morning. Keep in mind, I still couldn't drive, but my mom is awesome. And that book--if you thought Goblet of Fire looked big, look at book five! And look at that dark cover? And who was going to die this time? (Because that became a thing with every book after the third).

Well, remember how all my friends got to read Goblet of Fire before me? Well, haha, I got the last laugh. See, we were 14 at this time, and all my friends were going on a week-long youth activity where they had to trek like pioneers, and I wasn't going. By the way, this was the week right after the release. And everything participants brought had to fit in a bucket--which pretty much ruled out bringing a 870-paged brick of a book. But I don't know, is clean underwear really that important?

In any case, with most of my friends gone, I read that book in less than a week. I remember I finished it on my brother's birthday (and I remember he got two pet hermit crabs that year). I was trying to be really happy for the birthday party, but all I could think about was Sirius, who was my favorite character, and how sad I felt.

(And how I hoped I didn't have to wait three more years for the next book.)

I remember the rumor going around that each book was going to get bigger and bigger, and by the seventh, it would be as big as the Bible.

Half-blood Prince

Luckily, Half-blood Prince was only a two year wait. I was so relieved when I found out a year into the wait that it would be release in a year. My brother laughed at me because he said it was so far away. I was like--what you are you talking about? I waited for three before!

Leading up to the 6th book, like many Harry Potter fans, I spent hours on J.K. Rowling's website, where every once in a while, she'd reveal clues about Half-blood Prince, but in order to get to the clues, you had to solve riddles. It was very cool. That's how the title was announced.

That summer my friends and I had two Harry Potter parties. One for the book, and one was on Harry's birthday (I remember one of my friends brought a birthday cake).

Anyway, the day Half-blood Prince came out, I happened to be returning from a family camping trip (and could not return fast enough!) On the way home, I asked my dad if he could stop at the bookstore. Because he's awesome, he did. Yup, I blasted through that thing. I remember when I was reading it, I went out with one of my friends (who had been my friend since 5th grade and had already finished reading it), and talking about how I hoped Dumbledore wouldn't be the character who died.

Deathly Hallows

The year I graduated high school, the last installment came out. Not only did my friends and I have a big party, where we wrote down all of our predictions (because of course) and discussed theories, but I finally got to go to a midnight release.

Oh my gosh.

The bookstore was on main street, and the whole block was teeming with people--of all ages, all dressed up. There were tons of games and activities and strangers united in discussing Harry Potter. We had to wait in this big huge line when it got close to midnight. My friends and I got interviewed by a news person, and we totally sang "The Mysterious Ticking Noise" to him. He was so oblivious--having not been a part of the Harry Potter phenomenon.

People cheered when the boxes (which were labeled with "Do not open until midnight") were opened to reveal all those blazing orange covers, and cheered again when the first person on the waiting list got their first book.

After my friends and I got our first books, we all went over to my best friend's house and read the first chapter together.

It was magical ;) Especially since some of these friends had been in my 5th grade class with me.

I sat and read Deathly Hallow straight--late into the night, until I had to get some sleep. Luckily, my entire family was totally cool with me being holed up in my room and doing nothing else but eating occasionally.

My friend described the experience of reading a new Harry Potter book well, and I still remember her words. She said, "When I was reading it, it was like . . . it was like I was underwater or something, and whenever I had to stop, and I closed the book, it was like coming up for air and breathing, and then going back down."

Everything about the Harry Potter experience is amazing, and I could go into so much more, but then this post would be novel-length.

What did you think about the movies?

I'll leave my lengthy movie memories for a movie anniversary--and trust me, I have some really good ones!

But pre-movies (5th or 6th grade for me), I remember having a sleepover with my friends, sitting in my basement, trying to decide what movie to watch. We ended up talking about how amazing, how totally wonderful it would be if there was a Harry Potter movie! Even if there was only a movie of the first book--that would just be wonderful! Just to watch something with Harry, or Quidditch, or Hogwarts in it, anything!

Thank heavens we got eight movies! With more release parties and midnight celebrations.

Harry Potter really changed a generation, and more.

How many people did you know read Harry Potter?


Seriously. Everyone. People who didn't even like to read, read Harry Potter--which are ironically some of the biggest books on the shelf. To this day, I have friends who don't "read," but they read Harry Potter. In my high school, everyone read it. It knew no bounds. Dancers, actors, football players, honor students. I remember being a Sophomore, and a guy in my English class was reading the series (at this point, this was the first 5 books) for the first time. He was on Goblet of Fire. In that class, we had "reading time," too, but he would read before and after it too, during lectures. I remember him looking around at no one in particular, just classmates, and going, "Harry Potter is really good. This book is really good." (He was at the climax of the story). And some of us were nodding our heads in appreciation, and saying things like "Yeah." I remember him being amazed at how things fit together so well.

But it wasn't just a "generation" that "grew up" alongside Harry. It was all ages. My teachers read it. People read it in families. Later, my college professor would recall fondly on more than one occasion, how her family, all adults, sat in a circle and read it together when a new book was released.

Of course, I was one of those people who like re-read each book seven times. During one of these rereads (I think I was about 13), my oldest brother came in my room to make fun of me for reading Harry Potter (again). As part of the process, he stole my book, and proceeded to read it in the most monotone, boring voice he could muster.

Three minutes later, he went, "Wow, this is actually pretty good. Can I borrow this?"

Secretly dying of excitement inside over the fact I might actually be able to convert him, I replied in the most careless, harmless tone I could affect, I said, "Sure! I've read it before. You can borrow it."

He took it with him right then.

I'm pleased to say he read the whole series, and even went back to read the first one (the one he'd taken from me was the second).

Okay, okay, let's be honest, there were a few people who didn't pick up the book. But when I say everyone, what I mean is, Harry Potter is not a respecter of demographics. It does not care what country you come from, how old you are, whether or not you like to read, how many other books you've read, male or female, black or white, what religion you are, what generation you are--Hogwarts is home to everyone.

And that's something magical.

How has reading and writing changed since Harry Potter?

I think Harry Potter did more to change the literary industry than any other book. As my dad remarks, even to this day (and he doesn't really read much), "Harry Potter got people reading again." As I've often reminded people on my blog, J.K. Rowling was the first person to become a billionaire writing books!

Some of you know that I work for author David Farland, and I apologize if you've heard this story before, because it gets told a lot at conferences and conventions. But years ago, Scholastic came to David with a box of middle grade novels to look through. They wanted his advice on which book he thought could make it big (he'd worked in greenlighting in Hollywood)--which book they should choose to really market. He read and looked through the books and told them "This one called Harry Potter." As he tells the story, Scholastic's marketing team hated that book--it was too difficult to market. It was too long for a middle grade novel and written at a higher reading level. But David insisted it had the most potential.

The truth is, they were both right.

Harry Potter is too long. It takes up too much shelf space. It's too advanced for its target audience.

But in the end, that didn't matter. As a result, Harry Potter really broke barriers.

As Harry aged through each installment, so did the maturity and sophistication of the books. No one could have done that pre-Harry Potter. The marketing departments would have hated it. A "middle grade" where the protagonist is 17? A book for children that's over 800 pages? Blasphemy!

But Harry Potter did it. And it paved the way for other writers to do it too. Sure, there is still resistance, but Harry proved it can be done.

While the series is shelved as a middle grade series (after all, the first few books are very middle grade), in reality, it matures into YA. And as a result, the YA industry blew up. YA is a very new genre and was often looked down upon. Harry Potter largely changed that. YA became the biggest genre in the fiction industry, to the extent that writers were saying, "Well, if I'm not writing YA, what's the point?" Essentially, it was Harry Potter and this shift that lead to successes like Twilight, The Hunger Games, Divergent, Percy Jackson, and The Mortal Instruments.

Harry Potter changed the way people read and what they thought about books. It changed writers. There were magical schools and camps (Percy, I'm looking at you), "Houses" people were sorted into (Hello, Percy, we meet again. Also, hello Divergent), prophecies about a "chosen one." It was now okay and even popular to like YA. It was Harry Potter that led to the Mortal Instruments series (movie and t.v. show, now)--it was originally written as Harry Potter fanfiction. Personally, I even think Harry Potter affected the success of A Series of Unfortunate Events and Eragon.

I've been an panels at conferences with other writers who go, "Yeah, well, my book is similar to Harry Potter, main character goes to a magical school, and all that."

Bloomsbury, who first published Harry Potter, was a little publishing house at the time. Now? It's one of the biggest in the UK. In fact, it attributes most of its growth to Harry Potter. And not only were publishing houses effected, but there were bookstores who were literally saved by Harry Potter sales.

Harry Potter changes the way people write their stories. Last year I wrote this post on story undercurrents, and I've had multiple people come tell me that they are grateful because they have been trying to create the same kinds of mysteries and undercurrents Rowling did in their own stories. A few months ago, I did editing work for a writer who tried to explain to me what he was trying to accomplish, in the discussion, I brought up that "Oh yeah, like how Harry Potter handles that." His response? "Yes! I'm a huge Harry Potter fan, too--you know exactly what I'm talking about then!"

As a writer, when you read and can appreciate Harry Potter, it kicks your writerly goals and ambitions into high-gear. It ups our personal standards.

Closing Thoughts

Unsurprisingly, this has gotten rather long, and I could go on and on and on. And maybe I will someday. I have so many more stories. And SO many more thoughts. But I'd really like to close with this amazing Harry Potter video. I've shared it before, so some of you may have seen it, but if there was a day to watch it again, it's today. I'm not too fond of the intro, but everything after it will remind you why you fell in love with this book series to begin with.


  1. So is this your thesis in summary? Because, let's be honest here, as soon as I read you wrote your thesis on Harry Potter, I wanted to read it. Because I'm pretty much a huge nerd like that. I'm very late to the Harry Potter game having only just read them for the first time last year.

    Anyway, I'd be curious to read your thesis. If you into sharing that sort of thing. :)

    1. Hi Cari,

      Haha, no, this is not my thesis. But I'd be happy to email it to you! Just send me an email at SeptemberCFawkes@gmail.com


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