It’s 11.55pm. My friend Nadja and I are covered in face paint, exhausted after an hour watching a herd of five-year-old Dumbledores fight over which beard felt the most authentic. It’s 2007, and Borders books are holding a midnight release party for the final book in the Harry Potter series, The Deathly Hallows.
The time now is 11.59pm, and a hushed silence falls over the gigantic bookshop as three palettes stacked high with bright black and red copies of the book we were all waiting for are solemnly wheeled out by workers attempting to keep a straight face.
It occurs to me in that moment, aged twelve, with a wonky eyeliner scar drawn on my forehead and Gryffindor dressing gown worn proudly over my slightly sweaty form, how insanely important this series of books has been to me growing up, and thousands upon thousands of fans across the globe, for the last ten years.
This week, we celebrated 20 years of Harry Potter, a fixture on almost every child’s bookshelf.
It’s hard to believe that the spawning of a hugely successful film franchise, merchandise in any form you can imagine, and the opening of the wizarding world themed amusement parks all over the world all came from a set of seven books about a funny looking boy getting into magical adventures with his two misfit friends. But there you have it. In the words of writer and comedian Ken Shabby: “The job JK Rowling did should never be underestimated. She got kids excited about reading books during the console boom.” He also succinctly added: “To get kids acting like Beatlemania about a series of books in the late 90s is something truly incredible.”
The job JK Rowling did should never ever be underestimated. She got kids excited about reading books during the console boom. #HarryPotter20
— Ken Shabby (@MrKenShabby) June 26, 2017
I wholeheartedly agree.
Most of the first book was written in a small café in Edinburgh by a woman who spent many of her days sat by the radiator to escape the Scottish cold. The Rowling rags-to-riches tale definitely adds to the enchantment of the finished novels.
And the legacy of Harry Potter is still prevalent today. The novels fly off the shelves, with new special covers and illustrated versions published almost incessantly. (The most recent edition was published in 2015 by illustrator Jim Kay.) Never has there been a better time for Potterheads to wave selected and purchased wands, have a reverent wander around the Great Hall, and indulge in a glass or few of quality churned Butterbeer. As a child, I seem to remember improvising with a shabby looking stick from the garden and lemonade with glitter and blue food colouring stirred in. I wasn’t the most resourceful child.
Norwich itself is no stranger to the magic of Rowling’s world. UEA Drama and English Literature student Rohan Gotobed gave a spellbinding performance as a young Sirius Black in the later Harry Potter films. In an interview with the Eastern Daily Press last year, he described the experience as “incredible”, identifying as one of many children who “loved JK Rowling’s world growing up.”
The West End play Harry Potter and the Cursed Child (Parts One and Two) stars Norfolk natives Poppy Miller, who gained experience at central Norwich’s Maddermarket Theatre, as Ginny Weasley, and Sam Clemmett as Harry’s teenage son Albus Severus. The play has been the recipient of prestigious recognition, such as a record nine Olivier awards and an Evening Standard Theatre Award for Best Play.
In addition to the UEA Library holding copies of the original novels and CD audiobooks, there are also books which explore different readings and criticisms of the franchise. Stacey Armes, the Library’s Senior Collections Assistant, said: “I was only 9 when it came out so I don’t really know what effect it had on libraries at the time – but I know that even today they are still one of the most frequently borrowed titles/DVDs/audiobooks in public libraries, and any Harry Potter-themed event will guarantee plenty of attendees.
“It’s an unusual and unique series in that it attracts people of all ages and backgrounds and doesn’t have an easily identifiable ‘target’ audience. It certainly made people enjoy reading books again and connect with others through a shared reading experience.”
Dr B.J. Epstein convenes the LDC school’s Children’s Literature module, and has published numerous works on children’s novels. She said: “Many people believed that the Harry Potter series would get young people reading; the thinking went that if people read Harry Potter, maybe they’ll start reading other books too. The research doesn’t seem to have showed this, however; in other words, people who wanted to read in general kept reading, but some people only wanted to read Harry Potter and not other books and so they didn’t read more.
“But what is good is that the Harry Potter series at least got people talking about the power of literature and it made people more positive about children’s literature in general. Children’s literature tends to be looked down on, which is very unfair (it’s seen as simpler or less interesting, which just isn’t true), but the huge popularity of Harry Potter made folks suddenly aware of what literature can do and how important it can be to everyone, but especially to young readers.
“The children’s lit module at UEA is extremely popular (there will be four sections of it running in the autumn!) and I think some people want to take it because they remember reading Harry Potter and thus have fond memories of being children and reading children’s literature. I have to disappoint students by saying we don’t read Harry Potter on the course!”
Even after twenty years, the Harry Potter craze shows no sign of abating. In 2016, 4.1m copies of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child were sold, making the book the highest selling of all hardbacks that year. According to Fortune magazine, the series of theme parks opened in both the US and Japan has accrued over $7.3bn in toy sales, and the ‘Wizarding World of Harry Potter’ franchise is said to be worth more than $25bn.
For many of us, the magic of Harry Potter is captured most memorably from the film series that stretches back into our childhoods and the thick set of books where it all started. Whatever form Harry Potter is expanded into next, I hope it continues to capture the imaginations of children around the world the same way it did for you and I.