A side benefit of specializing in children’s literature in college—and my favorite genre being middle-grade fantasy on top of that—was that I read Harry Potter before most of America had even heard of it. “It’s supposed to be a phenomenon in the U.K.,” my mom said after I read Sorcerer’s Stone. “What did you think?”
“It was great fun,” I said thoughtfully, “but phenomenon-worthy? I don’t know. I don’t think it’s any better than any other good middle-grade fantasy,” because, of course, I was very well-read in that category.
But a year later I read Chamber of Secrets and found myself properly addicted. I changed my school email ID to “Hermione Granger,” started pushing the books on every friend who’d ever shown the slightest even nostalgic interest in middle-grade fantasy, and told the guy coaching me into my first D&D campaign that of course I wanted to play a wizard. “You sure?” he said. “Kind of complicated for a newbie to start with.” “But you see, Hogwarts,” I explained, and proceeded to buy him the paperback of Sorcerer’s Stone for Christmas—which was the first of many gifts I gave him, and which very copy our daughter claimed as her own years later (but I’m getting to that).
I’m not sure what pushes something from “a fun read” to “an obsession,” and I still feel mildly bewildered by the passion Harry Potter can inspire in me. I’m still inclined to think, “it’s not like there aren’t hundreds of other great middle-grade fantasies, seriously, talk about some other book for a change.” I was late to join Pottermore and still have barely spent any time there. I haven’t even watched Fantastic Beasts yet. Then I catch myself automatically muttering, “Accio, water bottle” when I’m thirsty, or “lumos” when I turn on a light. I’ll sort unrelated characters into Hogwarts houses and argue my reasoning, and whenever someone dares question the rightness of the Ron/Hermione relationship in my presence (real life or virtual), I do feel compelled to set them straight. Whenever I suppose I’m not interested anymore, I’ll see a bit of fanart or funny quote or philosophical discussion on the subject, and I’m all in. It’s like coming home.
It’s such a rich universe. It’s one of those fictional universes, along with Star Wars and The Hunger Games for some reason, I’ll dream about without any outside prompting. The worldbuilding built itself into my brain permanently.
I still can’t quite wrap my head around it when other adults talk about growing up with Harry Potter. I was technically an adult when it came out! How can grown-ups have been kids then? But they have, and to blow my mind even further: today is the series’ 20th birthday. It’s the 20th anniversary of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone‘s first release (in the U.K., of course: it would be another year and some months before it made its way across the pond with the Philosopher changed to Sorcerer). Twenty years. You know what this means? This means that original fans are now sharing the series with their own kids.
When I threw a massive “Back to Hogwarts” festival at my library last summer, my own kids, then 9 and 7, didn’t actually know Harry Potter beyond social osmosis. They caught a bit of the movie we were screening at the library that day, but found it too intense and wandered out of it early. I wasn’t going to push it. Introducing an obsession of my own before they were ready for it was a good way to get them to hate it (maybe that was their problem with Star Wars).
This year, after we tackled all of Narnia (The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe became my reading-adverse 10-year-old’s favorite book) and the latest, intensely magical Newbery winner, The Girl Who Drank the Moon, in our nightly family read-alouds, I knew they could handle at least Sorcerer’s Stone now. I suggested it as an option for our next read-aloud several times, but it wasn’t until the second-grader’s teacher started reading it to the class that she decided, well, we had to read it at home, because we’d be able to read much faster than they would get to at school, and she had to know what happened next!
And she already had theories. “I think Professor Snape is Voldemort,” she announced. “Do you?” I said, straight-faced. The more we read, the more I needed to restrain myself from blurting out spoilers in my excitement. Wrong predictions somehow weren’t nearly as difficult to keep quiet about as those moments when some seemingly innocuous character was introduced—Scabbers or, even worse, Tom Riddle—whose true natures I knew. HOLY COW, KIDS, TOM RIDDLE, DO YOU HAVE ANY IDEA WHAT YOU’RE WITNESSING RIGHT NOW?! You forget how long it took for various iconic concepts to make it into the series: the Marauders’ Map, and its familiar command phrases, don’t show up until halfway through Prisoner of Azkaban, and just a few chapters from the end of that book my kids still don’t completely understand what a patronus is. And watching my daughter in a Luna-Lovegood-like daze, I longed to point the similarity out to her, but she won’t meet Luna, my favorite, until book five.
It will be a while before we get there, too. The lucky thing about growing up as the books were coming out was that the books grew up with you. My brother started at age 9, and when Order of the Phoenix came out, he was 15, just like Harry. But today’s 9-year-olds don’t technically have to wait to read the whole series at once, which means they’re anxious to get to books they might not actually be ready for. Chamber of Secrets already pushed the edges of what my youngest could handle. “This was too scary tonight,” she would say almost every night. “Let’s read something funny before we go to bed.” I decided to pace things out: we’d wait and read Azkaban this fall when the new illustrated edition comes out, and maybe in a year or so we could get to Goblet of Fire.
So I filled in with the most Harry Potter-esque books I could think of—lots of Eva Ibbotson, thought about trying Diana Wynne Jones’ Chrestomanci books and Pratchett’s The Wee Free Men, but decided they might still be a little much for the youngest, too—but this past what-should-we-read-next, the oldest really wanted us to go on with Harry Potter. So I said fine. Azkaban isn’t really any scarier than Chamber of Secrets; if anything, it’s less scary. It’s very empowering when it comes to scary things, teaching you how to face a boggart and how to cast a patronus charm, even the importance of chocolate as a source of emotional healing.
But I’ve been clear that we’re definitely going to wait on Goblet of Fire for a little while. The end of that one is quite possibly the scariest scene in the entire series—it kept me awake at the ripe old age of 22. Better to build up some more resilience before facing it.
If I can wait that long. Because there’s so much more I want to share with them.
Check out our other posts celebrating the 20th Anniversary of Harry Potter: