Yes, I mean that particular character. The boy who didn’t know he was a wizard. That one.
There’s an entire universe about this world now. Movies, spin-offs, comics, websites, video games, theme parks, etc. Specifically, I want to talk about the beginning, the first four books and how they changed my life.
Today marks the day when the very first book, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, was published back in the UK in 1997. Twenty years ago. I was nine and oblivious to the wonder of the “Boy Who Lived”, but not just because it wouldn’t find its way to the United States until the 1st of September, 1998. A month before my eleventh birthday, the same age as Harry as he boarded the Hogwarts Express for the first time, I still didn’t know about Harry even though I saw his book on the school library shelves and everyone started to read him. I didn’t read Harry when I was eleven, like everyone else. I didn’t read Harry when I was twelve, or thirteen. Hell, I didn’t read Harry until a month AFTER the fifth book was published. I was casually late to the party because, for the longest time, I thought all that Harry Potter stuff was uncool.
I was acutely wrong.
So, what brought me to Harry, in the end? A lot of crappy stuff, actually. In the Fall of 1999, my mom got sick with a rare cancer (six cases per one million, according to today’s incident rates) and passed away in 2002, two months before my fifteenth birthday and two weeks before I started high school. In hindsight, I didn’t do well. I had quit all my sports that summer before, the summer from Hell, and closed myself off from the world I grew to hate. I talked to no one and drowned in a high school where I had become virtually invisible to my classmates. Nonetheless, there were some bright spots that kept me going. My sister, a Junior, had some cool friends she let me talk to, and my dad pretty much forced me back into softball which I grew to love (a decision that I still thank him for). But I still had a very large hole in my life, and thinking back on freshman year, they are not my fondest memories. A light appeared at the end of the tunnel when two things happened: 1.) Dad broke the news that we were moving, and 2.) I found Harry.
We weren’t moving for another year, which meant I still had sophomore year to get through, but I was eager. I was so anxious to get out of Houston, the very next day after Dad told me we were moving, I packed my first box. Eventually, freshman year ended, but I still had a lot of time to kill before the glories of getting the hell out of Dodge would become a reality. After mom passed, I forgot about the things that brought me joy. Depression is a weird thing, but I guess I have the boredom of summer to thank for sparking these interests in me again. One day, I stared at the bookshelf in our den and thought “you know, I used to like to read. Maybe I should do that again.”
For some reason, the very first two Harry Potter books were on that shelf, and they were the first ones I saw. I stared at them, picked them up and ran my fingers along the spines and thought, “why not, I’ve nothing else to do.”
So I read the first one, and then I read the second one, and by the third one, I was reading so ferociously I did pretty much nothing else except eat and breathe. I didn’t sleep. I was the kid under the blankets at 3am with a flashlight you see in hallmark depictions of what kids do at sleepovers, except it was just me and Harry (and the fact that I shared a room with two other siblings, at the time). I still remember those nights and the feeling I had. I couldn’t put the books down. When I gave in, I laid them on the floor right next to my bed so that when I woke up, I could reach over and immediately start reading again. I burned through the third and fourth book, and ran down to my neighbor’s house and asked to borrow their copy of the Order of the Phoenix which had just been published a few weeks before. I can still see myself sitting on the white couch in the living room by the window that looked out into the front yard, reading as a summer afternoon storm blew in from the Gulf, as is common during those hot and humid Houston summers. I read the fifth one carefully, taking in each sentence, absorbing each chapter and searing it into my heart because I knew it was going to be a while until I would be re-acquainted with Harry in his sixth installment. (Which ended up being two years later, gahhh!)
To this day, no other book has consumed me in the way Harry did back then (Unbroken was close, but not quite the same). Maybe it was because I saw myself in those pages; a kid so unhappy with his life is given the keys to a better world (though not without its troubles). I saw hope in Harry’s story, and in doing so, I started to see hope in mine, too.
Harry’s life was an escape from my own grief, but it also brought me back to something I almost forgot, my love for books and stories. I’ve been reading ever since. I say it was Harry that rescued me, but as a writer, I know Mrs. Jo Rowling is the one who is responsible for all of it, because if she had never put these things that “fell into her head one day” on paper, I don’t know where I, or millions of other kids, would be today.
So thanks, Jo and all the publishers, for sharing Harry with us twenty years ago, and for eventually rescuing my fifteen-year-old heart that once was.
– S.A Dees