Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, the first offering in J.K. Rowling’s billion dollar literary juggernaut, was published in Britain 20 years ago today and its impact has since been hotly debated. Did the Harry Potter series produce a generation of empathetic individuals? Did it increase literacy, infuse life into young adult book publishing, and help dyslexic children overcome their disability? Or was its impact overblown? Do Potterheads really just need to “read another book”?
Ten years ago, the New York Times argued for “overblown.” While getting middle-grade readers to plow through a 700-page book was encouraging to educators, it wasn’t a magic pill for declining readership. However, the statistics cited by the Times were US-focused, making the argument a little myopic given the series’ international renown. U.K. and Australian statistics made the opposite case, with one Australian outlet quoting a government official crediting Rowling with making reading cool: “Literature is no longer seen as the province of the nerd.”
As Harry Potter’s fame grew, so did the internet that amplified it. Here are seven items about Rowling’s seven-book series, spanning the 20 years that transformed a small notice for a 1997 book deal into a global phenomenon.
1. “Debut Author and Single Mother Sells Children’s book for £100,000” (Dan Glaister, The Guardian, July 1997)
One of the first stories written about J.K. Rowling, refers to her as a “penniless divorcée” and speculates that Harry Potter “could assume the same near-legendary status as Roald Dahl’s Charlie, of chocolate factory fame.” As a single mother living in Edinburgh, Rowling’s was initially concerned about giving up part-time teaching for full-time writing.
‘I was writing for me. For someone to offer that amount of money for something that I had written because it is the sort of thing I like reading was incredible,’ she said. ‘I don’t know what I’ll do now. I’m very nervous of just packing in my part-time teaching and becoming a full-time author, even though that is something I have always wanted to do.’
2. “Harry Potter course to be offered at Durham University” (Alison Flood, The Guardian, August 2010)
Thirteen years after that initial Guardian piece, the newspaper reports on the first UK university to offer Harry Potter-based coursework.
Around 70 of Durham’s undergraduates have already signed up to the module Harry Potter and the Age of Illusion, which will be offered for the first time this autumn as part of the university’s Education Studies BA degree.
Thought to be the first course in the UK focusing on the works of JK Rowling, the module will require undergraduates to set the series “in its social, cultural and educational context and understand some of the reasons for its popularity”, and to consider Harry Potter’s relevance to today’s education system.
Byatt embodies Harry-haters in an opinion piece that condescendingly dismisses the series’ fans as “people whose imaginative lives are confined to TV cartoons.” She takes issue with how much Rowling’s world resembles our own — something fans appreciated because it allowed Harry to grow up with his readers. As time went on, the books became darker and more complicated — a reflection of the troubles and tribulations of the larger adult world.
Ms. Rowling, I think, speaks to an adult generation that hasn’t known, and doesn’t care about, mystery. They are inhabitants of urban jungles, not of the real wild. They don’t have the skills to tell ersatz magic from the real thing, for as children they daily invested the ersatz with what imagination they had.
4. “Harry Potter and the Magic of Reading” (Shayna Garlick, The Christian Science Monitor, May 2007)
Garlick’s story, offering quotes from young Harry fans and their teachers on the eve of the final book’s release, is a rebuttal of sorts to Byatt’s stance.
Harry Potter is not written in advanced language, as are books by fantasy author J.R.R. Tolkien. But neither are they “dumbed down,” she adds. Kids like it when authors take them seriously, she says, and Ms. Rowling does that while still making the books graspable.
Lyall’s dispatch in the Times’ theater section manages to give great insight into Rowling’s attachment to the world she created. Rowling didn’t make herself available for an interview, but Lyall quotes superfans and fellow writers, like Stephen King, who sympathize with Rowling’s plight.
Characters with unfinished business inveigle themselves into his head, [King] said in a telephone interview. He’s currently toying with going back into his Bill Hodges trilogy, though “End of Watch,” coming out next month, is meant to be the final installment. “There’s a character named Holly I keep thinking about,” he said.
Ms. Rowling gives interviews very rarely and declined to comment for this article. But Mr. King said he sympathized with her relationship to her material. “There are two things,” he said. “I think she likes the Harry Potter people, and it’s a little bit hard for her to let go. And she’s aware that there are millions and millions of people who loved those books. Writers feel responsibility to their readers, and some of that is a way of saying to the fans, ‘If you want a little more, I’ll give you a little more.’”
Princess Beatrice isn’t the only person to claim Rowling’s writing helped her overcome a learning disability. Stephanie Wickens, writing for Healthista last year, elucidates a bit more clearly how the world Rowling created pushed her to learn to read.
When I was 12 my older sister had recently discovered Harry Potter by J. K. Rowling. She started to read it to me once a day, however, the story was so gripping that once a day was just not enough for me. The exciting and alluring nature of Rowling’s writing drove me to pick up a book for the first time.
I was amazed at how she was able to incorporate such complex themes and ideas into her books, but still write in a style that I could understand.
It was challenging at first. I blundered my way through the pages, stumbling over words, often not understanding the meaning. But I was so desperate to find out what happened next that I forced myself to get through, book after book. The more I read the faster I was getting. I enjoyed reading Harry Potter so much that I found it was giving me confidence in other aspects of my life. Every time I came to the end of a book I would feel an overwhelming sense of achievement. Like I had climbed a mountain. I felt so proud of myself that I just couldn’t wait to do it again. My confidence hit a high as my grades started to improve in my English classes, and the anxiety I felt about reading out loud disappeared as I was eager to show off my new reading skills.
Stetka writes about a study that shows how immersion into Harry Potter’s world can increase readers’ empathy.
Even reading short stories about friendship between in- and out-group characters is enough to improve attitudes toward stigmatized groups in children. A new study published in the Journal of Applied Social Psychology found that reading the Harry Potter books in particular has similar effects, likely in part because Potter is continually in contact with stigmatized groups.
- “Not For Muggles” (Alison Lurie, The New York Review of Books, December 1999)
- “Pottery” (Alison Lurie, The New York Review of Books, September 2007)
- “Can ‘Harry Potter’ Change the World?” (Hanna Kozlowska, The New York Times, September 2014)
- “How Harry Potter rewrote the book on reading” (John Barber, The Globe and Mail, July 2011)