HARRY POTTER AND THE MAGIC OF READING
Twenty years ago, the first Harry Potter book was published. The rest, as they say, is history. Children’s book editor Julia Eccleshare celebrates the young wizard’s greatest spell: getting boys to read
When Harry Potter And The Philosopher’s Stone was published in June 1997, it had a first print run of 500 copies. JK Rowling’s manuscript about a boy wizard had been rejected by 12 publishers before one took a chance on her. Rowling was warned by her publisher that kids had fallen out of love with reading; that there was no money in children’s books. But she was confident that children would fall for Harry. She was right.
Fast-forward 20 years, and she is one of the most successful writers in the world. Her seven Harry Potter novels have sold upwards of 450 million copies worldwide. Then there are the eight box-officetopping film adaptations, many spin-off books and a stage play. The franchise is unprecedented in the sheer scale of its popularity, and interest in the wizarding world is showing no sign of abating.
But if Harry Potter re-wrote the fortunes of its author, it also schooled a generation in the magic of reading. The franchise proved just how much children would read if they had a book they liked. Lining up dressed as wizards and witches, waiting for midnight when the next book would be available, became part of the experience.
This genuine delight in the stories also made inroads into the widespread concerns about boys’ lack of progress in literacy. Rowling gave boys, who were typically less engaged in reading, a rich seam of imaginative stories to get lost in, with enough darkness to scare, enough action to thrill and enough magic to inspire – all in books that were totally cool to read!
While there have been many popular characters in children’s fiction, none has been so unconditionally loved as Harry Potter.
Unhappy, orphaned Harry draws on the best traditions of fairy tales. At some point in their lives, most children dream of having their annoying parents off their back, freeing them up to imagine their own future. And no sooner has the tragedy of his orphaned state been revealed, than readers discover two other things about Harry: he has a special destiny and the super powers to match.
What happens to Harry provides a gilt-edged survival guide for navigating the difficulties of life. Despite his ‘destiny’, Harry is easy to identify with: he is an everyday kind of boy, who embodies the familiar characteristics of being sports-mad and mildly schoolbook-shy. With liking Harry comes liking what Harry does. Harry can fly, become invisible, travel in time, do magic well enough to protect himself from his enemies, and be the best sportsman on the pitch. He is interesting to know.
While the deep appeal of Harry may be largely subliminal, the immediately gripping factor is Rowling’s dramatic, well-structured stories. Rowling takes her readers on adventures in an embellished magical world, with more than enough danger to make the pulse race. With its shifting portraits, moving stairs and friendly ghosts, Hogwarts School Of Witchcraft And Wizardry is both homely and intriguing. What child wouldn’t want to go to such a place?
But the real magic of this world lies in its prolonged appeal. Most of the characters are defined as good or bad, and there’s a clear moral code that’s easy to follow. ‘It is our choices that show what we really are, far more than our abilities,’ Dumbledore tells Harry, in one his homilies that still resonate. At an age when exam grades can feel like the only marker of success, therein lies a message of hope.