I still remember the first time I had learned about Harry Potter and the magical world that has been available to us for 20 years this week. I was an undergrad in college, it was summertime, and I was house sitting for a professor who had two kids. She had been raving about the series all spring. She swore that the books weren’t typical “children’s books” and that I should take a look at the first two in the series that were sitting on her bookshelf while I housesat.
Sure enough, she was right (smart woman!). I gobbled up the first two books right away and then borrowed the next one from her as soon as her family was done with it. Then I waited for the fourth, which came out the year I graduated. I read that as soon as I could get my hands on it…and on it went, until I had finished the final book right after it was published in 2007.
Except that reading this series was not just a process of anticipating the next twist and turn in the story. Every book became a tool and a guidepost for navigating the world around as an early adult in the 2000s.
The years between book 4 and 5 (2000-2003) was a period of tremendous change for me personally. I married that summer of 2000 (yes I married young) and moved with my husband to Washington, DC, where I immediately entered into a masters program in art history. Grad school was formative. I was in a feminist program where we were engaged in the practice of feminist art history. Professors introduced both theory and practical tools to support us as we made our own ways as scholars and adults. Though I had already thought of myself as a feminist, those were the years when I came into my own as such.
At the same time as I was becoming more engaged as a feminist, political events were occurring that would affect my life in different ways. After the Gore v. Bush presidential election, I witnessed the sea change that happens in DC when the party in power shifts, as well as the particular challenges that come with a presidential election as contested as that one. That following fall of 2001, I learned just how much it really truly matters who is is in that office. I was in the thick of grad classes and working part time as an intern for the federal government’s General Services Administration (GSA) when 9/11 happened. By the time that book 5 (Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix) finally came out in 2003, my thesis had been published and the US involved in two wars. By the time I had read the final two books, I had experienced friends going and returning from the Middle East as enlistees during the Iraq War.
JK Rowling certainly did not know when she began her series series that such traumatic events would occur right before she released the series’ darker, second half. Yet she did have the forethought to include themes that would have long lasting resonance for anyone reading it no matter what was going on the world. In those final books were lessons about governance, corruption, war, and journalism that would serve as guideposts for navigating those heady Bush years. Also, of course, as anyone who reads those books knows well, they also provided the fundamental lessons of the importance of friendship, kindness, justice, and love.
Flash forward a decade later and here we are in another time of deep uncertainty, and I am reading the Harry Potter series again with my husband and 7-yr-old son. We’ve been making our way through the books for the last couple years and now, finally and momentously, we are in the midst of the final book. One of the great joys of revisiting this series as a parent is getting to experience them again from my kid’s perspective. There’s such joy in watching him puzzle out all the mysteries and discover connections as we propel ever closer to the end. But there’s also something incredibly profound about reading this books here and the now, with a child in 2017, ten years after I finished the series for myself.
Both then and now, the series provides guidance for understanding national and world events. But now I lean on the books from the position of “parent,” scanning each paragraph as I go for a framework to explain themes that are too common in this world, like cruelty, fear, and prejudice. I draw from Rowling’s characterization of Dolores Umbridge to explain how figures within the government can exploit their roles to unjust ends. We talk about the different facets of the “Death Eaters” to understand how people can follow a leader while also being terrified of him. I also lean on the book for models of resistance and social justice – from Dumbledore’s Army to the numerous times Harry, Hermione, and Ron bend the rules to serve a higher purpose.
I have been fascinated, throughout this process, to watch my own son work through the valences of “good” and “bad,” whether we are talking disobeying professors, the treatment of house elves…or how Draco Malfoy struggles with the position he is put in towards the end of the series. I can see him struggling with how thin the line between good and bad can be when a person is under stress. As often as I can, I try to draw examples from real life to talk about how fear and peer pressure can do insidious work, or how, conversely, people often do the less-than-great because the alternative is worse. I am ever so grateful for a series that provides so many opportunities to ponders these eternal unanswerable questions to prepare my son for the complex moral universe.
I am also grateful, this time around, to Rowling’s deep compassion for parents and caregivers – something I was too young (and perhaps too selfish) to recognize when I read them the first time around. Whether the person is a teacher, a godfather, or adult friend, more often than not they want nothing more than to make the world a better place for the next generation. This may be a challenge for them — torn because of their own desires to live with autonomy and freedom. This is a good lesson for all of us. Adulthood is often the balance between the individual and the community, whether that community is family or society as a whole.
So too is the lesson that parenting and mentorship is tough emotional work. This time around I am far more in tune to the emotional vulnerabilities of so many characters, whether they experienced trauma in their lives, or are vulnerable by way of their love of someone else. (see Mrs. Weasely’s arc, or Dumbledore’s). I find myself choking up in the passages where Rowling tenderly, slowly, reveals the depths of Dumbledore’s love. Unlike my son, of course, my sadness if rooted in the knowledge of the trials that await Harry and his friends (and by extension all young adults) when they no longer have adult mentors to lean on.
Finally, like so many others, during that first reading I had been drawn to Hermione’s character especially, and again find myself rooting for her through to the very end. When I first encountered her as an undergrad, her very existence as a major character in the book seemed worth cheering loudly about. Like those who have watched Wonder Woman recently with a sense of nostalgic melancholy, I spent time wishing that I could go back in time and introduce Hermione to own kid-self. As I continued to read that first time around and got closer to the end of the series, I also became frustrated that the books centered on Harry instead of her. I had had enough of boy-centered narratives. This time, I still feel that frustration, but also have such gratitude that Rowling gave my son a model in Harry and Herminone for deep platonic friendship between a boy and the smartest and best of all the girls.
I’m also grateful that she made Hermione not just for girls to emulate but for boys to see as a role model as well, for she remains my favorite. How can she not? Here is a character who persists even as a rising din of “mudblood” follows her throughout the series until the final book where she is tortured – at least in part – for her very existence as such. And besides, there is no Harry without Hermione, the girl who saves him from doom again and again. Rowling may have made Harry the “chosen one” but she also gave us the girl who repeatedly saves the “chosen one” from certain death.
So thank you, JK Rowling, for giving us a story about bravery and compassion, complicated characters who show kids how difficult to always do good and do right, guidance on issues ranging from governance to prejudice to cruelty, and adult characters who give kids a glimpse of the emotional lives of parents and mentors…and a seriously kickass heroine. And of course, Harry Potter, the boy who loved…and lived.