He was so cute: Blond hair, blue eyes and a killer smile. He was dressed in a black robe with a fake scar on his forehead and regaling our fifth-grade class with his book report on “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban.” As a 10-year-old with only the most sophisticated of tastes (give me a “Baby-Sitters Club” any day), I thought the synopsis – and his excitement – about this brand-new book sounded ridiculous and childish. But we all do crazy things to connect with our crushes, so I decided the novel couldn’t be that bad and began reading the Harry Potter series.
I was behind the times, of course. “Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone” – or “Sorcerer’s Stone,” for us simple-minded Americans – made its debut in the United Kingdom 20 years ago, on June 26, 1997. Anniversary events, from new exhibitions to broomstick lessons, are springing up worldwide to celebrate the occasion, showcasing the long-reaching effect of author J.K. Rowling’s tales.
Millennials like myself are looking at the date wondering how it can possibly be that two decades have passed since we first met Harry, Ron and Hermione, the characters who grew up right alongside us.
It wasn’t until 1999 that I began the books in earnest, adamant that I would not fall for the spell they had cast over the rest of the world.
I was wrong.
I wasn’t into magic, didn’t enjoy “unrealistic” genres and wasn’t much for following the whims of a crowd. But within pages of that first book, I fell hook, line and sinker.
It helped that Harry and I were the same age. As soon-to-be-11-year-olds with an inability to keep our mouths closed at appropriate times, I felt a kinship with this fellow ill-shaped glasses wearer. My back story was nowhere near as tragic as his, but we both had the terrible habit of sometimes feeling alone even when surrounded by people. But I never felt alone when I was reading the books.
Every few years over the next decade or so, I would wait with breathless anticipation to grab a copy of the newest installment. I was too young for midnight release parties – and refused to dress up – but I’d show up at Borders first thing in the morning to grab my beloved hardcover copy and begin reading immediately.
As an anxious child, reading was one of the few things that took me out of my head. It’s hard to focus on every single thing that could go wrong or overthink every action when you’re preoccupied watching someone else’s life unfold. With Harry, for a few hours each day, I was transported to someone else’s world, which, for an overly complicated mind like mine, was extraordinary in its own right.
But the series wasn’t just an escape. Though seemingly a children’s book to those not accustomed with its twisting plots, the Harry Potter books helped me deal with death in a way I could not have anticipated. Over the course of its print publication, I lost a grandfather, an uncle and a grandmother – all sudden and all devastating. I was not comforted by the fact that Harry had experienced great loss, too, but rather by how the books approached death as a whole. Sirius Black told Harry in “Prisoner of Azkaban”: “the ones that love us never really leave us,” and I chose to believe that was true. If someone else could deal with a tragedy much greater than mine, then surely I could be strong, too.
The series also made me feel like it was OK to not be OK. Nearly the entirety of the fifth installment, “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix” followed a depressed, overwhelmed and short-tempered Harry. If this magical, powerful, popular boy could feel so beaten down and lonely, then I was allowed to be a hormonal and miserable girl who hated the world sometimes, too. (I’m so sorry, Mom and Dad, for what you had to put up with during my 14th year of life.)
Our timelines always seemed to have a way of aligning like that. As Harry dealt with burgeoning crushes and the painful parts of friendship, I grappled with similar issues (minus the whole fighting the Dark Lord thing). And though I had long moved on from blond boy, our bond over Harry was ever present, and we would geek out with each other on the days that the new films debuted, both so excited to see our favorite story in theaters.
The series seemed to mark time in my life in a way I didn’t realize until it was over. The last book, “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows,” came out less than two months after I graduated high school. Reading it was a unique experience. At 18, I was wrapping up a story I had started at 10. Harry and I were both leaving our childhoods behind for the greater unknown. I took solace in the fact that the movies were still ongoing, but when the eighth and final film hit theaters in 2011, shortly after I had graduated college, the girl who didn’t dress up drew a small lightning-shaped scar on her forehead and shed a tear (OK, several) over the end of an era.
As the first book celebrates its 20th anniversary, I can’t tell you exactly how many times I’ve read it or the others. But at least once a year for the past 18, I have cracked open a spine, slipped back into my childhood and lost myself for hours in a magical world.