Twenty years ago, a single mom on welfare published a book. And then everything changed. In honor of the milestone, here is my personal HP history, from dorky little brothers to first writing attempts and learning German.
For a brief period of time, my younger brother was a dork. He was a Boy Scout, on the chubby side, and basically a character from The Goonies. Then one summer, he shot up a foot or two, got skinny, and joined the football team. When he joined me at the local high school, it was as a popular kid. The dork was gone. But during his brief tenure in that world, he discovered the Harry Potter series. This was the late nineties, when the first few books came out and the series was popular but not POPULAR, not so ubiquitous. I mean, my brother didn't even realize JK Rowling was a woman. And me, in my high school kid wisdom, thought the books were childish and strictly for dorky younger brothers. Side note: while this entry is ostensibly about my love of children's literature, I am not here for grown adult women adopting YA books and calling it literature. Sometimes it's just for kids and you should be reading Jane Austen instead. End side note. Then it was 2001 and the first movie came out. I went with friends opening weekend not because I had to see the film but because it was something to do on a Friday night. I may have even needed some peer pressure to see it, initially. But I went and a world opened up. I had to know more, to explore the world so deftly introduced in the first film. Side note number two. Now that I can look at it objectively, the first two films kind of suck. They serve as a very removed adaptation, dotting i's and crossing t's, to create what's described in the books. But the charm and spirit of the books are entirely missing. And the kids kind of suck at acting. That being said, Chris Columbus had a momentous task in front of him, to visually create a world and fill it with characters, that each film afterwards took advantage of (or were sometimes limited by). So credit where it's due.
All that aside, the first film sucked me in. For the film's opening weekend, my brother was away at some Boy Scout weekend thing. He was irate to learn I, his sister who hadn't even read the goddamn books, saw the movie before him. Eventually, he got over his indignation enough to let me borrow his copies, before I bought my own. A shiny set for books 1 - 4. I gobbled them up and then entered the patterns that had been known to Potter fans for quite some time at that point - the wait for the next novel, the fear that the films would catch up and overtake Rowling (LOL, Game of Thrones).
After that initial introduction in 2001, at the age of 14, my growth is charted by Harry Potter. The next year, the second film came out. While I had to be dropped off by parents to see the first, the second was different. A friend's older sister took us, picking us up in her mom's car. We watched the movie opening night, getting pizza afterwards and discussing the film, comparing it with the book and wondering what would happen next. It's one of the first adult moments I remember - going out with friends, without needing parents for the ride or their money. Just me and some other women my age, analyzing art like totally mature adult women do. And then the fifth book came out, the first book release since I'd picked up the habit. The day of its release, my mom and I drove to the closest biggish town with a book store, an hour and a half away. It was summer so we were there under the guise of school shopping, but really it was to get the book. I had two copies reserved at the Borders, one for me and one for my brother. He had transformed into Cool Kid at this point, Dorky Younger Brother already a notion for the past. But Cool Kid has a streak for nostalgia so he wanted a copy. On the drive home, I read aloud to my mother, excited to find out what the next chapter was. To wrap up - my brother started Order of the Phoenix but never finished it, too cool. To this day, he's seen all the films but I think he never read further than OotP. Goodbye, childhood.
Then there was the third film. This one I distinctly remember seeing twice. The first time, in a nearby town with my brother and cousin. This is another step in my ascent to adulthood - it was one of the first times I had driven that far on my own, having recently obtained a license. Neither my brother nor cousin could drive yet. We were just a few minutes into the movie when something went wrong with the sound and we were ushered into a screening a few theaters down, which started a few minutes later. We saw the first fifteen minutes for a second time and enjoyed a free round of popcorn and drinks. A month later, my brother and I, bored during the summer before my senior year of high school, decided to drive to the town of my probable college, to check out the school, and go see the film a second time. We got lost in the town I would end up spending four years. It's bizarre to me that those streets and landmarks were ever so foreign. How was there ever a time I didn't know where the friggin' movie theater was?
The sixth book came out the day before I started college. This is not an exaggeration. I went to the Wal-Mart of my home town for the midnight release. The Wal-Mart I was used to had pallets of books lined up against the cash registers. It was a mini reunion as I recognized most of the faces, people who would be going their separate ways all too soon as we wrapped up the summer between high school and college. I grabbed my book and we headed home. I was up most of the night, a combination of excitement for my big day and compulsion to read the fucking book. The next day my parents moved me into my first college dorm room, where I would start an advanced mathematics program the next day, a month before my freshman year started. The next few weeks were crazy as semesters of calculus were jammed into hours and days and minutes. I didn't get a lot of reading in and didn't finish the fifth book until the end of the program, long after that bitch Carolyn told everyone what Snape did.
The fourth movie came out during a school break. I was at my home town. I drove with my mom, sister, aunt, and cousin to a nearby town to see the midnight screening. This aunt was never particularly maternal or involved, but she had read each book to her son. Harry Potter makes miracles, you guys. We drove the hour back to our homes afterwards in a thrall, loving the book and the characters and always asking - what happens next. The next film came out between my sophomore and junior years of college. Family was replaced by sorority sisters for the midnight screening. We couldn't book ahead of time so we got to the theater hours before the first showing, almost the first in line, gossiping as the line grew past us.
The last book came out not long after. I was living in the sorority house and for a few days following its release there were two types of people - the Potterheads and everyone else. There was a clear charting of who was where based on tears and focus. Most of the book I read in the living room, where my sisters were either caught up in the book themselves or watching The Girls Next Door and rolling their eyes at us. When it came to the last few chapters, I went to my room, knowing I would embarrass myself. I cried when Snape died, when Hedwig died. And then I went to the frat party next door like a champ.
When the sixth film debuted, I was in the big city by myself for the first time, my first internship, in my first apartment. I made plans with my college friends to attend a midnight screening at a mall. It was the largest screening I'd been to, with special signs and every theater full and a parking lot busier than it is at Christmas season. I didn't have anything Harry Potter to wear but found some Gryffindor colors in my closet. I returned to my apartment around 2 in the morning, full of energy and excitement. The next day at work, I was mostly worthless.
For the last two films, the two parts of the seventh book, I was living in Portland. The last film came out in the days before I moved from Portland back to the Midwest. By which I mean, the midnight screening was the night after I left my job. I went to work, had a meeting with HR, then went to a bar with coworkers and proceeded to get drunk. I went to a friend's house and took a nap before going to the midnight screening. The line was long, snaking around the building. Someone had brought chalk and there was artwork everywhere. Afterwards, my then-boyfriend braved the crowds to pick me up. And a thing was over, done.
But not really. While it's been twenty years since the first book came out, it's been almost as long since I discovered the series. Since then, it's been a huge comfort. The fandom might be crazy and Pottermore might be a bit much and maybe JKR really did need a stronger editor those last few books, but there's still love and comfort there. It got me through high school, college, and the years beyond. I can't imagine growing up without Harry and his friends.
I also started writing with Harry. I remember my brother, too cool to read the books, staying up all night to fix the plot of my first chapter-length Harry Potter fanfiction with. I remember posting something I'd written for the first time and getting good and bad responses but feeling party of a community, inspired. And then this past year, I got to visit London, to go to King's Cross and get my picture taken at the famous platform. The fake magical world Rowling had created briefly coming to life. This January, I gave my goddaughter, for her third birthday, a set of the beautifully illustrated editions of the first two books. A new generation of Harry Potter readers and fans starts.