In honor of the end of the Harry Potter movies, I thought I would share an essay I wrote for grad school in fall of 2009. We had to create a “literacy narrative” detailing our experiences with a specific piece of literature, and I chose the Harry Potter series not necessarily for its literary merit but for the impact it had on my life. I admit it’s a little cheesy, but it’s a decent description of what the series has meant to me over the past eleven years. And so I present:
My Literary Journey with Harry
Sunday morning, spring of 2000. As I walk out of church with my family, I spot my friend Elizabeth from elementary school among the crowd. She holds out a book that I take with mittened hands, the metallic words “Harry Potter” emblazoned across the cover. I have heard of this book. It’s been on the news, and my parents have mentioned it. Elizabeth and I trade recommendations often, so I will read it now that I know that she liked it. It pulls me in—not immediately, not even in the first chapter, but gradually, gently. I read in stolen moments before and after class, before bed, and during lunch, earning a glorious moment of attention from my crush at the time as he comments on the series. This is far from the first book to absorb me like this. An eighth grader, I have been an avid reader for years, tearing my way through various series for older children. I read many books, but the books that draw me magnificently and inexorably into their worlds are few and far between. For days turning into weeks, I walk my middle school hallways in a world of magic and bravery and good and evil. I have read through the first three books in no time and eagerly await the release of the next, which is mere months away.
My next step is to convince my brother, three years younger, to read the books as well. When school ends that June, we set to work constructing our own Hogwarts. A PVC pipe covered with wood grain-print contact paper with twigs tied to one end becomes a Quidditch broom. We find early Halloween decorations in a craft store and bring home black plastic cauldrons for our Potions class. There are witches’ hats in our basement from past Halloweens that we unearth and wear, and we find old Beanie Baby frogs and cats and owls for pets. The most important detail is the wand. I construct mine carefully, rolling a piece of construction paper into a tube, painting it black, and pressing masking tape over the ends after suspending a “unicorn hair” inside—a piece of filmy, sparkly thread that I unwind from a strand of baby yarn my mom is using to crochet an afghan. Once all of the details are in place, we begin to hold classes, taking turns as the teacher—Potions using clippings of plants from our yard, Care of Magical Creatures using the companion book Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, and Transfiguration using spells from the Harry Potter books. The same summer, I design my own Sorting Hat quiz and sort my family members into the various houses, and I write a spontaneous essay analyzing J. K. Rowling’s time travel theory from Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban.
The peak of the summer is the release of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. I find myself reluctantly swept up in the general wave of anticipation preceding the release, and I resent the knowledge that so many other people love the same books that I love, as if their existence somehow makes my relationship with the series less legitimate. I try to distract myself from the Harry Potter frenzy by focusing on the release of the third book in the less-famous His Dark Materials trilogy instead. My mom buys a copy of the fourth Harry Potter book the day it comes out, and she, my brother, and I take turns reading it. When my brother is not around I steal it away and devour it in hiding. The ending is so shocking I am bursting to talk about it, but I have to swallow down my excitement until my brother is done reading as well. I can’t wait to find out what happens to Harry next—and wait I must, for three whole years.
In the summer of 2003, I slowly climb back inside the world of Hogwarts as I delve into the fifth book, savoring every precious word and the warmth and familiarity of being reunited with a friend long absent. The movies have kept the series alive for me in the interim, although I have complaints about something in the representation of every character. The series is now mass-merchandized as well, and I lament that today’s children do not have to be so creative in their reenactments. In the midst of my reading my family goes to visit my grandparents on Catawba Island in Ohio. I finish the book sprawled out on a grassy hill beneath a tree in the afternoon sunshine with Lake Erie stretching into the distance behind me, reveling with the rest of Hogwarts when the Fred and George torment Dolores Umbridge with their pièce de résistance of practical jokes, and feeling every ounce of Harry’s pain at the ending, leaving me in a mourning state throughout the rest of my vacation. There is no film representation of this book yet, and there will not be for a while, so I put myself to work trying to sketch out my visualizations of the characters before the actors the director chooses overwrite my own imagination, as they have for the earlier books. I spend much of my free time during my final year of high school trying to write my own fiction, almost exclusively fantasy, inspired in part by Harry Potter, among other works. I never attempt to write fan fiction because to me it seems a more difficult feat to fully grasp the workings of a character and a world that someone else has created, than to create my own.
The sixth book is not released for two more years. Meanwhile, I start college and get my own laptop, and the internet becomes more of a fixture in my life. After the sixth book is released in the summer of 2005, I am still in the process of rereading the fifth to refresh my memory when I come across a major spoiler online with no warning whatsoever. A friend spoils more of the plot for me, and it takes me much longer to make my way through the book carrying that disappointment. Although I admit that the books are good enough to deserve their popularity, I find myself wishing again that they did not draw quite so much attention. Later in the summer I dye my hair a deep red with henna paste and cut it very short: the most dramatic style change of my life. I decide to take advantage of the new hair that Halloween by dressing as Nymphadora Tonks, using descriptions from the book as well as an online artist’s visual representation of her that I find fits my imagination pretty accurately. I even print out a cartoon picture of her to paste over my own on my student ID. In the spring of my sophomore year, I study abroad in Spain, and my friends and I go to London for a weekend, where the Harry Potter references fly. It’s like walking in a dream turned real—we can hardly believe that this place actually exists in the world, after seeing it in books and movies and TV shows all our lives.
When the seventh book is released, I am between my junior and senior years in college, and I am spending the summer working at McDonald’s because it is the only place I can find in my town that is hiring. It is unquestionably the most tedious and painful job I have ever endured. After my mishap with the sixth book, I decide not to reread any of the series before the release, counting on the seventh book for all the memory-refreshing I might need. My mom now works at a public school and is friends with the school librarian, who is allowed to order copies of the new book to be delivered two days in advance of the official release. My mom, brother, younger sister, and I all order copies of the book from her and go to the school library to pick them up, feeling complicit in some sort of underworld dealing. I spend the rest of the day entirely absorbed in the book, barely pausing to eat or sleep. The next day I have to work at McDonald’s for a few hours, and I am not just cooking meat in a hot, noisy, crowded kitchen; I am also in England, traveling through forests undercover trying to destroy Horcruxes and elude the Dark Lord. I finish the book later that day with a sigh as I bid goodbye to the world I have loved for so many years of my life—no longer living, breathing, and changing, I fear it will be relegated to memory, a flower pressed between the pages of a book. I do not speak a word to anyone about receiving an advanced copy for years, and certainly do not spill secrets online, although I peruse the internet before the release to see that many others have done so. The point is not to make anyone jealous—I just want to have my own experience with the book this time, pristine and untouched by anyone else. On the day of the release, my brother, sister and I dress up as Harry Potter characters and drive out to the local Barnes & Noble for the pre-release party, careful not to say anything about the contents of the seventh book while we are there. This is the final release and we want to have the full experience, because it will never come again.
After I finish the last book, though, the series remains a part of my life. During my senior year I take a class entitled “Magic, Science, and Religion,” for which I decide to write a research paper relating the Harry Potter series to Joseph Campbell’s The Hero With A Thousand Faces. I give a presentation on my paper to the class, including clips from the movies in my Powerpoint, and I think that maybe I am starting to come to peace with the series as a cultural phenomenon and the movies and merchandizing that that entails.
The year after I graduate from college, I am living in San Francisco in a four-bedroom apartment with six strangers as part of a year-long volunteer program. After we move in together we quickly establish that while four of us are besotted Harry Potter fans, three of us have never read the series. Chris resolutely refuses to read them because as a devoted history major he thinks that reading fiction (and especially fantasy!) is pointless, but my roommates Julie and Courtney read the first book because it is on the shelf in our house: they are immediately hooked, tearing their way through the rest of the series within the first few months of the program. I walk into the living room one day to find Julie sitting there with tears streaming down her face at the end of one of the books, unable to stop crying or reading. Their constant discussion of the books brings that world back to life for the rest of us.
We watch the movies together as a house, critiquing them as they relate to the books, and one day when Chris is gone, we decide to hold a Harry Potter community night. We make butter beer from a recipe we find online and eat Bertie Bott’s Every Flavor Beans, and we take a Sorting Hat quiz and sort each other into houses using a sorting hat made from a paper bag that drops out house badges (which Melissa has printed out, cut out, and colored at work that day). Then we put on our house badges and watch the fifth movie together, joking about taping the Slytherin badge to Chris’s door. The six of us buy advanced tickets to see the sixth Harry Potter movie on opening night. I have never been to the opening of any of the movies, and seeing people in costume waiting breathlessly in line brings back the excitement of the book releases in earlier days. This is the first movie that I am able to just sit back and enjoy without critiquing everything they have changed from the text, whether because it’s been a while since I read the books or because I am swept up in the excitement of it all over again.
Now that I am going to school to become a teacher, I find myself tapping into that world once more to talk about the role that literacy plays in my life. Although Harry Potter is far from the only or most important literature that has influenced me, my passion for the series has spanned the greatest period of time. I want to bring that passion for the worlds created by texts to the classroom with me, and I want each student to have the opportunity to experience that magic for him/herself, creating his/her own relationship with the text regardless of everyone else reading it before sharing that experience with the class. I want them to find inspiration in texts, whether the texts be novels, poetry, or movies, and to see that texts can span many different aspects of their lives, enhancing and enriching their daily experiences.