It’s funny, really, what you can learn from a children’s book. And funny how powerful such a book can be. Only, it’s not funny at all. It’s true.
Right now, I want to talk about one children’s series: Harry Potter. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s/Philosopher’s Stone was first published 20 years ago today, and it has had such an outsized impact on my life, that I couldn’t let it pass without dedicating a post to this series.
There are no other books I have read that have shaped me as much as Harry Potter has. Here are just a few of the reasons why. (There’s a lot more that I want to say, but in the interest of keeping things relatively short, I’ve just chosen a few.)
Social justice and resistance.
These books were my first introduction to ideas about social justice and resistance. It’s no coincidence that empirical data shows:
“Reading the books correlated with greater levels of acceptance for out-groups, higher political tolerance, less predisposition to authoritarianism, greater support for equality and greater opposition to the use of violence and torture.”
In a world like we live in now, those lessons have been proven to be potent and lasting.
They showed me how powerful friendship can be, and what it should look like. Harry, Ron, and Hermione are such an incredible example of friendship. They don’t agree all the time, they fight, they hurt each other’s feelings, but their bond is strong enough to hold them together through all of that.
Love as sacrifice
Harry Potter was the first place outside of church that I saw the idea of love as sacrifice. The love that the trio have for each other is so strong that Hermione freaking puts a memory charm on her parents to make them forget they have a daughter, to protect them so that she can help Harry defeat Voldemort. The Weasleys lose a son, an ear (“Holy. Hole-y, Fred. Get it?”), their home (for all intents and purposes), not to mention peace of mind—all because they also want to help Harry.
That is sacrifice, and that is love.
The series taught me more than I can say about storytelling. Reading the books was the first time I started understanding symbolism, themes, archetypes, foreshadowing, and countless other literary devices. I already loved to read and already wanted to be a writer by the time I was introduced to these books, but nothing that I have read, seen, heard, or observed has taught me more about storytelling than this series.
How fiction can interact with reality
Harry Potter was my first experience in understanding how fiction could interact with reality. How they can change each other, and the power that fiction has to change lives and (as sappy and ridiculous as it sounds) to change the world. I mean, when Abraham Lincoln met the author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, he said, “So you’re the little woman who started this big war.” Thomas Paine’s Common Sense is credited with sparking American independence. There is a long history of literature influencing policy, events, and culture. Harry Potter deserves a place right alongside these famous works for the impact it has had.
Harry Potter helped me figure out why stories matter
Harry Potter helped me figure out why stories matter in the first place. You see, the magic of Harry Potter is not in, well, the magic. The magic of Harry Potter is in teaching us and showing us that love is powerful. That friendship is beautiful. That no matter how much bad there is in the world, there is still good. That goodness has a power that evil can never have. That our choices matter. That small things like standing up to your friends or treating people with kindness are still acts of heroism. That heroism can be quiet and unassuming. That bravery can take many forms. That we are often mistaken in our judgments of others.
And it does all of that while making you laugh, making you cry, making you wish that Hogwarts was real, and changing you quietly, one page at a time.
Thank you, Jo. Thank you for creating a home for so many people. And thank you for 20 years of magic.