Today, July 31, is J.K. Rowling’s birthday -- a birthday she famously shares with her most beloved character, Harry Potter. Though she’s long since turned her formidable storytelling skills toward the adult fiction world, most recently publishing two mystery novels under the pen name Robert Galbraith, we can’t deny that it’s through her megahit Harry Potter series that Rowling has most infiltrated our lives over the past 17 years.
Harry Potter, as we’ve so often heard, changed reading for an entire generation -- my generation. I was nine when the first book was first published, and 10 when I read it. Now, I wasn’t one of those kids who fell in love with reading because of Harry Potter. By fifth grade, when someone recommended Sorcerer’s Stone to me, I was already the type of girl who hid The Phantom Tollbooth inside my social studies textbook during quiet study time and hid behind Catherine, Called Birdy at recess. But that’s the true magic of Harry Potter -- it took socially awkward bookworms like me and book-averse social butterflies and united us all in a passionate reading experience. Childhood wasn’t the same for us kids; we were the Harry Potter generation.
Here are 7 ways JK Rowling changed childhood for those of us who grew up with Harry Potter:
She made reading a trend. One day everyone was collecting Pogs or Beanie Babies, the next, we were all deciding whether we were more like Harry or Ron, Hermione or Lavendar. For the first time, everyone seemed to have read the same books and had things to say about them. Though reading could be a solitary activity still, it didn’t need to be.
She made Y.A. literature a cultural event on the level of boy bands and "Titanic." Your friends all wanted to go to the Harry Potter midnight release parties with you, argue over the most crushable characters with you, and dress up as your favorites for Halloween.
She made reading something to be anticipated. Speaking of those midnight release parties: How about that anticipation-building? When did it become normal for kids to insist on staying up past their bedtime... to start the next book in their favorite series? By creating such a hot literary commodity with seven painfully spaced installments building toward an agonizingly mysterious conclusion, Rowling imbued reading with excitement and anticipation for kids everywhere.
She created a literary world that felt close enough to touch, but supernatural enough to thrill. In her deft blend of traditional fantasy elements and traditional British boarding school stories, she offers the perfect, intoxicating balance of familiarity and fantasy, comfort and thrill. You didn’t just want to read about Hogwarts; you really, really wanted to be there.
She made us believe magic could happen to us. Harry Potter was a regular kid, and not a particularly happy one, when an owl arrived with his Hogwarts acceptance letter and he found out he wasn’t a regular kid at all. How many of us secretly felt a pang as our 11th birthday passed without that letter? We knew it wasn’t real (probably), but Rowling made it feel so, so real.
She knew that words were the real magic, and she got us to feel that way too. Like some other incredible children’s book authors (Lemony Snicket immediately springs to mind), Rowling thinks words are fun, and it’s infectious. The clever wordplay hidden within her name choices, spell incantations, and general terminology ensures kids are learning some amount of linguistic history, if only by osmosis -- and for some of us, it helped spark a lifelong fascination with language and meaning.
She helped bring books for younger readers into a golden age. Rowling didn't invent young adult fiction or fantasy, nor was Harry Potter the first very successful book series for younger readers. But after the worldwide phenomenon that was Harry Potter, publishers couldn't ignore the potential of that market. Today, Y.A. is experiencing something of a golden age, and it's hard to say whether that would be true without the Harry Potter mania that opened the floodgates.