I got Gryffindor pyjamas for my 27th birthday: fans on 20 years of Harry Potter
From academics to school sweethearts, superfans raise a broom to the boy wizard
When I was eight, I got my first pair of glasses. Far from being teased at school, the only hassle I got was endless requests to try on my new specs. My father looked at me with suspicion. Had I faked the blindness, he asked, just so I could look like Harry Potter?
With my cropped hair and glasses, I did look like a tiny girl Harry. And while the similarity was not deliberate, I did nothing to avoid it, either. The Potter books were the great pop cultural event of my generation (I was born in 1991). In between Game Boys and Pokmon, kids began reading again. My school librarian, both confused by and exasperated with Pottermania, dealt with fights over the schools few tatty copies by imposing a new rule: Potter books could be borrowed for only three days, instead of the week every other title was allowed.
In the 20 years since the first book arrived on shelves, publishers and parents have been asking what alchemy has made JK Rowlings series so loved. But even if we could quantify the appeal, it would ruin the magic. It is better instead to look at the impact they have had on their readers. Yes, the books were about a boy wizard taking on a dark and powerful villain, but they were also about love trumping hate, about justice and perseverance; in the words of Albus Dumbledore, choosing between what is easy and what is right. Rowlings entire cast of magical misfits from bookish Hermione to oddball Luna Lovegood, to late bloomer Neville Longbottom were all people we wanted to be.
I grew up with Harry (in the final book, he is 17 and so was I), and together we became opinionated children, stroppy teens and world-weary young adults. When the seventh and final book came out in 2007, I read for 12 hours without a break and cried as I finished. I felt something akin to grief; the end of Harrys story signalled the end of my childhood. I was suddenly adrift. Meanwhile, my now Potter-mad father hovered impatiently nearby, waiting for the appropriate moment to snatch the book off his sobbing daughter.
Potter really did shape my generation. As a cohort who grew up mostly in peacetime, many of the ideas we found in these books were ones we had never encountered before. The wizarding worlds terrible treatment of non-human beings, such as the enslaved house-elves, was the first depiction of slavery I encountered. I learned about Voldemorts genocidal pursuit of a pure-blood race long before teachers deemed it suitable for me to learn about South African apartheid or Nazi party policies. The treatment of Harrys teacher Remus Lupin, a werewolf who hides his condition at work, is a metaphor for the stigma surrounding HIV/Aids (a detail confirmed by Rowling herself). We learned about oppression, media bias and the dangers of political apathy in the face of terror for the first time in the pages of Rowlings books.
And all this may have real-world consequences. A 2014 study found that teenagers who identified with Harry displayed more tolerance towards refugees, immigrants and LGBTQ people. In 2016, another study found that Harry Potter readers were less likely to vote for the then-presidential candidate Donald Trump, even after controlling for other factors such as party affiliation, age, gender and education. Is it possible that Jeremy Corbyns popularity among the young had anything to do with their literary education? Is it possible that Harry, in the 20 years he has been with us, has inspired a generation to be more empathic, welcoming and socially liberal than those before it? We will see. If not, at least my glasses are still cool.
Sian Cain is editor of the Guardians books site.
I run Heroine Training for young women
Xandra Robinson-Burns, 25, personal development trainer