While on a train ride in 1990, J.K. Rowling had an idea for a story about a young boy who learned to study magic. She wrote the first chapter in a small cafe in Edinburgh, England, and would come back every day until she had a manuscript. Then, on June 26, 1997, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone was released. In Canada it was distributed by Raincoast Books.
Over the next ten years, six more books would follow. 20 years later, these seven books have sold over 450 million copies worldwide in 79 different languages. In Canada, it is now distributed by Bloomsbury publishing
One of the reasons the Harry Potter series grabbed people’s attention was its cast of relatable characters. The main characters of the series—Harry, Ron, and Hermione—are not your typical good-looking heroes. The narrative often points out things like Harry’s unkempt hair, Hermione’s crooked teeth, and Ron’s freckles. Aside from of Hermione, they are mediocre students at best. This makes it easier for the audience to envision them as real characters and relate to them and their plights.
“When you first start reading the books, they’re just kids. But as she [J.K. Rowling] develops them through happy and sad moments, they feel more and more real,” says Marine Davidson, a mother of three. She discovered the books after her son was finished reading Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, and became so enthralled she orderred two copies of the fourth book, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, so she wouldn’t have to wait for her son to finish reading first.
Another reason readers fell in love with the books was J.K. Rowling’s attention to detail. The world of Harry Potter is simple in design, yet filled with so many smaller details that make the wizarding world feel like a living and breathing society. These include pictures who can talk, move between portraits, and have limited memories of the individuals they once were, and the Marauder’s Map, a map of Hogwarts that shows where everyone is on the grounds, and can only be read if you say the words, “I solemnly swear that I am up to no good.”
When you first start reading the books, they’re just kids. But as she [J.K. Rowling] develops them through happy and sad moments, they feel more and more real,
But the thing readers remember best are the large plethora of creative spells at each wizard’s disposal. These can range from Expelliarmus, the disarming charm, to the greatest of the unforgivable curses, the killing curse, Avada Kedavra.
“It was a fantasy world, but also still set in our own world, which helped to ground it in reality,” says Heather Bickle, a wellness coach at Durham College. Bickle first read the books in high school, where they became the first book series she ever finished. “I identified with the main character. I was a bit of a social outcast in school with not too many friends, so I think I saw a bit of Harry in me.”
For many young people at the time, Harry Potter was the first book series to push them as readers. The books explore themes such as belonging, friendship, coming of age, grief, and the necessity and acceptance of death.
“The books had a lot of interesting subplots,” says Scott Wheler, a student at the Durham College Whitby Campus studying physics and electrical engineering. “Each subplot lead into another question that I found was answered in a reasonable amount of time.”
The series also opened the doors for many other authors to explore similar themes and ideas, such as Christopher Paolini’s Inheritance Cycle in 2002. These books, which contain over 500 pages, would normally be marketed to the 18 to 22 demographic, who were seeing an increase in readers in 2002, according to Raincoast Books. But instead, the books were pushed towards middle school students as young as grades 3 to 5. In 2007, The chairman of the National Endowments for the Arts, (NEA), Michael Dana Gioia, attributed some of this to the success of the Harry Potter series.
It was a fantasy world, but also still set in our own world, which helped to ground it in reality,
The length of young adult books also increased thanks to Harry Potter. The 1990’s were populated with young adult and children series that were published on a monthly basis with a page count of 137. Examples of this include K.A Applegate’s Animorphs, and R.L Stine’s Goosebumps. After Harry Potter, this monthly release schedule all but vanished, and a page count of 290 became the new minimum—an increase of 153 pages—according to research done by Booklist Reader.
Even the Harry Potter books themselves increased in length as they went along. Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone had a page count of 320, while the final book, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, clocked in at 756 (though the fifth book, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, is longer than Hallows by 12 pages), according to Booklist Reader.
The success of the books prompted Warner Brothers studios to purchase the film rights to the series shortly after the release of the third book, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. Between 2001 and 2011, they released eight films, which collectively grossed over $7 billion by the end of the eighth movie.
Although it has been ten years since the release of the final book, and six years since the final film, the Harry Potter franchise continues to go strong. A broadway play, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, was released in 2016. J.K. Rowling worked on the play with playwrights Jack Thorn and John Tiffany. A prequel film based off of J.K. Rowling’s 2001 spinoff book Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, also written by Rowling, came out in 2016. Bloomsbury publishing will also be releasing limited edition versions of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone in each of the four Hogwarts houses: Gryffindor, Ravenclaw, Hufflepuff, and Slytherin.
And in the literary world, Harry Potter’s ripples can still be felt. Many new children’s fantasy series have sprung up, including Tui T. Sutherland’s Wings of Fire, Emily Jenkins, Sarah Mlynowski, and Lauren Myracle’s Upsidedown Magic, and the Spirit Animal and Warrior Cats series, both written by a team of writers. All of these series dedicate time to establishing the rules of their world, from the different factions of cats in Warrior Cats to the politics and history of dragon society in Wings of Fire. This reflects J.K. Rowling’s detailed rules of the wizarding world written back in 1997. And with these details comes the demand for more writers to get the books published within a timely manner.
The next book in Tui T. Sutherland’s Wings of Fire, Darkness of Dragons, will be released in July 2017. Avid fans have been waiting since December 2016. Spirit Animal’s next book, Heart of the Land, is scheduled for a May 2017 release, leaving readers to wait seven months between books. The page length these series range from 190 to 400.
“Fantasies tend to be really long,” said Ilene Cooper, a contributing editor at Booklist Readers, in an interview on Booklist’s website. “Authors are building another world. Readers of fantasy want to get lost in those worlds.”
Readers enter these worlds because they want to escape. Through J.K. Rowling’s creative word and relatable characters, readers can easily envision themselves among the halls of Hogwarts, School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, or soaring through the air on a broomstick during a game of Quidditch. Just like the Patronus charm, which Harry used to fend off the joy-sucking dementors, losing oneself in a happy memory can help readers move past a dark moment in their lives.
“[The Harry Potter Books] were such a great escape from everyday life,” says Marine Davidson, whose oldest child is now in post secondary education.
While the future of the Harry Potter franchise remains uncertain, the effects of the original seven books will continue to draw in new readers and re-enchant the devoted fans.
As J.K Rowling said at the end of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, “Whether you come back by page or by the big screen, Hogwarts will always be there to welcome you home.”