Although the books aren't as old as Harry himself, the impact of Harry Potter on my life has been enormous and this post is really a birthday celebration post. One which explains the power of children's literature, the way it can change the course of its readers lives and the power of books to shape, define and give hope to new generations.
During my existential crisis, sitting at my desk in a large law firm and eating too many chocolate digestives, I decided I had to read. I always loved losing myself in a book and I wanted that passion for literature back. I found a small number of universities offering post-graduate degrees in Children’s Literature, which seemed perfect. When I opened The Hobbit for the first time in years to prepare an essay to accompany my application, I knew it was the right decision. I could take a nostalgic trip down memory lane with Bilbo Baggins, spend time in secret gardens and reacquaint myself with the books I loved as a child. Slowly but surely I worked my way through my Masters and new books weren’t consigned to the ‘read later’ pile. Instead, I couldn’t wait for the post to arrive and cherished every delivery.
The wannabe English student in me emerged with gusto as I discovered new authors and books. The Scarecrows by Robert Westall, Postcards from No Mans Land by Aidan Chambers and More Than This by Patrick Ness were particular highlights. Transported back to Thatcher’s Britain, I laughed and cried at Sue Townsend’s Adrian Mole and as an adult, I had a more nuanced understanding of Townsend’s uproariously clever political satire. I devoured critical theory, particularly queer and feminist theory and works on fairy tales by academics like Jack Zipes.
C.S. Lewis said that a children’s book that isn’t worth reading as an adult isn’t worth reading as a child. Exploring a fantasy world you last visited when you still believed in magic is a unique pleasure, and reading children’s books through the lens of adulthood is eye-opening. It shows perhaps more clearly than anything the cynicism that comes from experiencing an adult world and understanding how the lens of lived experience changes the text and the subtext, makes reading children's books as an adult even more engaging and nuanced. As an adult, reading a book you loved as a child helps you appreciate the innocence of childhood. Through delving into the academic world of children's literature, my pleasure for reading was reignited and I discovered a whole new Narnia, a different kind of wonderland. I became immersed in fantasy worlds, magic, demons, vampires and teen coming of age stories which offered escapism from the nine-to-five job and the daily routine of life in a big city.
I returned to the books that nudged me towards a different path at the conclusion of my MA, writing my dissertation on Harry Potter fanfiction. It felt right to finish my course with the stories that inspired me to undertake further study in the first place. I read about fan communities, wrote fanfic myself and engaged with fandom on all levels - socially, creatively and academically. Long after successfully completing my postgraduate degree, I was still writing and reading about Harry Potter. Like all good things, it could have ended there. When work was busy the unread books piled up again and the shelves gathered dust. A niggling despondency at the thought of terribly neat bookshelves returned. Lemony Snicket points out that “a good library will never be too neat, or too dusty” because someone should always be taking books off the shelves and reading them - the quote which inspired this blog title. At a different desk, with more chocolate digestives in hand, I began to wonder. What if I could change the course of my life and write and read to my heart’s content?
I’m not really a Gryffindor (Ravenclaw, according to the tests), but I took a leaf out of Harry's book and decided to be impulsive for once. I took a risk on the books yet to be read and stories still to be told. After eleven years as a lawyer in London, I left it all behind to study an MA in Contemporary Literature at the University of York. I’m nearing the end of my MA and I have returned, once again, to the world of children's literature for my dissertation - this time to LGBT YA fiction. I also have two essays due to be published this year, which focus on my first love, Harry Potter. I work as a freelance writer, volunteer for several LGBT charities, I’m working on that tricky first novel and I commence my PhD at York in October. With an Alohomora, Harry Potter unlocked all kinds of unexpected doors for me. As I mentioned in my previous post on fanfiction, I’ve spoken about Harry Potter and fandom all over the world from London to Limerick to Las Vegas, and met a number of brilliant friends along the way. The books have given me much more than just a great read - they also led me to a whole community of smart, creative women that have made my life so much richer.
This is a well-worn story which I've told in many iterations in various posts, but on Harry Potter's birthday I felt the need to set it all out again and to reflect how much things have changed over the course of a year. I left my job almost exactly a year ago today and I don't have all of the answers. I sometimes look back on the stability of working in a highly demanding and challenging industry and the friends I have in London, who I frequently miss spending time with over that post-work glass of wine. I'm still trying to smooth out the cracks in the path I'm on, still cutting back the weeds and making my way forwards into a place which is largely unknown in terms of finding permanent work in the areas I have my eye on, like creative writing, pop culture journalism and academia, which are competitive and saturated with lots of talented people. The future isn't by any means certain, but when I pick up my books and get back to work, I feel that same buzz of excitement and possibility I experienced when I received acknowledgment of my place to study Children's Literature at Roehampton University. I am so grateful to not only the Harry Potter series, but also all those books I found during those days and the conferences I attended which provided me with an alternative path - with new possibilities. My current academic project is critically invested in futurity, in the utopian space of possibility which exists on the cusp of the present and the future. Reading and analysing stories of queer teen coming of age can be a nostalgic experience, but much like those stories, I identify with this idea of looking forward to the sunrise and the autonomy of driving my own success and redefining expectations of 'success' and 'happiness.'
These books also hold such a powerful message for the young reader. The YA fiction market is demonstrably more conscious of diverse voices and pushing forward conversations about identity, growing up and the issues which pertain to teens than any other sector. Much like children's literature, texts like comic books and graphic novels are often dismissed as less highbrow - the 'Peter Pan' space of the adults that don't want to grow up or children that will eventually move on to more worthy literary pursuits, but many of those texts introduce readers to complex political and economic structures, the idealism of fighting the good fight and an investment in changing the world which powerfully resonates with a galvinised youth. Children's literature is a space where genre fiction like sci-fi, fantasy and paranormal romances boom, offering shapeshifters, queer possibility, worlds free from the oppressive political and social constructs of the real world and magical places the reader can lose themselves within. They offer the young reader different possibilities and in the case of the darker works, they allow the young reader to experience loss, grief and the pain of adolescence in a safe way.
I firmly believe literature of this nature is as valuable and necessary to academia and the adult reader who picks up those texts for enjoyment as they are to the young reader discovering those worlds for the first time. With politics in a depressing state of flux and the move ever more towards oppressive, right-wing rhetoric, there's a lot to be said for consuming literature driven by young, diverse protagonists and reading about dystopian worlds, utopian possibility and those superheros, boy wizards and wonder women who use their voices to change the world. There's something very important about this literary space for the adult reader, in that it allows us to rediscover the idealism of youth and brings us out of our own heads into a world full of new possibilities.
To paraphrase Lewis again, when we become adults we can put away the childish fear of being considered childish. I’m unapologetic about my love for the Harry Potter series because it helped me rediscover my enjoyment of reading and opened up a whole new path. I’m rarely happier than when I find the kind of book that makes me want to pour over text and subtext until the pages are well-thumbed and now I can do just that and call it work. J. K. Rowling said “[w]e do not need magic to transform our world. We carry all of the power we need inside ourselves already” but perhaps, sometimes, we do need a bit of magic. Maybe we need the sort of magic that exists in books - the magic of stories which make us think creatively and feel passionately. We need it to help us realise that the power within ourselves has always been there, just like the books gathering dust on the shelves. Only now, we know how to use it.