If someone had told me in 1998 that the slim little copy of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone appearing in bookstores was the beginning of a cross-cultural phenomenon, I may not have believed them. Today, I know I’m not alone in proclaiming it a classic in every sense of the word—I think it’s a series that likely won’t be matched in quality for decades to come, if ever. The Harry Potter series provides an epic tale that has captivated children and delighted adults, and the story of its creation is every bit as fascinating as the books themselves.
The author, J.K. Rowling, has one of the most astounding rags-to-riches stories in modern times. In 1990, while riding on a train back to London from Manchester, Joanne Rowling sat captivated by her own idea: a boy named Harry Potter who finds out he is a wizard. A longtime amateur writer, she worked on the series in between caring for her young daughter and grieving for her mother, who died at age 45 in 1990. Before the publication of her novel, she lived an extremely modest life and even received government welfare benefits; today, however, she is by some accounts richer than the Queen of England, all thanks to her creative drive and imagination.
The story of Harry Potter begins by introducing the young wizard, who is being raised by “Muggles,” Rowling’s term for non-wizards, and by recounting the terrible circumstances of his orphaning: his parents’ murder at the hands of the dark wizard Voldemort. Rowling brought this fantasy story to the classic genre of the English boarding-school novel, setting the series’ action within Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. The seven books, each corresponding to a single year during Harry’s education at Hogwarts, provide an epic-length take on all the issues kids experience while growing up, from the ecstatic rush (and crushing heartbreak) of teenage romance to the usual drudgeries of homework. After all, even wizards must write essays, though they are measured by the length of the scroll rather than the number of pages.
One of the things I love about the books is its huge cast of characters, perhaps the most memorable of whom is Hermione Granger, a young Muggleborn witch with a towering intellect and an indomitable spirit. As an adult reader of the series, I felt jealous that other girls would grow up with such a strong role model: a whip-smart and wonderfully loyal friend with relatable vulnerabilities and victories alike. I think that, out of all the characters in the series, from Dobby and Dumbledore to Harry Potter himself, Hermione may be the most important.
The Harry Potter series has gone on to a great deal of much-deserved success. Some critics have been lukewarm in their assessment of the series, but 500 million copies of the books have sold in 70 different languages. That’s certainly an astounding number of books for a series that Rowling had trouble selling to publishers before Bloomsbury stepped up. She has since gone on to pen novels for adults in addition to sharing her considerable Harry Potter-created wealth with those in need as a prominent philanthropist. Meanwhile, the success of the novel led to an equally successful film franchise that featured virtually all of the top actors in England and recently received an Outstanding British Contribution to Cinema Prize at the BAFTAs.