1997: The Year of Harry Potter
It’s 20 years since JK Rowling’s first novel went on sale, and the Harry Potter stories continue to cast their spell on children and adults alike. The series of seven books has sold more than 450 million copies and they’ve been translated into 79 languages.
On June 26 1997, a modest 500 hardback copies of a children’s book were published by Bloomsbury, 300 of them destined for libraries. The book, by an unknown author called Joanne Rowling, was aimed at 9 to 11-year-olds and told the story of an 11-year-old bespectacled boy who didn’t know he was a wizard. His name was Harry Potter.
Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone – the story of Harry’s first year at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry – was an immediate hit and remained a UK best-seller for the next four years. And soon the adventures of Harry and his friends, Hermione and Ron, were enthralling young fans all over the world. In an age where PlayStations and computer games were the big draw, JK Rowling had succeeded in convincing the young tech-savvy generation of the joy to be found in a good book.
Each new novel was a major event: millions of advance sales were racked up as children eagerly awaited the next instalment of life at Hogwarts. A series of films brought the story to an even wider audience. And now, 20 years later, it is a multi-million pound franchise, with theme-park attractions around the world, a West End play and a spin-off film, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them.
So what is so special about Harry Potter? Much of it comes down to good old-fashioned storytelling and a mixture of elements that offered something for everyone: part boarding school adventure, part fantasy, part gothic horror.
Children reading the series grew up along with Harry. Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone is fairly gentle, but later books grew increasingly darker, as Harry grapples with more complex challenges of teenage life and matures from child to young adult. Unusually, the books also appealed equally to boys and girls, partly due to the character of Hermione, teased for being a swot and sometimes exasperated by the boys – but always proved to be right in the end.
Many teachers fell for Harry, too. A survey in 2005 revealed that one third of them thought Harry Potter books to be a more valuable educational resource than the government’s National Literacy Strategy. The books weren’t without their critics, however. Some parents worried the series promoted witchcraft and refused to let their children read them. Others complained they were simply too scary or too difficult (the vocabulary certainly stretches many children). But whether they had to be read with adult help or required much use of a dictionary (which is perhaps no bad thing), there’s no doubt that the children who grew up reading Harry Potter were privy to a rich and imaginative world, and they learnt some valuable life lessons.
Harry Potter taught the importance of friends sticking together and of accepting people who are different. He taught readers that brave people stand up for what’s right, that love is stronger than evil – and that reading might be more exciting than they thought.
Did you know?
One of the first 500 copies of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone fetched £25,000 at auction in 2015.
A Date for the Diary
The British Library in London is hosting an exhibition to mark the book’s 20th anniversary. It is set to run from 20 October 2017 to 28 February 2018.
Photos: Alamy, Rex