Carlos Ruiz Zafón, The Shadow of the Wind
Few things leave a deeper mark on a reader than the first book that finds its way into his heart. Those first images, the echo of words we think we have left behind accompany us throughout our lives and sculpt a palace in our memory to which sooner or later no matter how many books we read, how many worlds we discover or how much we learn or forget – we will return.
It’s the year 2000, and I’ve just turned seven years old. I’m in Los Angeles with my very pregnant mother and her American boyfriend. We are meeting his family for the first time. I find their accents funny, but they give me lots of gifts, so I smile and nod and accept their countless hugs. Little did I know that one gift in particular from one Uncle Jerry would change my life forever.
We are in a bookstore. Uncle Jerry ruffles my hair and hands me a small, colourful paperback. “Here you go. All the kids are reading it these days.” I glance down at the cover, frowning. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, it reads. Sounds weird, I think, what kind of name is Harry Potter? I smile hesitantly at Uncle Jerry, “Thaaanks, this looks… interesting!” He walks away and I read the blurb. I’m not impressed. I put it in my bag and forget about it for months, until we return to Australia.
It’s probably obvious what happened next. Like so many others in my generation, I was hooked. I remember finding it a bit difficult to read at first, so my mother and I decided to read it out loud to each other, chapter by chapter, until I was old enough to get through the rest of the series by myself. It’s one of my fondest childhood memories, curling up in my little bed with Mum, her insisting on one chapter, then getting so into it herself, we often read until way past my bedtime (and hers).
My little brother was very ill when he was born, and he spent most of the first year of his life in hospital. I had always enjoyed reading, but it wasn’t until Harry Potter that I realised what reading could do for me: offer an escape. My mother ended up raising us by herself, juggling work and kids like Superwoman, but it put a strain on our relationship. I always wanted a little brother, but as soon as he came out, I wanted him to go right back in again. As he grew older, we fought a lot. We fought so much we brought our mother to tears, something which disturbs me to this day. But he irritated me beyond belief, and I was too young and unequipped to handle it. So I needed some relief.
I was a smart kid, and got through my schoolwork with relative ease. I made friends with the teachers, and had a small, close knit group of friends my own age, but that is where the positives ended. I was bullied relentlessly throughout school, for things that seem so trivial now: having red hair and freckles, being a teacher’s pet, being a tall girl, being unpopular. I wanted to change myself: I wanted to burn the freckles off my skin and tear out my hair, but I didn’t. Instead, I escaped.
Harry Potter changed my life for the better. It made me feel like I wasn’t alone. It gave me somewhere to go when I was feeling down. It provided a link between my mother and I that was so strong, we still reminisce about it today as best friends. I found so much joy in dressing up for the release of the next book, lining up for hours with my mum or my friends, and taking turns reading it with mum so we could come together and talk about it. I grew up with the characters in the books, and they were as real to me as anyone.
I wasn’t alone in this. I am part of the “Harry Potter Generation”, or the children who grew up alongside the characters while reading the series. As child psychologist Lisa Damour says, “The series is practically an encyclopedia of tweens’ and teenagers’ psychological development between ages 11 and 17” and even a “self-help book for teens”. The relatability of the main characters is often cited as one of the reasons for its success, and Damour goes on to point out that “Harry’s an outsider in some ways… It’s clear that he doesn’t rule the school; he’s not the super-popular kid”. The fact that an average kid with glasses, a frizzy-haired teacher’s pet, and a redhead from a poor family all ended up saving the world is part of what makes the books so charming and inspiring for young readers, myself included.
At the end of the day, I knew magic wasn’t really real, and that I wouldn’t get my Hogwarts letter at age eleven. Even so, the books held (and hold) an incredible magic for me. Thanks to Harry Potter, I am an avid fantasy reader to this day. Thanks to Harry Potter, I am a writer. I wouldn’t be the compassionate, curious, clever and confident Ravenclaw I am today without it, and for that, I can never thank J.K. Rowling (or Uncle Jerry) enough.
Next week, check back for the second part of this series that delves into the literature on escapism in general and my take on the concept as a whole.
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