Harry Potter turns 20: The boy who changed books forever

JK Rowling’s series became an unprecedented force which still has an effect

harry potter the boy who lived

‘Harry Potter is a big part of a broader trend in which children’s culture became valued and valuable. Yet what it did for the books business alone is unique.’

Twenty years since Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone and you will find the impact of the books in so many places it’s hard to know where to begin. But let’s start with the booksellers. Not the shops. The people.

Wander into a bookshop, aim for the brightest corner of the shop and find the children’s bookseller. Chances are they’ll be a helpful, patient, enthusiastic, expert 20something. They’ll have an encyclopaedic knowledge of the books surrounding them, plus the ones on the way next week, and you will leave with three more books than you intended to buy.

And the likelihood is the bookseller will be a child of Harry Potter.

Sure, there have always been obsessive young readers – the sort who read and walk at the same time, their parents pulling them aside before they collide with a lamppost. But more often than not, these current booksellers’ love of stories was formed in the white hot years during which Harry Potter became an unprecedented force on a generation. And how those readers responded changed everything.

Dividing line

There is a before and an after with children’s books. Harry Potter is the dividing line. There was great children’s writing before Harry Potter, and fine film and TV adaptations too, but on the whole kids’ books stayed where they belonged, in its section away from the proper books, until kids read their way to the end of the shelf and moved on to what appealed to them among the “grown-up” books.

In some ways, Harry Potter came out of nowhere

You certainly didn’t see kids’ books in the hands of adults unless it was bedtime and their six-year-old wanted one more chapter before sleep. From Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone in 1997 up to 2007’s Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, that idea went out the window.

Through a series whose themes matured with its readership, young readers grew into adulthood alongside its characters (in print and, later, on film). It closed the chasm between young adults and (supposed) proper ones, until everyone could read children’s literature unapologetically.

harry potter first book

Children’s literature took off and has not yet stopped climbing. It now forms a quarter of the UK market, for instance, where it was 15 per cent in 2001. The preference for printed books made it a hold-out against digital, while the thickness of novels for young readers more than doubled in an age when attention spans were supposed to be shrinking. Now young readers have riches to pick from. Publishers compete for the riches in young readers.

In some ways, Harry Potter came out of nowhere. Whatever about Rowling’s famous early path – a single mother writing in a cafe while her daughter slept; the subsequent rejection letters – it took a couple of books into the series, and solid publicity graft, before things picked up. After which they continued to pick up. And kept going and going and show no signs whatsoever of stopping.

The amusement parks, the stage show, the movie franchises, the annual celebration night in bookshops, the various editions still holding a residency in the bestsellers lists, the massive boost to an entire industry. No one could ever have imagined this at the turn of the century. Harry Potter was meant to defeat Voldemort, but no one expected him to save reading.

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