The first time someone asked me if I had a copy Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone by J.K. Rowling, I had no idea what she was talking about. It was early 1999, and I was in my last year of high school, working as a bookseller at a chain bookstore in the mall. I’m the kind of book nerd that inhales the smell of musty paperbacks when no one’s looking, so this was my dream job; I got to spend my time talking about books with other people who love books and I got paid to do it. Now, in 2018, it feels absurd that I didn’t know the book—Harry Potter is so firmly embedded in our collective consciousness that it feels like it’s always been there, but the memory of that first customer request is a good reminder that sometimes even the biggest cultural giants can sneak up on you.
This year marks the 20-year anniversary of the North American release of the very first Harry Potter book. UK readers got Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone first, in June of 1997. The American release was a little over one year later, in September of 1998. Canada got it in December of that same year. And since that first customer request shortly after the Canadian release, the Harry Potter series has become an inextricable part of my life as a former bookseller, a reader, a parent, and now, a middle grade author.
I didn’t read it right away. A couple of days after that first customer request, there was another. Then a few more. Soon, it got to the point where every third customer had the same question: “Do you have Harry Potter?” And if I’m brutally honest with myself—it didn’t take long before I was sick of answering the question. I was a cynical teen steeped in the work of Anthony Burgess and Margaret Atwood after all. A book about a kid who gets invited to a school for wizards? I couldn’t imagine why so many people wanted to read it, and I chalked it up to an empty fad.
Until a year or so later, when my mother, a high school librarian, left a copy of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone lying on the kitchen table. I was out of books to read so, somewhat reluctantly, I picked it up and asked her if it really was as good as everyone said it was. She said she liked it, and thought I would too. So, at the marginally wiser and less cynical age of 18, I read Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone.
Once I started, I couldn’t put it down; Rowling’s evocative storytelling, relatable characters, and easy-to-hate villains captured me by page 15. A few days after finishing The Philosopher’s Stone, my mother brought home Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. I tore through it within two days. That Christmas, she gave me a boxed set that included Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban.
By now, I was in university, working on a major in English and a minor in Political studies. It was that year that I noticed Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone on the reading list for one of the school’s Children’s Literature courses. Looking back at that moment now, it feels significant. I think that was the moment I realized that, as much as I had come to love the books, they had grown into something far bigger than a fad.
That first inkling was re-enforced a couple of years later, while I was working at Woozles Children’s Bookstore in Halifax. Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince was coming out, and the special orders were pouring in. I’d been working in bookstores for a few years by then, but I’d never seen that kind of mass excitement over a book before. After months of collecting special orders, the books finally arrived, in a box that screamed, in large black text, that it was not to be opened until the release date. By then, bookstores were even required to sign a legal document stating that the books would be kept out of site in a back room until publication day.
The lineups on publication day were something to remember. My co-workers and I spent the day scrambling to keep up with the frenzied excitement, scanning the overflowing special order shelves for the right names and ringing the books in as fast as we could before moving on to the next customer. No one hung around for long after getting their copy—kids and adults alike were too excited to start reading to chat.
As a bookseller, I found two things particularly interesting when it came to Harry Potter books—and both had to do with the ages of the people reading them. It was the first time I’d seen adults openly and enthusiastically reading a kid’s book, but for me, the best part was seeing kids as young as seven cradling 600-page books.
Now, it’s almost 20 years after that first customer request, and I have two kids of my own. My oldest has used a wand to (accidentally and hilariously) spray an unsuspecting passerby with water from a fountain at The Wizarding World of Harry Potter, taken his friends to see Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them for his 10th birthday, and gleefully snapped up the last copy of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. And my youngest? I’m about to relive that first Hogwarts adventure all over again—and this time, I can’t wait.