I was 15 when Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone was released in 2001. A little older than the target audience of, presumably, the 11 and under crowd, but I definitely plant myself firmly in the Potter Generation. (Don’t believe me? My 30th birthday was Harry Potter themed, complete with floating candles that my husband painstakingly created out of empty toilet paper rolls and battery-powered tea lights.)
There was just something about the promotional buzz. I’d never heard of the books before, which is shocking considering that books about a magical school and secret wizard heritage would have been totally my jam, but from the very first time I saw the movie poster the ‘Coming Soon’ section of my local theatre, I knew it would be something special.
Which is probably why I begged my mother to spend an extra $10 at the grocery store to buy me the paperback of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, so that I could read the first book before the movie was released.
I’d never really been one for book series outside of Goosebumps. I hadn’t (and still haven’t) read The Chronicles of Narnia. I didn’t discover Tolkien until much, much later (and, shockingly, never made it through the full LotR trilogy of books). I never got into Anne of Green Gables and only finished Emily of New Moon because it seemed like I should.
Harry Potter was different, right from “Mr and Mrs Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive…” I fell headfirst into the world J.K. Rowling created with gleeful abandon. My younger brothers each received a book in the series after we all saw the movie together (Chamber of Secrets and Prisoner of Azkaban, respectively, which I borrowed and read as quickly as possible, with my younger brother receiving Goblet of Fire a little later and graciously allowing me to read it first) and, when I was finished, I’d just go back and start again.
(When Order of the Phoenix was released, I stayed up all night at my aunt’s house reading it and made myself sick with sleep deprivation because I had to know what happened.)
In the years that followed, I attended midnight releases for the books and the movies, went on my first movie date with my husband to Order of the Phoenix, collected house memorabilia (I was a self-identified Slytherin long before Pottermore’s sorting quiz confirmed what I already knew), and viewed the characters that populated the Wizarding World as my dear friends.
It’s hard not to tell myself it’s silly, because Harry and Ron and Hermione and Ginny and Luna and Neville are fictional characters and I feel like I should, but, I, like so many of my peers, lived their triumphs and defeats along with them. I knew their struggles and hoped for their success and, like Harry, Hogwarts was my escape too.
I wasn’t a happy teenager, though I’m not sure if most people in my life realized just how unhappy as I was. I buried it under a smile. I had good grades and ‘friends’ (though there was some teenage political goings on in the 10th grade that pushed me to make new ones), and was active in extracurricular activities, but underneath it all I was deeply unhappy. I didn’t take care of myself, I was really unhealthy, I didn’t speak up about my emotions (anger, if we’re being specific) because I didn’t think anyone would care or that there was anything that could be done about the things that made me angry, and I was, I’m certain now, suffering from the anxiety that I still battle daily.
However, when I was immersed in the Wizarding World via the books or the movies, none of my unhappiness, my anxiety, or my rage could touch me. I felt understood. Harry was angry and unhappy, like I was. Hermione loved to read, like I did. Ron felt unnoticed in a large family, the same as me. Neville shared my fear and shaking hands. Ginny suffered in silence, like I chose to. Luna didn’t fit in, the way I felt like I didn’t, despite having friends. Even Draco Malfoy had something to offer, hiding behind a mask of bravado. I did that too. I pretended to be a relatively happy, overachiever so that no one would know what was really going on.
I felt like these characters understood me better than the people who actually knew me. Like I said before, Hogwarts was my escape and my refuge. The Golden Trio’s adventures and their fight against Voldemort were my solace.
One of my favourite Dumbledore quotes is “Happiness can be found even in the darkest times if one only remembers to turn on the light.” Harry Potter was my light in the darkness and, for that, I’m more grateful to J.K. Rowling than I can ever express.
So, happy birthday, Harry Potter and thank you so very, very much.