I was a little late to the Harry Potter game. Though the books started coming out when I was a preteen — which would have been the perfect time to read them — I was devouring Lord of the Rings and Dune back then. And Harry Potter wasn’t high on the reading list at my school. Maybe the silliness of some religious groups deeming the witchcraft in Harry Potter a problem was what made it unknown in my circles, since I went to religious schools.
Whatever the case, I didn’t get into Harry Potter until I started watching the movies. And the movies that really caught my attention were Prisoner of Azkaban and Goblet of Fire, which came out when I was already well into my teens. I think what drew me to them were the teenage characters. It was easy to watch films about people who were just a little younger than me. I developed crushes on the actors who were actually my age, and daydreamed about life in a magical boarding school.
When I was in college, I decided to buckle down and read the Harry Potter books. I don’t really recall why. I don’t even remember exactly when I read them, but I float back to that experience like it was yesterday.
I read the entire series in a very short amount of time. I was at my mom’s house, which meant I probably read them all when I was on summer vacation from college one year. My typical reading time was after my family went to bed — they were the early birds, while back then I was the night owl — so I could sit in my plush rocking chair, a single lamp lit next to me while the rest of the house went quiet. At the time, going to college in London, I was used to a busier city life outside. But at my mom’s house in a quiet neighborhood in central California, nighttime meant silence and pitch blackness out the windows — except for the occasional frog croaking in the backyard.
That house had a fireplace, and so many nights my family would throw some logs in and let the fire burn while we watched TV at night. After they went to bed, being able to sit alone in the living room while the fire turned to embers, reading Harry Potter for hours in the near-dark, felt like the most private of times. There’s something magical about having a place to yourself like that. It feels a little bit like stolen time, and that’s how I felt reading Harry Potter.
What it’s really like to be a teenager
What amazed me most about the books was their depth of feeling. The movies are great fun, and Alfonso Cuarón’s Prisoner of Azkaban is a work of art to me. But the books dive so much deeper than the films can — you’re right there with Harry the whole time, practically in his head, feeling the beating of his heart over every little thing that happens to him. No matter how old you are, I’m sure these books have the ability to transport you back to the obsessions and insecurities of teenagehood.
Funnily enough, I don’t normally care for teenage stories. But that’s because most of what’s around are slick teen dramas on TV, featuring actors who are actually about 22 and romances that feel like they belong on a soap opera about adults.
Harry Potter is nothing like that. In some ways, it’s a more youthful, accurate reflection of what it’s like to be about 15 years old. At that time, your friends are everything. Studies take over your life, whether you want them to or not. You look up to adults in a special way, admiring them and wanting to know what their lives are like. And when you have a crush on someone, it’s all you can think about. A simple kiss on the lips is a big deal and can last you for years.
At the same time, Harry Potter is also more mature than a lot of other teen content out there, and that’s also more realistic to me. Harry is a boy with a lot riding on him — he’s famous for having survived an attack by the world’s most evil wizard, Voldemort, when he was just a baby — and so even though he has your typical teenage hang-ups, he also has added responsibilities. That can weigh on him, but it also pushes him onward. Though a teen, he’s perfectly capable of prioritizing the battle between good and evil, and he steps up to fight Voldemort despite how terrifying it must be to someone so young. He has to grow up fast, in that sense. And I think any readers, young or old, can understand that and support his decisions.
Writer J.K. Rowling has my everlasting admiration for that. For not dumbing things down. For respecting readers of all ages. For giving us a story that has genuine highs and lows, and not being afraid to show the dark side of life.
I once watched an A&E biography on Rowling, which included a lot of interviews with her. In the footage, she reveals — rather shyly, not letting the camera come too close — her piles of papers about the world of Harry Potter. She has biographies for every character, and notes on all kinds of little things that make the world feel real. She explains how she believes it’s important than the author knows absolutely everything about the world:
“It was five years from the train journey where I had the original idea to finishing the book. And during those five years, this massive material was generated, some of which will never find its way into the books… It’s just stuff I need to know… partly for my own pleasure, and partly because I like reading a book where I have a sense that the author knows everything. They might not be telling me everything, but you have that confidence that the author really knows everything.”
Maybe it’s that attention to detail, that involvement in every aspect of every character’s backstory, that makes the teenage experience ring so true in these books.
I have to admit that I didn’t enjoy high school much. I found my place when I was in college, but before that I was shy, awkward, and a little nerdy. Well, those are all still true! But what I really lacked back then was confidence. In Harry Potter, seeing offbeat, bookish teenagers like Hermione Granger and Luna Lovegood working together and finding their place can be really empowering if you’re still in that stage of life. And if you’re older, it takes you back in a good way.
Surprising characters of all kinds
Harry Potter‘s characters are a source of joy when you’re reading, because they are so diverse. The main trio is good old Harry, his goofy and sometimes insecure friend Ron Weasley, and the super smart Hermione Granger. She at one point uses a Time Turner to control time and fit in more hours in her day, so she can take more classes and have more time to study. That’s a girl after my own heart.
But beyond those three, you also have sweet, nerdy Neville Longbottom. The dreamy-eyed Luna Lovegood, who always seems to have one foot in some other world of her own imagination. Prankster twins Fred and George Weasley. The gentle giant of a professor, Hagrid, who often puts his foot in his mouth. Professor Snape, whose cruelty as a teacher can make him seem downright evil to the books’ young protagonists. And of course Albus Dumbledore, the endlessly wise headmaster of the school. That’s just a few.
Each of these characters goes through so many adventures over the course of the seven novels, you seem them in new lights that test who they are. Hagrid falls in love. You learn about Snape’s old flame and Dumbledore’s mission in life. And everyone has a chance to be heroic as they join in the fight against Voldemort, no matter how innocent or timid they at first appear.
No matter who you are, you’ll find a character in the series you can relate to. More than anything, I’d say the experience of Harry Potter is like hanging out with good friends. You want to spend that time with them, and you can’t wait to see what happens to them next.
A touching emotional world
What I loved most about these books is how real the emotional landscape feels. As a true testament to that, these books made me cry many times. When Harry loses a loved one, when he reminisces about his dead parents, when he learns the truth about a character he once mistrusted, and when he offers his own life to save the world — all of these are moments that made me just outright weep. It’s hard for fiction to do that. Action and adventure are easy, but to actually get the underlying emotions right requires not just skill, but real heart.
Maybe the most emotional part of the series for me was when Harry’s godfather passes away. I don’t want to give away any more information beyond that, in case you haven’t read or seen Harry Potter, but that moment really touched me. Because I’ve lost loved ones several times, including my dad, reading about Harry losing someone so close to him got to me quick. It brought back all of those real emotions I had when I grieved for those I lost. It was obvious that this is writing that comes from real heartbreak and loss, that knows that it feels like, and isn’t afraid to dig into those emotions again to express them on the page.
Rowling clearly loved these characters she created, and throughout the twists and turns of her story, she wanted to show what life is really like, through their journeys. Life doesn’t always have tidy endings or last-minute saves. Sometimes things go wrong, and people die unexpectedly. Sometimes your judgments are wrong and you have to learn humility. Sometimes you have to sacrifice something for the greater good. Sometimes you make mistakes, but they help shape who you become as much as anything else.
I have yet to read anything that more accurately reflects what it feels like to be alive, with all of its pains and triumphs. The fact that you’re feeling all of it through the heart of a teenager makes it even more raw, in a way. These are not jaded characters, and so you also have to go back to those very first times you were hurt or surprised or had to grieve, as you read. In that way, the books not only transport you to another realm, they also have the power to transport you to another emotional time your own life, if you’re open to it.
Living in the magical world of Harry Potter is the fun part, but the series is so much more than that. If you haven’t read the books, I highly recommend them. Steal some time for yourself, someplace quiet, and live in this world that, for all its magic and mystery, is also surprisingly real.