'I wouldn't have grown up into the person I am without him'
Published on: 25 November 2013 Author: Katie Coyle
As we announce Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone as the nation's favourite children's book, author Katie Coyle tells us why it will always be her number one.
It begins on a June afternoon, the last day of the seventh grade. I've brought home a 'C' in science and an oppressive pre-teen malaise. Maybe it's a premonition of loneliness?
I don't understand it yet, but I'm growing apart from the girls who have always been my friends. The summer stretches ahead; I have so many hours to fill and no idea how to fill them. I'm twelve years old, and I don't yet have any idea as to who I am.
But there's a book on the dining room table. J K Rowling's Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone. My mom has heard it talked about and bought a copy. It isn't for me, not exactly, but I'm the one who picks it up first and reads the opening sentence ('Mr. and Mrs. Vernon Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say...') and I don't put it down until I've finished it late that night, bleary-eyed and sweaty-palmed, the rest of my family asleep.
After that, my life is different. I won't understand why for a long time, but things began to change. I begin to read and write more; I become louder, stranger, less afraid. I find my forever friends, the women and men I love fiercely, who love me fiercely in return. Meanwhile, I read every Harry Potter novel in its entirety within twenty-four hours of its release. At first, I age steadily alongside Harry—we're twelve and thirteen and fourteen together—but then the gaps between novels become bigger and I'm twenty years old when the series ends, an adult. I am an entirely different person than the one I was at twelve. This is, of course, a symptom of having grown up, but I can't help but believe that Harry had something to do with it as well, that I wouldn't have grown up into the person I am without him.
It can be easy to reduce the Harry Potter series to the bright, whimsical details that make it so accessible to children and so easy to adapt into films and theme parks. Much of the books read like a romp through Rowling's genius imagination—Bertie Bott's Every Flavor Beans and the silvery, magical protection of Patronuses; Hermione's Time-Turner and fast-paced Quidditch games; invisibility cloaks, butterbeer, boggarts, the enchanted ceiling of the Great Hall. As an American reader, I have to admit also to the lure of the British-ness of the books—there was always something about prefects and treacle tart and Madam Puddifoot's Tea Shop that felt as delightfully strange and impossible to me as the actual magic world of the books.
But none of this explains why I'd read each book until way past my bedtime, forcing myself to slow down as I approached the last fifty pages so I could savor every syllable. Or why I've spent so much time over the last fifteen years analyzing my favorite passages with everyone I know, until long after the eyes of my friends and my family and strangers on the bus go glassy with disinterest. It doesn't explain why to this day, nothing quite compares to Harry for me. I read voraciously, across all genres, trying each time to recapture that feeling I had when I read Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone, the sensation of two doors opening inside my head—one leading into the outside world, huge and new and endlessly interesting; the other leading inward to myself, whole reserves of memory and emotion and sensation that I did not yet know about or understand. I've loved many books in the years since I first read Harry Potter, but I've never again had that curious, enveloping feeling, the feeling that the book loves me back.
The truth is, Harry Potter is my religion. I know how that must sound to someone who doesn't love it the way I do—immature? Hyperbolic? Disturbingly unhinged from reality?—but I don't say it lightly. I suspect there are many people my age and younger who feel the same. Harry Potter endures because of the moral code at its core, the lessons it offers in how to become a better, braver, more empathetic person. Harry recognizes
injustice and fights it—sometimes clumsily, always rightly. He stands with Muggle-borns and house elves. He's always brave, even when it's easier to be cowardly. I often think of him nobly accepting what he imagines is imminent death in Goblet of Fire: 'He was going to die upright like his father, and he was going to die trying to defend himself, even if no defense was possible.' It is an agonizing depiction of living and dying with dignity, and the impact that scene had on me at fourteen was monumental.
Rowling's books taught me that it takes courage to find your tribe ('I think I can tell who the wrong sort are for myself, thanks'). Furthermore and most importantly, it was from Harry Potter that I began to understand that loving comes hand-in-hand with loss. If anyone has a reason to shut himself off from the world, to protect his own vulnerable heart, it is Harry, who loses just about every adult who ever cares from him. His grief, depicted increasingly well over the course of the series, is agonizing. But still Harry invites more and more people into his life, people he will love and could easily lose. The series helped me to understand this one, difficult, incontrovertible truth: everyone I have ever loved will die, and that is all the reason to love them just as hard as I can.
That is, after all, what Harry Potter would do. And I think I'll always look to him for guidance; I'll always love him and believe in him like he's an actual person. Because while of course I know he was just a story happening inside my head, why on earth should that mean he is not real?