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Reading Harry Potter to my kid showed me the lasting power of J.K. Rowling’s universe

The fantasy series, published 20 years ago, is just as relevant today as it ever was.

Harry Potter books at the Clean Well-Lighted Place For Books in 2004 in San Francisco, California.
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

My 7-year-old daughter went to Hogwarts a few weeks ago. Not, of course, the fictional school for witches and wizards located in some remote corner of Scotland. Not even one of the dedicated theme parks found in Florida, California, and Japan. Her Hogwarts was just down the street from her house, in the basement of a church hosting a week-long Harry Potter-themed theater camp.

The week culminated in the staging of an original play set in the world of Harry Potter, created and acted by campers ages 7 to 12. It was hard to miss the animating spirit of the play: These kids, given a spectrum of more recent fan choices ranging from Hamilton to superhero-themed camps, chose to step into the Harry Potter universe for a week.

Some worlds are built to last, others destined to recede when one generation grows out of them, and only time can sort one from the other. In 1977, even those who recognized Star Wars as a film that would reshape Hollywood couldn’t have expected it to endure as it has, that 2018 kids would connect as strongly with it as those who first saw it more than 40 years before.

The Harry Potter book series ended in 2007, and the film series ended in 2011. Along the way, Harry Potter became a touchstone for a generation that grew up attending midnight book parties with the release of each new installment, the characters of J.K. Rowling’s universe coming of age with a core group of readers who mirrored Harry’s age as each consecutive book was released. The degree to which Harry Potter has become the go-to reference for millennials to understand the world around them has become a subject of parody, but even this is a testament to the series’ stature.

But will Harry Potter be embraced by future generations who grew up after its initial popularity, especially now that its first generation of fans have begun to have kids of their own? Is Harry Potter destined to be like the Beatles, an enduring passion handed affectionately from one generation to the next, or an Engelbert Humperdinck?

My guess is that the series will ultimately last. Part of it is its full saturation into our culture, whether through spinoff movies and books, theme parks, or a whole generation of fans turned parents who are raising their kids on Harry Potter. But I suspect that 20 years later, Harry Potter’s enduring appeal still lies in its ability to capture, with each consecutive novel, the feeling of growing up in an increasingly morally complex universe.

A whole generation of fans turned parents are reading Harry Potter to their kids

Sequels, merchandising, and endless promotion certainly don’t hurt Harry Potter’s popularity — the films are still in constant TV rerun rotation, and a follow-up film series (Fantastic Beasts) and book reissues have all kept the world alive. But the many young adult fantasy franchises born out of the success of the series have failed to reproduce Harry Potter’s magic, proving that no amount of marketing savvy can force a phenomenon that doesn’t want to happen. Eragon, Vampire Academy, and Alex Rider all have their fan bases, but Harry Potter continues to operate in another league.

Nor, maybe most crucially of all, can these Potter-inspired series buy parental enthusiasm. I was 25 when Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone first appeared on American shelves, and, like most adults, I didn’t pay much attention at first. I didn’t read that book until a few years later as a bit of due diligence before seeing the film.

I was surprised to find that the books absolutely hooked me. They reminded me of the fantasy stories I’d loved as a kid, which I later learned was deliberate: Rowling drew freely from Tolkien, Lewis, Le Guin, and many other fantasy writers. But Harry Potter also offered a fresh take on those stories, tethering the magical world more closely to our own. When the final book came out in 2007, my wife and I spent a good chunk of a vacation in a hotel room because we couldn’t imagine venturing outside without first finishing it.

When we became parents, making Harry Potter a part of our daughter’s childhood was less a question of “if” than “when.” As it turned out, we didn’t have to push at all. By around age 6, many of her friends were already fans, either from watching the films, buying the merchandise, or having the series read to them by their megafan parents. When we began reading The Sorcerer’s Stone at bedtime, she was hooked immediately, enthusiastically asking for “one more paragraph!” at the end of each nighttime session.

More than a year later, we’re now deep into the fifth book with no signs of her enthusiasm waning. It helps that Rowling seems to have designed the series as one for kids to grow up alongside. While acknowledging Harry’s tragic backstory, the first entries place the emphasis on magic, monsters, and confrontations between the obviously good and the unmistakably evil. But as Harry gets older, he begins to recognize the world’s complexity, and the Harry Potter books increasingly become tales of conflicting loyalties, loss, corruption, bad fates befalling good people, and disappointment.

The series is ultimately less a story of good vanquishing evil — though, of course, that’s part of it — than of growing older and holding on to hope in the face of despair.

At its core, Harry Potter is a series about growing up

Collectively, Rowling’s books are one of those works of art that provide a glimpse at the world beyond childhood, raising some difficult questions in the process that didn’t necessarily occur to us when reading the books on our own. We dragged our feet as we neared the end of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, knowing we’d have to talk about poor Cedric Diggory’s death. We’ve been taking breaks for other books between volumes; our post-Goblet break included Charlotte’s Web, figuring we may as well get some more questions about mortality out of the way as long as we’d touched on the subject.

The books have also turned into a conversational go-to, a shared interest that’s become part of the fabric binding our family together. When our daughter gets frustrated as my wife and I natter on about boring grown-up topics, she’s taken to interrupting us by asking, “Want to talk about Harry Potter?” It’s a not-so-subtle attempt to steer us in a more kid-friendly direction, so we try to turn our adult problems into teachable moments by asking how she feels about developments in the story, the choices various characters make, and the consequences of those choices.

Though sometimes we just end up updating her constantly shifting list of her favorite characters, talking about Harry Potter can lead to topics we need to talk about anyway. For a children’s series with faux-Latin spells and flying broomsticks, it paints a world of surprising consequence, where the easy choice is rarely the right choice and the right choice isn’t always easy to discern. As the books reach their conclusion, the protagonists slowly reach one of the most heartbreaking realizations of getting older: that our elders are flawed and fallible and ultimately won’t save us, that we have no choice but to save ourselves.

Will my daughter and other fans of her age end up passing on their love to the next generation? Who’s to say? But while my evidence that it’s found a place in this generation may be anecdotal, it’s strong, and it’s reinforced every night, one plea for one more paragraph at a time.

Keith Phipps is a freelance writer specializing in film, television, and other elements of pop culture, whose work can also be found in Rolling Stone, Vulture, the Ringer, The Verge, Slate, and other publications. He previously served as an editor at the Dissolve, the A.V. Club, and Uproxx. Keith lives in Chicago with his wife and daughter.

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