ABSTRACT: How has growing up with Harry Potter affected our generation? And how has JK Rowling succeded where others have failed in delivering her message to young readers?
I will preface this by saying that writing about target audiences is possibly one of the dullest things you can be asked to do as a student of literature. However, when that target audience is, well, us; now that puts a different spin on things. As fans, we continue to proclaim: 'we are the Harry Potter generation'. But what does that actually mean, and how has it affected us?
I was born in 1986, making me eleven years old when Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone was published in 1997 and assigned by my Year 7 English teacher to read for homework. It was a story I grasped tightly in both hands and clung to, at the same age as Harry and attending a drab comprehensive school in suburban England, the grandeur and magic of Hogwarts was thrilling. Of course, by the time Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows was released in 2007 we had deviated from the intended release of one book a year, but that wasn't enough for me to have lost the childlike excitement at twenty-one years old at being presented with the series' final chapter.
Helena Bonham Carter (who plays Bellatrix Lestrange in the film adaptations) once stated that "imperfection is underrated." Through the Harry Potter series we learn to embrace our failures as well as our successes as the characters take their time learning that they are not defined by their mistakes. Rowling does not set out to provide us with pretty and perfect role models; Harry is stubborn and refuses to ask for help, and he frequently takes his frustrations out on those closest to him. Hermione is a know-it-all and maddeningly superior. Ron suffers from an inferiority complex, nurtured first from five older brothers, then a best friend who frequently outshines him.
Even the infallible Dumbledore, by the final novel, falls from grace in Harry's eyes. In Deathly Hallows, the betrayal of trust from beyond the grave is markedly different from Dumbledore's conversation with Harry in Chapter 37 of Order of the Phoenix when he reveals all he knows about the connection between Harry and Voldemort. In the final novel Harry is forced to realise that his hero was human; extraordinary, but human nonetheless.
I would argue that Hermione Granger is one of the most important characters to have come out of the genre of children's and young adult literature. The characteristics that endear her to us are not those which are held in the highest regard by modern society; she is very intelligent, loyal and brave (as we would expect from a Griffindor), stubborn and superior. Hermione is not beautiful. When we meet her she has buck teeth and frizzy hair and she is teased by her female peers because of her looks.
Hermione succeeds where her peers fail in attracting the attentions of international Quidditch player Victor Krum in Goblet of Fire. And he asks her out, of all places, in the library. This is a point where young girls can rally around an imperfect heroine who succeeds where other girls fail - just by being herself.
Yet, this is the power held by literature that film making cannot touch. The reader grows to love Hermione because of those traits and because we only see her in our mind's eye, any imperfections in her physical appearance become insignificant. The incredibly beautiful Emma Watson, with all the acting ability in the world, never quite managed to capture the importance of this side of the character.
It is important to note that the male characters are not excluded from the sharp criticism of Rowling's pen. Ron is lanky, pale and freckled, with ginger hair and a long nose. Harry's hair is scruffy, he dresses in second hand clothes and he's short and skinny for his age.
Here is a point where I feel that comparisons to Stephenie Meyer's Twilight series are justified. To juxtapose the emphasis that Rowling and Meyer separately put on physical beauty seems almost pointless. Meyer's vampires are a version of perfection; beautiful, strong, fast, intelligent, owning supernatural powers of mind reading, controlling emotions and premonition. As Albus Dumbledore emphasises to Harry in Chapter 37 of Order of the Phoenix his "power that the Dark Lord knows not" is merely his ability to love. How is this important to us as readers? Well, both authors are writing for those who are at a critical point in developing a sense of self and identity. Rowling teaches us that the heart is more important than physical attributes and that your true friends don't care who you are or what you look like. The value of this lesson, told so subtly, should not be underestimated. I think it takes incredible bravery for a writer to make a heroine out of a girl like Hermione Granger; the bookish, nerdish, unpopular girls of the world rejoice in her.
In the words of Stephen King: "Harry Potter is about confronting fears, finding inner strength and doing what is right in the face of adversity. Twilight is about how important it is to have a boyfriend." This declaration, amusing as it is, highlights once again how unique Rowling was in creating a story which contains so many ancient allegories, without submitting to the shallow nature that dominates modern society.
It is my belief that in the Harry Potter series J K Rowling created something completely unique in her approach to storytelling. Philosopher's Stone was a story about self discovery and wonder, seen through the eyes of an eleven year old boy. It was undoubtedly aimed at eleven year old children, many of whom would be (at the age of eleven) starting a new school in the British schooling system. In Harry, they have a companion who has all of the same hopes and fears, the troubles of being on the cusp of childhood and adulthood and being in a new situation, although Harry has to cope with the added complexity of learning that he has magical powers. Harry is a character through whom an eleven year old can live vicariously, reading about Transfiguration and unicorns and Charms and spells.
By the time Harry is thirteen, readers are ready to learn more about the complexity of time, the consequences of one's actions, about bitter enmity that can last a lifetime and the destructive power of the past. Rowling pitches these problems at a thirteen year old character that a thirteen year old reader is now emotionally ready to cope with.
I'm sure my point is now becoming clear! The fourteen year old Harry has to cope with his newfound feelings towards Cho Chang, the fifth film was dubbed 'Harry Potter and the Raging Hormones' by critics and the sexual tension between Ron and Hermione reaches fever pitch in Half-Blood Prince. I have always wondered if Rowling's tongue in cheek, very British humour translated when read by people in the 67 other languages the series has been adapted into. It certainly becomes more explicit as the series progresses, as does the language in general.
Ron, who had never been scared of dropping an 'effing' every now and then, in Deathly Hallows proceeds to call Draco Malfoy a "two-faced bastard" (Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, UK edition p518) which was shocking, until he is thoroughly usurped by his own mother screaming "not my daughter, you bitch" (Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, UK edition p589) at Bellatrix Lestrange. Deathly Hallows deals with issues that are debatable in their suitability for younger children. The death of beloved characters; starting in only the fourth chapter with Hedwig, then Mad-eye Moody in the following chapter and by the end of the novel Rowling has wiped out a whole host of characters, lost to the war. It is, I believe, undoubtedly a book written for seventeen year olds.
But we weren't seventeen when we read it. We were twenty one. Was it too late to learn those lessons that Rowling intended to impart on us at seventeen? That heroes are not born, they are made, that friendships are the most powerful things in the whole world, that falling in love with someone over a number of years is more important and lasting than anything forged by moments of hormone fuelled lust. Maybe some of us might have done well hearing those messages four years earlier!
The other, enormous contributing factor to the phenomenon of Harry Potter is the internet. Enid Blyton didn't have it, neither did Roald Dahl or Judy Blume. Jacqueline Wilson had television, which took Tracy Beaker to a whole different audience. I almost feel reluctant to mention Mugglenet, and The Leaky Cauldron, since I'm writing this for the former. In the old days fan clubs were created by mail order - we got a badge and a newsletter twice a year! With the internet, though, suddenly Harry Potter fans had a place to converge and discuss everything from the significance of the book titles, the cover art, theories and themes. There was an underground rumbling that had nothing to do with the press, the publishers, or even the author herself. We created it, we were a part of it and no one other than us had any control over it.
The world had never seen the sort of response to midnight releases such as those that occurred for the last three books in the series. J K Rowling was credited with 'getting children reading again', a declaration which has always irked me personally. Nonetheless, it is without doubt that children who weren't avid readers attached themselves to the series with unbridled enthusiasm. It's a series that doesn't discriminate against gender (a male hero and female author were insignificant to the reader), age, race, religion (although that's a subject for a whole other essay) or nationality.
What does it mean to be part of the 'Harry Potter generation'? Surely it's something unique to each of us. Harry is more than just a character in a book or film. The Harry Potter Generation know the intense, clenching excitement of waiting for the next book to be released. We know what it feels like to keep reading through the night because we just can't put it down until it's finished. We scorn the failures of the films (but secretly go to the cinema to re-watch them three times). We know the power of friendship with people we've never met, but spend hours talking to online. Yes, we read fan fiction, not because there was anything missing from the series, but because the thought of letting it all go is just too painful.
As a child, I read all of the books my mother read when she was a child, passed down to her from her own mother's childhood collection. I can't help but feel sorry for my children, because Harry Potter won't be the same for them. When they finish one book, the next will already be on the shelf, waiting for them. It's that which separates us, which makes us unique.
The Harry Potter Generation, if nothing else, learned to be patient.