Dear Ms. Rowling,
There’s a large part of me that feels more comfortable calling you Jo, because I’ve seen and read so many of your interviews, television programs, and articles – many referring to you as Jo – that I feel we’re almost on a first-name basis. That’s an important distinction, though, isn’t it — that *almost* part of things — because although you are, indeed, a household name here, uttered as often as beloved relatives and best friends, I am just one of bazillions of your fans, blending into a cacophony of Potterdome that must feel simultaneously wonderful and overwhelming.
Rest assured, I have no illusions that you will ever really read this letter (the fact that I will not actually send it to you doesn’t really help my cause, either). But that’s okay. I’m not writing to gain answers or guidance, but rather because I simply cannot go any further without formally stating these things, to you and to everyone.
Don’t worry. I’m not going to make any bizarre declarations. No need to tighten the security detail. It’s just – see, you’ve completely changed my daughter’s life – and, in so doing, have changed mine – and I kind of think that deserves recognition.
(Long recognition, in this case. Get comfy.)
Her name is Ella – Eleanor, if you’re feeling proper. Or British. She’s nine and in third grade and, until a year or so ago, didn’t particularly care for reading. It’s not that she wasn’t a proficient reader (she was), it’s that she didn’t like reading. Nothing grabbed her. My husband and I were somewhat flummoxed; Ella had access to hundreds of books at our house. We, her parents, love to read. We’ve read to her, we’ve read with her, we’ve read in front of her. Her younger sister has loved to curl up with a book since before she could recognize letters. But Ella? No.
Last spring, she become somewhat taken with The Boxcar Children series. While not terribly excellent literature, I was nevertheless thrilled, hoping that maybe this would be what unlocked her love of reading (because just not liking reading wasn’t really flying for me). It didn’t. Summer came and went, and although other children may see unstructured days as an opportunity to voraciously consume as many books as possible, Ella believed that No School meant No Reading Any Time Ever, and so very few pages were turned.
Thus, it came as quite a surprise this past fall when Ella declared that she wanted to begin reading Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. (I know, Philosopher’s Stone, originally; I also know where and when you wrote it, how long it took, all about your daughter, Jessica’s, first years, and… well, you catch my drift. See why “Jo” seemed appropriate?) At first, my husband and I balked – not because we thought she wouldn’t like it, but because we thought she was too young to really get it.
New Year’s Eve – last book, last page
He and I have been fans since the beginning. Those fully-grown adults who pre-ordered books (one for each of us, because no way in hell we could share) but then still went out at 7 a.m. to purchase a third copy, because waiting until the UPS carrier arrived was torture. The ones who explored Harry Potter message boards in the internet’s infancy, when dial-up modems buzzed and clicked us online, because we absolutely had to see what other people thought of Sirius at the Ministry. (Full disclosure: I’ve never actually posted in any of these forums, because that seems to be crossing some kind of Geekdom line that even I cannot condone, but I’ve read. For hours.)
We’re the ones who sobbed our way through the last two hundred pages of The Half-Blood Prince and whose book club’s Deathly Hallows discussion was the most well-attended in the history of the club, and the only one for which nearly everyone gave a perfect ten stars. We drank it up – every book, every word, every article we could get our hands on discussing plots and themes and spoiler alerts.
So, we got it, this Harry Potter thing. (Or so we thought.) We loved them. They were special – so special, we thought perhaps they deserved to be read when they could be wholly understood, when the subtle nuances and scores of impressive literary, historical, scientific, musical and artistic references could be fully appreciated. When Ella had lived a little more life, and could bring those life experiences to her reading. Perhaps she should wait.
But no, as anyone who’s read this blog or met us in real life this past year knows, Ella did not want to wait – not for the first book, at least – and so we reluctantly consented. And so it went, with some pauses (especially after The Goblet of Fire, when everything becomes so much more intense) as Nick and I determined whether or not to let her finish. (Nick’s my husband; since you’re on a first-name basis with me, I thought it only fair that you know him, too). It soon became apparent, however, that not only did Ella want to finish the series… she needed to finish the series. I summed it up this way in her birthday blog post:
“But we eventually came to understand that she needs to finish these books; no, I mean it, actually needs to. They are fully real to her, so authentic and true that she can smell them, and as with anything in real life, unfinished business is uncomfortable indeed. She will not fully exhale until she knows what happens, for better or for worse.”
And so she completed them – Nick and I actually joined her for the final chapter on New Year’s Eve, the perfect way of capping off the year – and we thought maybe, now, it was done, this Harry obsession. Ella knew the story, knew what happened, she could let it rest, let it go, relax.
Um, yeah. Not so much.
Written three days after she finished the series, when we’d told her to go back and reread if she was really missing it…
In fact, her love of All Things Harry Potter only grew stronger.
Like most American families with elementary school children, Frozen has taken over our lives — but, at our house, quietly beside it is Harry. It’s not flashy like “Let It Go” or “Do You Want to Build a Snowman,” but it’s there, a steady, constant companion. I am not exaggerating when I say that not one single day of our lives – since mid-September – has passed without a Harry reference, be it to the books themselves, the characters, the movies, the actors who portray the movie characters, the movie directors, or you yourself, Ms. Rowling.
There’s the general Potter-stuff mania, of course, largely fueled by us at Christmas and then further supported when we took the family to The Wizarding World of Harry Potter this past February. Our house is bursting with authentic wands, Gryffindor robes, time-turner necklaces, Deathly Hallows pendants, a Marauders Map, “Mischief Managed” wall adhesives, Harry Potter cookbooks, chocolate frog cards (and actual chocolate frogs, both the candies and the make-it-yourself candy molds), platform 9 3/4 earrings, Harry Lego games, “Hogwarts” and “Hagrid’s Hut” Lego sets, Harry-esque glasses, tomes dissecting Harry “from page to screen,” biographies on Dan and Emma and you (Rupert’s has been more difficult to come by), Bertie Botts Every Flavour Beans, Hedwig stuffed animals, golden snitch quizzing games, Nimbus 2000s, extendable ears, Gryffindor uniform ties, and numerous books of spells.
And that’s just stuff that’s been purchased (or given as gifts), which doesn’t begin to account for the other ways that Harry been woven into our family fabric. Entire sections of rooms have been dedicated to stories about Harry and the gang, drawings of the characters, and letters to directors. Nearly every game of dress-up and make-believe (that’s not devoted to Frozen) finds the girls on the grounds of Hogwarts. More hours than I care to admit have been devoted to scouring websites like Mugglenet and Pottermore and TheLeakyNews for information on everything from the new Gringotts expansion at Universal to what Robbie Coltrane likes to eat for breakfast. On Twitter, I now follow Emma Watson, Rupert Grint (Daniel Radcliffe remains Twitter-free), Matthew Lewis, Tom Felton, Evanna Lynch, Oliver and James Phelps, Warwick Davis, Devon Murray, Bonnie Wright, and – of course – you, even though I don’t actually Tweet, myself, all so that I can occasionally update Ella on what’s going on with the much-beloved actors who become so important to her.
Clearly, we have become completely Harry immersed, Harry obsessed…
But, believe it or not, not in a bad, unhealthy way.
I say “we” because this truly has become a family affair. Sure, Nick and I were kind of givens, but Annie (Ella’s little sister; again, I feel you might as well know us all by name) has not yet read the books… but I’m certain that she knows more obscure Harry-related trivia than many people who have completed the series, partly by osmosis, and partly because Ella thinks it’s The Best Game Ever to quiz Annie on All Things Harry until she gets the right answers.
From Annie’s – yes, ANNIE’S – “All About Me” book, written last week at school
So, there’s one way that you, Ms. Rowling, have changed Ella’s – and my – life: the characters and the worlds you created have now invaded the very fiber of our beings, with an entire Potter dialect running through half of our conversations, a house full of wizarding gear, and a compulsion to check in weekly and see how Neville’s transformation from geek to gorgeous is coming along.
“Something About Harry,” if you will, with bangers and mash instead of franks and beans.
But there’s so much more to it than just a fad, a passing fancy, the way that some kids become fascinated with an activity or a television show or a sport and suddenly every morning is filled with Minecraft updates and bedrooms are adorned with basketball pennants and posters of the cast of Family Ties (wait, that might just have been me…). The Harry Potter series changed the very way my girl approaches the world, the way she feels about herself, the way she interacts with others… everything. It changed her, forever.
Through reading your books, Ella has learned to be far more confident in herself, in exactly who she is. It used to be that she worried desperately – even in second grade – about what her friends thought. She would play games at recess that she didn’t care for because she didn’t want to stand out as different. Once she began the HP series, she began to care far less about what the other kids thought of her. The books were so absorbing, she read them at recess, and felt no stigma in being that kid alone on the bench. Once she finished the seventh book, she still continued to hold her own. All of the other kiddos wear sneakers to play, while Ella prefers white canvas slip-ons; a year ago, she might not have had the confidence to wear them but now does so proudly. I occasionally volunteer to help out during recess, and I’ve noticed that her playing habits have changed – sometimes, with a big group. Sometimes, with a few friends. Other times, all by herself, simply wandering. She is comfortable in her own skin, and while part of that may have come naturally as she’s gotten older, I can’t help but think that a large part of it is due to your books.
At recess, with a friend… and The Prisoner of Azkaban
They are her security blanket. They are real, so very, almost tangibly real, that they practically swallow her whole. Once inside, it is a place of warmth, of familiarity, of deep comfort – in her own words, “a world that makes me smile.” Whenever she is unhappy in the real world, the everyday – when things become overwhelming or confusing or just plain piss her off – all she has to do is close her eyes (or, even better, pick up a book if one’s immediately available to her) and she is wrapped in happiness and calm.
We all tend to call on positive memories when crappy things happen – or, heck, whenever we need a pick-me-up. (Personally, I revisit eating jerk pork in a little shack on the side of the road when Nick and I traveled to Jamaica a few years ago. Or the corn on the cob at the Minnesota state fair. Come to think of it, a lot of my best memories have to do with food… But I digress.) Ella has loads of happy real-life remembrances that she reminisces about – often – but if she wants instant, sheer, to-her-core joy, she will simply recall a Harry memory, and BAM! Bliss. Anywhere, any time, no matter the circumstances or how poor her mood, she can turn it around through Harry. It’s kind of… like… magic.
(Yeah. I said it. You didn’t think I could complete this without it, did you?)
The HP series showed Ella a world of possibilities, and I mean that both figuratively and more tangibly. Her imagination ran wild as she read the books, of course, creating pictures in her mind so that she could truly envision Harry’s adventures. But it’s continued long past the final page and has extended into very real areas of her life. Sure, some of her curiosities are related directly to the stories (“When Harry’s kids go to Hogwarts, do you think they’ll go to the Forbidden Forest like he did?”), while others take the stories and bring them into our real world (“Would you rather have an invisibility cloak or be able to apparate?”). Still more leave Harry behind all together, with Ella using her mind creatively in ways we had not seen before (“Do you suppose time travel will really be possible? Can I use the sewing machine to turn this shirt into a dress?”). Again, this may have happened organically, but I don’t think it’s a coincidence that her fantastical ideas took off after reading these books.
A little creative writing while on our Disney Cruise… and, yep. There it is.
I know that, for many, many kids, the Harry Potter series ignited their love of reading. The same was true for Eleanor… kind of. You see, she certainly loved to read these books; she truly could not spend enough time with them, with many a bedtime being delayed because she “needed” to read “just one more page.” The problem is, she doesn’t really want to read anything else, because nothing compares to those seven tomes. She loves reading YOUR books… but everyone else’s books? Sub-par.
Basically, Ms. Rowling, you ruined reading for her. Thanks ever so much.
Nick and I get it, we really do, because let’s be honest: nothing does compare to those seven tomes, does it? When Ella says that no other books will ever be as wonderful as the Harry Potter books, it’s very difficult to argue with her, because… well… she’s pretty much right. Not as a whole, anyway. The world of Harry Potter is so rich, so unbelievably well-developed, so deep and intricate, so thrilling and nuanced, so inspiring and clever, so tremendously well-written — not well-written for children’s books, but well-written, period, the way that all “good, quality literature” is well-written — that I have yet to find anything that tops it. And so when Ella laments that nothing will ever be better, I can’t help but tell her that she’s absolutely correct… which makes the whole reading thing a bit tough.
(There are, of course, still umpteen incredible books out there. Books that will capture her imagination as HP did, books that will inspire her, books that will whisk her away, books that will comfort and confound and enlighten her. Books that, individually, will mean as much to her, will be as good, as your seven. Worry not, she’s still reading [grudgingly], and although she has yet to find anything that comes close to Harry, she’s not given up.)
So, Ms. Rowling, your books truly did change my daughter’s world. She is more confident, more secure, more curious, more alive, and much, much more happy as a result of the Harry Potter series. And as for me (’cause remember how I said that they changed my life, too)? Well, see, when your books changed my kid, they changed how I approach her, how I interact with her. Through discussing the stories with her, I’ve learned so much more about her as a person. How would she have handled it if her team lost the Quidditch match? What does she see in the Mirror of Erised? Why does she love Luna so much? Her answers have been more honest and more raw than the vast majority of the rest of our conversations, and for that, I am endlessly grateful.
I’ve also had the privilege of seeing the books through her eyes, which has been an astonishing experience. By the time I met Harry, Ron, and Hermione, I was already an adult myself. It was fascinating to watch them grow, but I did so with an emotional distance – they were kids, and although I was extremely drawn in by the power of your storytelling, I never once imagined what it was like to BE eleven. Ella, on the other hand, is viewing the stories through the eyes of a child, almost as a peer. She doesn’t just envision the Gryffindor common room (as I did); she envisions herself IN the Gryffindor common room.
Perhaps this difference in perspective may seem inconsequential, or to be splitting hairs, but I can assure you that it is not. It has allowed Eleanor to submerse herself in the stories, in the characters, in ways that I never even considered… until she told me about it. By seeing the books from her vantage point, I gained a newer, deeper appreciation for the stories as a whole – it was like reading them anew (which, as a Potter fan, was AWESOME). But, more so, it’s helped me to see Ella’s entire world from her perspective just a little bit better, to hear her a little more clearly, to not brush off or disregard her opinions simply because she’s young and “overreacting” or silly or “doesn’t get it” the way an adult would. And that has been a marvelous gift, indeed.
As a parent, you’re always looking for ways to motivate your offspring, whether it’s to clean their rooms or to eat their vegetables to be their best selves. Some might call this bribery; I prefer persuasion. In any case, Harry has provided us with endless opportunities to persuade Ella to do any number of things. You want to re-read more of the first book? Sure; as soon as you’ve put away your clothes. I just read a tweet from Tom Felton – I’ll tell you what it says if you help me with the dishes! The next time you spit on your sister, I’m taking away all seven of those books. Forever.
In fact, this letter has been percolating for many months – since Ella completed the books on December 31st, actually – but I’m finally writing it now because, just this past weekend, Harry Potter motivated/persuaded/bribed my child into playing a piece far beyond her level for her piano recital. Ella has a lot of facility at the piano (I’m a piano teacher, so I can say these things with Great Authority), but no desire to practice (you’ll note that she approaches most things in life this way, from reading to music). Once she came upon the music for “Hedwig’s Theme,” however, all bets were off. Defying all precedents, she not only learned that song – she read the music and taught some of it to herself. Yeah, I’m more than a little sick of hearing those music-box-like twinkles, but I’ll never complain that Harry brought my girl to the piano.
Finally, simply put, sharing Harry Potter with my daughter has been ridiculously fun. It’s been such a trip watching squeal with delight as she learns that Emma Watson graduated from college or howl with frustration and sadness when one of her favorite characters met their demise. If I want an instant connection with her, all I have to do is ask her a Harry-related question, and her face fills with delight. She knows, too, that I adore the books as she does (okay, I’ll be honest here – she might actually enjoy them more than I do), and that knowledge has created a special bond between us that I couldn’t have engineered if I tried. Plain and simple, Ella’s enjoyment of Harry Potter makes me a happier person, and that is a beautiful thing.
“Reading this book feels like Christmas,” she told me.
How can that not make a mama happy??
This is not to say that it’s all been sunshine and unicorns. There are times when all of this Potter mania becomes juuuust a bit too much; where I’m ready to break the next wand that I trip over, where I can hardly even manage a smile when I’m making dinner and am suddenly bombarded with, “Mommy! Can you tell me the name of the woman who made Dumbledore’s costumes for the third movie? ‘CAUSE I CAN!!” There are days when I feel more than a little stalker-pervy for checking on the whereabouts of twenty-something actors, times when I’m just done with trying to convince Ella that, no, she may not re-read a chapter from The Goblet of Fire and count it as her homework.
But, really, the good outnumbers the bad so greatly, it’s not even a contest. And that might be the greatest thing that the Harry Potter series has changed about our lives: it has given us perpetual hope. I was hopeful, myself, when I originally read them – but, I’ll fully admit, as the years passed, I’ve grown more jaded and cynical. Rereading them with Ella showed her – and reminded me – that, in the end, love wins.
It’s such a simple concept, really… but it’s one that I believe down to my core. Does love win every battle, every skirmish? Of course not. There are days, weeks – hell, entire eras – where love does not prevail. But, in the end, I believe that it will, and that if we continue to have hope, to have courage, to be true friends, to look for the good, to fight for the good, that we will find it.
These are not just words, either, but almost a mantra. We have seen many tragedies, some on a small scale and some enormously large, and Ella and Annie have – understandably – been scared, worried, unconvinced that things will turn out all right. Since Ella began your books back in September, on more than one occasion, I have found myself summoning the phrase, “Don’t worry – it will all be okay. Because love wins. Remember that. Love wins.” And then we are okay.
You can’t get much more life-changing than that.
And so… in summary…
Thank you, Ms. Rowling. Thank you for your stories. Thank you for your characters. Thank you for creating a world beyond anything we ever could have imagined on our own. Thank you for helping us to create our own memories. Thank you for bringing us closer together. Thank you for making us laugh (and cry; OH MY GOD, WE HAVE CRIED SO MUCH OVER THESE BOOKS). Thank you for making us deliriously happy. Thank you for giving us hope. Thank you for all of it.
Annie is still too young to read the books on her own, but in another year or two, I know she’ll be ready; I absolutely cannot wait to go down this road again, and to see the story – and the world – with her and through her. In the meantime, summer is coming, which means that Ella will no longer need to slog twenty minutes of “approved” reading every weekday afternoon… which means that she can read whatever she wants – even things that she might already have read.
Unlike last summer, I don’t think that she’ll have any trouble finding a book (or seven) to keep her occupied.
I hope that your summer is similarly joy-filled, that you’re able to sneak into the new Universal park if you and your family so desire (you can probably just tell them to open it up for you guys, right? Totally private tour and all?), and that your work on the “not-prequal” movie is coming along swimmingly.
With best wishes (and immense gratitude),