Last week I gave Harry Potter a hard time. This week, I’ll defend him (or at least his creator).
I first became aware of J.K. Rowling while working at the University Book Store in Seattle. It was a tough time, I had moved back to the States after being out of the country for six years. Seattle was great, but after living in London, Berlin, Phuket, and Sydney–it wasn’t all that exotic. Also, my non-fiction publisher who had paid the bills for the last six years, fell apart. I had to find some other way to earn a living, and desperately wanted to focus on fiction. Enter University Book Store, and a major pay cut. I remember waiting for the bus one night after work, thinking that I had gone from living all over the world and writing books to working in a glorified retail job. And… I was about to turn thirty! Where had things gone so wrong?
I got a lot of writing done, still have 600 pages of my stab at a thriller about domestic terrorism. That novel fell apart too, long before 9/11, which is a good thing as it never would work in today’s world where terrorism means something entirely different. With all that thriller stuff in the works, I had no time to read Harry Potter. It was also the time when the internet was starting to explode. There were wild predictions that the novel was dead, and it scared the crap out of me to be dedicating so much energy to an art form that would soon be swept away.
J.K. Rowling showed I had nothing to worry about. The first Harry Potter book had been out for a while and done better than expected, though still not yet reached the top of The New York Times bestseller list. The second book, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, was staggered. It was published in the US a full eleven months after the UK release. This was before many people had heard of Amazon, and it gave the U Book Store an opportunity. They ordered a bunch of the UK books, which were all sold at lightning speed, and put on hold. Part of my job was to staff the help desk, with the reserved books. A parade of kids came in with their parents to pick up these coveted books, ecstatic that they’d be amongst the first kids in the US to read the second Harry Potter. I always made a point of putting the book in the kid’s hands, not the parents. Their faces said it all. I doubt I’ve done anything since then that’s resulted in such spastic happiness. These kids loved just the sight of that book.
I knew then that despite all the proclamations of destruction, if kids could still get that excited about a book, the novel would be just fine. And of course, from there the series went on to take over the world, give a much needed booster shot to publishing, and to bring a caveat of respect to kid lit. Ten years later, the idea is being flouted again that the novel is in jeopardy with the rise of ebooks. No way. There will always be readers who love to conjure stories in their heads, and want nothing more than black text on white to do it.