I CAME to the Harry Potter phenomenon a little bit later than everyone else. I was twelve when the first book, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone was released and considered myself far too grown up for such juvenilia. I couldn’t understand why so many of my friends were obsessed with the books, and I was even more bewildered when, at the age of 22, they queued up at midnight to buy the final book in the series. A week later, sick of hearing me mock her, one of my best friends bought me a copy of The Philosopher’s Stone.
“Just read it,” she said. “Just give it a chance.” Three hours later, I turned up at her house, wild-eyed and desperate, begging her for the next six books.
I spent the following ten days holed up in my bedroom, tearing through the through the entire series, ignoring phone calls and text messages from friends, barely looking up from the text to eat dinner. Then, turning over the last page of Harry Potter and The Deathly Hallows, I cried. I cried because JK Rowling had created a world that felt so real to me, characters that I had begun to think of as friends. I cried because there was nothing more to read but also because the books had unlocked something within me.
I want to write too, I realised. I want to write something, anything, that could touch people in this way.
I’m not the only author who tells a story such as this one about their love of JK Rowling and the Harry Potter series. Her books have taken their rightful place in the canon of classic children’s literature and will, no doubt, continue to be read and enjoyed by our children and our children’s children. Yet beyond the success of the books – sales of over 400 million copies worldwide, the best selling book series in history, the basis for the second highest grossing movie series of all time – there is something about JK Rowling, the woman herself, that has led to her being pronounced as a legend for our time. There was little in Rowling’s early life to suggest that she would become, as Forbes magazine reported in 2004, the first person to become a billionaire by writing novels.
Born in Gloucestershire on the 31st of July, 1965, she was a quick, imaginative child who wrote fantasy stories to regale her younger sister with, but wasn’t singled out for particular attention by her teachers. Her English teacher remembers her as “not exceptional” but “one of girls who was bright and quite good at English.” This was reiterated by a professor at Exeter university, who described her as a “quietly competent student....who, in academic terms, gave the appearance of doing what was necessary.”
Spending the years after university travelling and teaching English as a foreign language, Rowling returned to Edinburgh in 1993, with her baby daughter in tow, and three chapters of Harry Potter in her suitcase. The book was published in 1997 and within five years, Rowling was a multi-millionaire. She has since published a book for adults under her own name and two crime novels under the pseudonym Robert Galbraith.
Her story, however glittering it may seem to those on the outside, has not been without its difficulties. She was left devastated when her beloved mother, Anne, died of complications caused by multiple sclerosis in 1990, and her relationship with her father became so strained that the two are no longer on speaking terms. Her first marriage, to a Portuguese journalist she met in Porto, fell apart within a year amid suggestions of domestic abuse, with Rowling being forced to obtain a restraining order against him.
Diagnosed with clinical depression and unable to work, Rowling signed up for welfare benefits in Scotland and has since described herself as being as “poor as it is possible to be in modern Britain without being homeless.”
Despite her ever increasing wealth, it became clear that Rowling had not, or could not, forget this time in which she had struggled so greatly. The incredibly moving commencement speech she gave to Harvard University students in 2008, which was so popular that it has since been turned into a book called Very Good Lives, dealt with the issue of failure as she told the students that they “might never fail on the scale I did, but some failure in life is inevitable. It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all – in which case, you fail by default.”
Her charitable donations have also reflected these early struggles, and have been so vast that in 2012 Forbes removed her from their list of billionaires. In honour of her mother, she donated a huge sum of money to help fund the creation of a Centre for Regenerative Medicine at Edinburgh University. In 2000, she became president of the charity Gingerbread, which works to support single parents and in 2005 she founded the charity Lumos, which works to “transform the lives of up to eight million disadvantaged children who live in institutions and so-called orphanages around the world.” She has also used her influence to start conversations about issues that are important to her. The aggressive invasion of her privacy by the press led to her being named a “core participant” in the Leveson Inquiry, and she has spoken out on gay rights, feminism, and Scottish nationalism.
Her five million followers on Twitter delight in her sharp, witty comebacks to abuse she has encountered on social media, telling one user (who called her a “disgusting slimy Labour c**t”) that “the Internet doesn’t just offer opportunities for misogynistic abuse, you know. Penis enlargers can also be bought discreetly.” There are many who disparage authors who write for children, wondering if they will ever write ‘proper’ books for adults. Yet the books we read as children are often the blueprint for our future lives.
Studies show that children who read are more empathetic and creative, and a recent study in an Italian university discovered that the test groups of children who read Harry Potter were more likely to question prejudiced beliefs about immigrants and other minority groups than the children who had not read the books. JK Rowling, with her books about a orphaned wizard and his fight to maintain his sense of self in the face of incredible evil, is literally helping to make children more compassionate and considerate of those around them. Can there be any greater reward as an author? Happy Birthday, JKR. May your next 50 years be just as interesting as the last.