Twenty years ago, a bespeckled young boy captured the imaginations of readers young and old, becoming a cultural force that influenced the idealism of a generation.
Two decades ago, the first "Harry Potter" book was published in the U.S. The eventual seven-book series about the boy wizard became a cultural phenomenon, spawning films, a theme park and more. It was a genuine crossover hit, casting its spell over children and adults alike.
"Harry Potter" made children's literature a force to be reckoned with, according to Roberta Seelinger Trites, Distinguished Professor of English at Illinois State University. She is an unabashed fan of Harry Potter.
“I think it’s one of the most brilliant stories ever written," declared Trites. “It’s epic in length, it’s epic in its plot structure, it’s smart and it’s geared to multiple levels–to the child reader and to adults. And that’s a hard thing to pull off in that many books. The fact that J.K. Rowling has so many references to Greek and Roman mythology, and so many Latin phrases and words, it makes me think she probably hoped that she would have a duel audience.”
The character of Harry is easily relatable for readers, said Trites.
“He’s a very empathetic character. We can project ourselves onto him. He also is lonely, he’s abandoned. His parents have died and he’s treated terribly by his family. He’s Cinderella. And all of the sudden he finds out he’s rich and he finds out he has the whole community of people who love him and revere him. I think we all resonate with a tale of, 'My life is not going well, but now I’m successful.’ I think that’s a wonderful plot trajectory that we all like.”
Part of the appeal of the books lies in Rowling’s creation of an immersive world.
“Rowling did some brilliant work in blending genres. She took the school story, and she took the fantasy world that happens in another place. Her world creation is so intricate, and it creates wonderful marketing opportunities, when you want to buy Bertie Bott’s Flavored Beans and get a Butter Beer," she said.
But Harry Potter isn’t just entertainment for the generation that grew up with it, observed Trites.
“I believe the millennials are one of the most important, interesting and idealistic generations that we’ve ever experienced in this country. I believe that a good portion of their idealism comes from stories like 'Harry Potter.' Think of how many superhero stories have come out since 'Harry Potter,' with that good versus evil narrative arc. This is an idealistic generation and they are going to fight back.”
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