Exclusives

All Was Well: On Growing Past Harry Potter

Photo by Sandra Mode on Unsplash

Cataloging my massive book collection meant taking every single book off the shelf, dusting the shelf, scanning every book individually, and rearranging the books on the bookcase, either in their original position or in a “better” one. I was on Day 3 of cataloging books in half-hour chunks, and I’d reached the two shelves I thought of as my “display shelves”: one containing all the books I own written by Tamora Pierce and one containing my books related to the Harry Potter series.

Both shelves hold books that changed my life. I smiled to myself as I took down my full set of the Circle of Magic quartet, considered adding The Will of the Empress to my To Be Read pile, and remembered I needed to complete my collection of the Protector of the Small quartet — a series that I can credit for a lot of the choices I made that led me to where I am and what I’m doing in my life now.

As I arranged and rearranged that shelf, I had that slightly warm feeling bookworms get when going through old and beloved books, which usually I interpret as a sign I should stop what I’m doing and reread whatever I’ve just picked up. Which was a desire I managed gracefully: I returned all of the books in their rightful places, organized between Pierce’s Emelan and Tortall universes, lovingly placed back in chronological order. (And I didn’t add anything to my already-massive TBR pile.)

Next, I braced myself to face the same nostalgic temptation as I worked through my Harry Potter shelf: all seven books in the series, the scripts for Cursed Child, multiple editions of Sorcerer’s Stone, and other books picked up to feed my appetite for Hogwarts that started at the Scholastic Book Fair in third grade.

But that sensation never came.

Even picking up the beaten-up copy of Sorcerer’s Stone I’ve read probably close to two hundred times. Even carefully brushing dust away from Goblet of Fire, which for a long time claimed the coveted title of “my favorite book.” Even when I picked up and stared at Deathly Hallows, a book I’ve read only once.

Instead of that warm I-have-to-read-this-now sensation, a new one filled my chest, like having a rock weighing me down. I’d had so much love for these books, for this series, and they’d carried me through so many aspects of a difficult life. And I felt nothing for them.

I slid each volume back on its shelf, just as neatly as the Tamora Pierce shelf beside it, and took a glance at the books that remained. A group of thick paperback volumes caught my eye from the most rapidly-filling bookcase in my apartment, and something finally clicked.

I didn’t feel like I needed to read Harry Potter anymore because I’ve outgrown the series. And that’s totally okay.

Having grown up alongside Harry and his friends, I’m in the very midst of the Harry Potter generation: Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone was released in the United States in September 1998, the year I started second grade, while The Deathly Hallows was published in July 2007, just weeks after my sixteenth birthday. The true conclusion of the franchise’s first run came with the premiere of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2 in 2011, just slightly over a year before I moved hundreds of miles away from my hometown and everyone I’d ever known. My childhood ended when I reached the final page of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows for the first and only time.

The situation frames me as the sort of person that this series would never leave, and for a long time, I thought these books would hold the top place in my heart forever. In my adopted city of Philadelphia, the annual Harry Potter Festival that takes place each year in the Chestnut Hill neighborhood has gained national attention. Many of the people I’ve met in Philadelphia are pretty involved with the festival, or with other Harry Potter-themed events; I’ve even helped organize a few of these events myself.

But I’ve been growing away from Harry Potter since I moved here in 2012. There are a lot of reasons, which mainly boil down to one simple fact: my needs have far outgrown what the Harry Potter series is able to provide.

In retrospect, it’s easy to see what it was about Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone that made eight-year-old me read it over and over again. I was a lonely kid; I wished I could be plucked out of my uneventful life and whisked away to grand adventures and enduring friendships, which were things I just didn’t have. One of my closest friends pointed out that lots of kids who read the series felt just the same way.

Recently, a college student asked me when in my life I’ve gone through the greatest change, and (as probably many people say) my answer was the five years after moving away from my hometown – an anniversary I celebrated just months ago. The situation was itself an almost Hogwarts-like experience: leaving my old world to start grad school and entering a new world with countless adventures waiting for me.

It was during grad school when my preferences in books began to shift away from adventurous young adult stories. “I just need – something else,” I tried to explain to friends. Over the years, it’s become more and more obvious that the Harry Potter series just isn’t equipped to address topics that trouble me as an adult. There was nothing in the series to help me when people talked down to me because of my gender; instead, I looked to Pierce’s Protector of the Small, which shows its protagonist facing the same exact condescension with grace, confidence, and the hard work that proves her critics wrong.

Harry Potter can’t address contemporary environmental and political concerns simply because that’s not what the book is about, and because Rowling is a British rather than American author. At the height of California’s droughts in 2015, my science fiction book club read Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower, which was life-changing in a lot of ways: while following a woman who’s building a religious cult, the book explores the racial tensions in the West Coast region of the US, and it also explores what a doomsday-level drought situation might look like. There are a lot of environmental science fiction and fantasy books that have affected how I see the world around me, most recently N.K. Jemisin’s award-winning Broken Earth trilogy. Starting with The Fifth Season, the trilogy explores how privileges and disregard for nature combine to make something hideous and catastrophic.

The Harry Potter series also can’t help me to explore one of the aspects of myself that I’ve struggled the most with as an adult: my own cultural identity. Because I’m mixed race, being an adult in some ways means coming to terms with the differences between how others see me and how I see myself. In some minds, I will always not belong. As much as that’s a difficult topic, it’s one that adult science fiction and fantasy explores in many ways. In Martha Wells’ Raksura books, for example, the protagonist didn’t doesn’t know his identity until other Raksura find him and bring him to live with them, and since he grew up in other cultures, he doesn’t quite know how to behave around them or what’s expected of him. While my life hasn’t turned out quite like that, his feeling of displacement and being an outsider is a sense I’ve known for much of my life, and reading an albeit more extreme version of what I’ve felt myself in the past is oddly comforting.

Another thing I’ve tried to learn more about and explore through reading is colonialism, which isn’t something I think Harry Potter would even be capable of addressing in a satisfactory way. As an adult, I’ve read as much as I could to examine not only how colonialism is developed through the attitude of the colonizers – which Ann Leckie’s Imperial Radch trilogy explores in fantastic depth – but also what the world might look like if colonialism had gone differently. Alternate histories have done a lot in that regard, with excellent titles like Nisi Shawl’s Everfair and Maurice Broaddus’ Buffalo Soldier exploring what the world might look like with less colonialism. Other titles, like S.B. Divya’s novella Runtime, look at what our future may look like if colonialism and racism progress unchecked. These books have come to mean a lot more to me in recent years than the ones I read when I was younger – because while Harry Potter was about battling against unsurmountable evil, these books explore casual everyday evils that very real people face even now.

While the Harry Potter series provided me with things I sought when I was younger, I found the things that Hogwarts gave me in my own life as I grew older: adventures, travel, and friendships that will last a lifetime. No book can be all things for all people, and that’s okay. The series has done all it can for me – and once I realized that, I looked at my shelf of freshly dusted Harry Potter hardcovers, remembering what those books carried me through, and concluded that all was well.