Sunday, July 24, 2011

Farewell to Butterbeer

It's been a good run.

J.K. Rowling's first book, Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone, was published in Britain in 1997. Fourteen years later sales of her seven book series stand at over 450 million. One has to wonder how the first twelve publishing houses that Rowling approached with her book are feeling. I suspect a bit like the "reject" label they put on her manuscript.

Our family remained Muggles for quite some time. My theory had been that there were already more great children's books than we had time to read, so why bother to expand the list. Plus I hate jumping on bandwagons. Then one day Rebekah told me that they were going to grow up culturally illiterate if they didn't become familiar with the story. It was a great line, and successful too.

In the interests of being culturally literate I got the first book and we started reading it aloud. Reading aloud was the hallmark activity of our family, and we had some rules that were meant to be followed.

1. It was absolutely forbidden to sneak the book and read ahead.

2. It was also forbidden to laugh at me if I got choked up over a scene and started crying.

Rule number 1 was followed religiously. Rule number 2 was blatantly ignored. We kept right on reading right through Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. All for the sake of being culturally literate of course.

I should point out that by the time the final book came out Rebekah and David were both attending university here in Kamloops, but that didn't stop us from reading the book together. We had started them together and we intended to finish them together. Sadly, in the end life got in the way and we each finished the final chapters of the book on our own. It made me realize that half of the enjoyment of reading Harry Potter had come from the howls of protest when I would close the book and say that was enough, the tension that gripped everyone as I read through a scary bit, or the speculation as to what was going to happen next.

The Harry Potter books are a lot like asparagus and cilantro. People ether seem to love them or hate them. Some people felt they were classics in the making, and credited them with getting otherwise reluctant readers engaged with the written word. Others felt they were basically the spawn of the devil and were leading a generation of youth into the occult. On a forum I used to frequent simply putting the initials HP into the subject line was guaranteed to start an argument that could continue for hundreds of comments. The fights would only stop when the moderator stepped in and closed the thread. Just like magic, a few days later another thread would start and the whole thing would take off again.

I find J.K. Rowling's story almost as good as the books she has written. I am fascinated by how the whole story line came to her in four hours on a delayed train trip between Manchester and London. She didn't have a pen to scribble down her ideas, so simply sat and pondered Harry. She said she thinks the story might not have come together the same way if she had interrupted her thoughts by stopping to write them down.

I also find it interesting that she ignores one of the hallmark rules of good writing and makes it work. Here is a blurb from Stephen King's excellent book On Writing.

"I insist that you use the adverb in dialogue attribution only in the rarest and most special occasions...and not even then if you can avoid it."

Here are a few examples of what Stephen King is talking about, taken from Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone.

"I want to read it," said Harry furiously, "as it's mine."

"Oh, this is Crabbe and this is Goyle," said the pale boy carelessly, noticing where Harry was looking.

"Typical," said Harry darkly. "Just what I always wanted. To make a fool of myself on a broomstick in front of Malfoy."

How well does she succeed at this rule breaking? Aside from selling 450 million books, that is. Adverb hating Stephen King himself is quoted as saying J.K. Rowling is a great writer, and he lists her books in the back of his On Writing book as some of the best he has read. High praise indeed!

So does the release of the final Harry Potter movie signal the end of an era? In some ways yes. The hype over an upcoming book or movie is now a thing of the past. But there will never stop being new readers who discover the series, and my guess would be that the Harry Potter books will remain popular for many years to come.

Plus there is the new Pottermore site coming in October, where readers are going to get an "exciting online experience around the reading of the Harry Potter books." It is also reported that this fall the books will be coming out in e-reader format. Maybe there is another round of Butterbeer coming after all.


  1. One of the things I've enjoyed most about the Harry Potter books is that the characters grow up and change. So many of the series for children do not have that--the characters are always the same, they never grow or change.

    Yes, it meant that the series would have to end, but really, I like that. It drives me nuts when there are 30+ books in a series for kids.

  2. I am one of the few who have not read the Harry Potter series or watched the movies. I have to confess I started the first book once but decided it wasn't my kind of book. Perhaps prematurely. With so many good books to read and only so much time, well, I'm not sure I want to start them now. I guess I'm a cultural illiterate. ;)

  3. Love HP have read each of the books at least twice and also love cilantro and asparagus (especially raw chopped in a salad).

  4. We have greatly enjoyed the series here. I consider her a great story-teller, in the line of adult story-tellers such as Grisham and Clance. Do I consider the series a children's classic? Not really, but it will always be immensely popular and for good reason. Her writing is too detailed and over-the-top at times for me, but the stories and her thoroughness in following them through amaze me.

    I agree with Kate's comment above, it was great that they grew up.

    Bush Boy is reading the series yet again (well, he has three different ones on the go right now so he's not reading them in order it would seem) and loving it just as much. In fact I think he's getting more out of it as he is older now than when he first read them so he sees more in the characters.

  5. @Kate - I agree about the characters growing older as the series progressed being a good feature, although I did get a little tired of some of the teen angst. The first two books were by far my favourite.

    @Aneta - You are only culturally illiterate by my daughter's dubious definition. :-)

    @Lynne - Will you buy them in e-reader format when they come out? And I agree about the cilantro and asparagus.

    @kate - It will be interesting to see if they end up being classics. I think she really understood her audience. Maybe I should buy a ticket from Manchester to London. :-) Did Bushboy see the movies?

  6. Gah, I just deleted my own comment! Try again....

    Bushboy only saw the movies at home after reading up to book 6. He won't ever watch the one with the werewolf again (#3 I think?) as it freaked him right out (at age 10). He likes the books better overall. We saw #1 on tv the other night, and got a kick out of how young the actors were - his age! We are debating going to see the new one in the theatre, which I never do. But as we just saw part 1 we kind of want to see the end of it now.

  7. Sounds like R is a decent debater. I like the way in which your family enjoyed the books.

    I seem to remember fake (non-Rowling) Potter stories being published in China. Now I wonder if part of the massive Potter fan base will turn to those knock-offs te keep from having to say goodbye.

  8. @kate - It has been fun to watch the actors get older. I very rarely go to the theatre, but a knitting friend and I went to the previous two because we had heard on Ravelry that there were lots of great hand knits in them. There were no reports of terrific knits from this last one, but we went anyway.

    I understand Bushboy's refusal to watch the one that scared him. In many ways the movies were way too intense for young kids. There is a big difference between reading/hearing the story and seeing it portrayed on the screen.

    @Ric - Yes, there are knock-offs in China. I can't imagine what they would be like! We read tons of books aloud when the kids were all at home. Some of our best memories revolve around those shared times, and not just with the Harry Potter books.

  9. There are the books - and then there is the industry. In the middle of the sequence, it was not uncommon for there to be people queuing at midnight to get their copy when one was released. How many books have that effect?

    But the actual writing probably succeeds because it makes no great demands on the reader - so appeals to far more people. For me, it is the plotting of the later books which weakens them.

  10. I can see the appeal, and my kids loved the HP books, but they just aren't nuanced enough for me ... I find them horribly overwritten. Which is not to denigrate them in any way, they just aren't my cup of tea ... if I want magic I read Terry Pratchett. How lovely though that you have read every HP book with your kids

  11. I miss read alouds!....sometimes I read aloud to myself just because.

  12. @Shandy - My niece was one of the ones queuing at midnight for the latest book! The first two books were by far my favourites.

    @Annie - I have never read Terry Pratchett. I'll have to check those out. As if I don't already have enough books on my "to read" list! :-)

    @Beck - I miss them too. Lots.