This week marks a big literary anniversary. Twenty years ago, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone was published. (Let’s marvel at that number for a second. Has it really been two decades since we were first introduced to Harry, Ron and Hermione — the spunkiest, the cleverest wizards ever if ever a wiz there was?)
I, like so many others, read the book during that summer of 1997. As a writer, I marveled at the fully realized world, rich and enchanted with detail, that author J.K. Rowling had created. As an unabashedly excited reader (27 years young at the time, mind you), I appreciated how Rowling swirled together a balance of whimsy and darkness. I was completely engaged in the story, which began with a fairytale-like premise (orphan turns out to have magical powers and a fantastic adventure awaits him on his birthday) and steadily became much more substantive as the characters matured over the years, and Potter’s world took on more texture and gravitas.
My daughter read Sorcerer’s Stone 10 years after I did. I know most parents probably have a story about the first time they watched their child fall in love with a book. However, in my house, getting my kid to love Harry Potter (and love reading itself as a result) required some careful, strategic planning.
Here’s how it played out:
Riley, then 6, was already an avid reader. She was also a kid who had an instantly adverse reaction to anything recommended to her by her parents.
I don’t know what that’s about. She and I had tons of fun together during those early years, but she always had an immediate distrust of anything I officially endorsed. I’ve tried tracing this back to an actual incident. Did I promise she’d love something that ended up traumatizing her? For example, did my hyping Finding Nemo and then (SPOILER ALERT!) her seeing those first eight minutes where super scary and awful things happen scar her for life?
Not really. At least, not that I remember. But if there were ever to be a book, TV show or movie that I distinctly didn’t want her to watch, all I had to do was recommend it to her. After that, it would be on her “No Way” list.
When I realized Riley was the right age to love Harry Potter, I decided I would have to proceed very, very carefully. If I approached her the wrong way, my daughter would miss one of the most important literary experiences of her young life.
She’d never experience the wonder of Harry’s story.
She wouldn’t imagine what it might feel like to sit in a boat at night with other first-years, steadily drifting across the water as the silhouette of Hogwarts’ towers rose from the mist.
She wouldn’t be curious about what the Sorting Hat might say when perched on her head in the dining hall.
She wouldn’t fantasize about sneaking through the castle at night, listening for the faintest whisper of Parseltongue from just around the next corner. Or racing through a dark and spooky labyrinth to reach the TriWizarding Cup and save the day.
I really didn’t want my daughter to miss all that. If I could just get her into the first chapter of the first novel, Rowling would take care of it from there.
On a summer afternoon, while Riley at lunch downstairs, I casually entered her room, Sorcerer’s Stone in my hand. I gently slipped it into her bookcase, between Ozma of Oz, and Captain Underpants. (I thought about putting it on her nightstand, but realized that would be too much — she’d see right through such blatant placement.) I paused, making sure the book wasn’t sticking out from the others. It’s purple-covered spine was definitely noticeable among the rest … but not too noticeable.
Then I left.
After Riley finished her sandwich and apple sauce, she bounced upstairs, back into her bedroom, and resumed whatever she’d been doing before lunch.
Three days passed. Nothing.
On that next afternoon, as I worked in my home office, Riley came in with a resolute, skeptical expression on her face. Sorcerer’s Stone in her hand.
“What’s this?” she asked with a raised eyebrow.
“I found this book on my shelf. Did you put it there?”
“What’s the book?” I asked, pretending to appraise it.
“Oh, right,” I said, “I think I’ve heard of this.” I had to consciously remind myself not to make even the slightest positive reactions, like Yeah, I think I heard it was pretty good. Even that could’ve ruined it.
“Where did it come from?”she asked, looking me right in the eye. It was like we’d just switched roles. She was the reprimanding parent, and I was the kid being busted for doing something wrong.
“Oh, now I remember,” I said. “I think I put it on your shelf because I thought it was yours.” Evasive, but not an outright lie.
“It’s not mine.”
“Oh. Well, you can keep it or not. Up to you.” Then I turned back to my computer and pretended to be very, very, very focused on something else.
I felt her standing behind me as she scrutinized the book cover featuring Mary Grandpré’s illustration of a young Harry Potter whizzing across under the title on his Nimbus 2000 as he reaches to catch the Golden Snitch.
She said nothing more, but turned and went back to her room.
I had no idea whether my devious ploy had worked. You can’t make a kid like things you like. Riley was the Princess of Skepticism, and I had always been the King of Trying Too Hard. This whole situation could go either way.
Four more days passed when, going by her room, I peeked in and saw her reading it. Again, I had to stop myself from bursting in and saying, “Isn’t that book awesome? Have you gotten to the part where Harry plays in his first Quidditch match yet?” Instead, I simply backed away.
Harry Potter comes through
Two days later, the payoff came.
Riley ran into my office, holding the book in her hand: “I just finished that book you gave me! It was AMAZING!”
I feigned surprise.
“It was? That’s cool. You know what, I think we have a couple more from the series in the shelf in the living room if you want to read the next one.”
“OK!” She whirled around and scurried off. She would read the next two books in three days, and beg for the fourth one in the series.
Yes, I took a minute to congratulate myself. Father of the Year.
She’d enjoyed books before Harry Potter. But she’d never read so much, so fast, with such passion.
So on this auspicious week, let me say: Thank you, J.K. Rowling. I really owe you. I’m glad I had the common sense to get out of your way, and let your book cast its magic spell on my daughter without my interference.