This week, the world is celebrating the 20th anniversary of Harry Potter & the Sorcerer’s Stone and Bitch staff couldn’t help but share their favorite memories of this pop culture juggernaut. Happy birthday, Harry!
I so vividly remember the first time I heard about Harry Potter. My fourth grade teacher told our class that she would be reading Harry Potter & the Sorcerer’s Stone to us once a week. I was so damn disinterested. I imagine my teacher pinning a “Your child was smirking and sucking her teeth about Harry Potter” note to my chest that day. I thought I’d be ambivalent about Harry Potter forever, but midway through the book, something clicked for me. I had a moment where I realized we were reading something special, unlike anything I’d ever read before. By fourth grade, I was a straight up bibliophile. I’d devoured The Babysitter’s Club, combed through all of the Sweet Valley books, and fallen in love with Roald Dahl’s classics. Yet, there was something different about Harry Potter.
I never wanted to be a Sweet Valley twin or a babysitter, but I wanted to be a wizard. J.K. Rowling’s descriptive writing created such vivid imagery in my mind. I could see the magical world just as surely as I could see the world I lived in every day. I wanted to walk to 9 and ¾ and get on the train to Hogwarts. I wanted to train alongside Harry, Ron, and Hermione, fight dementors, sabotage Snape, and rock a lightning bolt scar on my forehead. By the time Harry and the gang got to the trapdoor, guarded by gigantic dogs with three heads and a human-sized chess board, I was begging my teacher to read the book to us two times a week. She thankfully obliged. At that time, I had no idea Harry Potter would be a series, so I was surprised when the Chamber of Secrets was released. I devoured it, and then waited another year for the Prisoner of Azkaban, and then another year for the Goblet of Fire (my favorite book in the series) and so on.
I also created a ritual. Every time a new book came out, I’d reread the previous books to get prepared for it. By the time the Deathly Hallows was released, I’d read the Sorcerer’s Stone six times. I was also a junior in high school, in the throes of Agoraphobia and depression, and incapable of really leaving the house. Harry Potter gave me an outlet when few other things could. It allowed me to escape into a world where magic could ease all worries, and evil couldn’t and didn’t win. Harry Potter gave me hope. I am not a big fan of the movies. I’ve only seen the first four, and none of them conjured the magic I’d envisioned as I read the books, but I will always remember how I felt on that day in fourth grade when Harry Potter made me seethe with irritation—and then slowly, but surely, become enchanted.
—Evette Dionne, senior editor
To the dismay and disgust of many, I’ve never read any of the Harry Potter books. My earliest memory of Harry Potter dates back to the sixth grade, when my English teacher took all of us little bad ass kids to see the first movie at the Linden Boulevard theater. (We threw popcorn at each other and others in the theater the entire movie, daring people to fight us.) Situated next to one of three project buildings in the area and only a few blocks from my house, Linden Multiplex was very familiar to all of us, but we had no idea what was in store on this day. Harry Potter And The Sorcerer’s Stone took us to another dimension in which we could be and do all that we wanted. Because if magic was real, our dreams were, too. I remember mimicking the accents with my friends as we walked back to school, singing “Her-moy-ah-nay, her-moy-ah-nayyy” and making up situations in which she could be a girl from the hood, too (named “Nay-Nay”). For us, Hermione made it cool to be smart, and suddenly being in the top class of a “magnet” program felt like being in Gryffindor (even though we all know she belonged in Ravenclaw, which an online test told me I’d be in, too). Back then I’d cling to stories like these, wishing that one day I could live in that alternate reality. I guess I sort of do now, because Hermione definitely would be a part of the B-Hive, right? And come to think of it, that English teacher was the first person to ever tell me I should become a writer. (I’m still chasing the dream, Mx. Paige from I.S. 218!) The first movie doesn’t turn 20 until 2021, but without the books, there’d be no Nay-Nay, no midnight screenings with friends, and no one to yell at me about not reading the books. Truthfully, life would have been a lot less magical. Thank you, J. K.!
—Ashley Duchemin, production editor
The reaction is either wide-eyed disbelief or a cutting, “WHAT” when I admit that I’ve neither read the books nor watched the movies. But that doesn’t mean I wasn’t impacted by Harry Potter. There are two things that stand out about when that boy wizard came into the world. What I remember is that it was one of the first YA books that adults were ferociously eating up. Harry Potter & the Sorcerer’s Stone was an ageless plot and a very real connecting point between generations. It was one of the first literary crossovers that that reminded me that there is no age limit when it comes to a genuinely brilliant story. And I remember that it was some of those adults who went positively apeshit when it was revealed that Dumbledore was gay. It revealed that homophobia exists even when it’s a fictitious character. I couldn’t get over how some adults ruined their own magical experience of Harry Potter with their hatred.
The second thing that impacted me was the backstory of J.K. Rowling. This was another first—J.K. submitted the story about a boy wizard under a gender-neutral identity. Apparently “Joanne Rowling” would not be capable of such literary success, but “J.K. Rowling” was! The story of single motherhood, poverty, and writing wherever and whenever she could made such a deep impact on me as a writer. The sheer amount of rejection one receives as a writer can steer someone off their creative path, and when I felt like giving up on the creative arts, I’d conjure this image of an isolated mother, writing in corners, on the seat of train, on breaks at work, with a relentless story about magic. The story of Harry Potter’s magic changed the world, but how J.K. Rowling birthed that magic is what I’m most grateful for: Thank you, Joanne!
—Lisa Factora-Borchers, editorial director
I got to Harry Potter slightly late. I think the first two books were already out when I stumbled upon the Sorcerer’s Stone. I was a 16-year old in a 10-year old’s body, and when I heard the words wizards and magic I was already rolling my eyes. But it was something to read, so I figured why not.
I didn’t fall in love with the first book, but I was a fast and voracious reader, and since library books weren’t really an option (I had my library card revoked at the ripe old age of 9 for hoarding books) I think my mom just threw whatever book series she could find my way in hopes of keeping me occupied. By book two, I was sold on this whole Hogwarts thing. By book three, I was hooked.
The night before a new book came out was an event in my house. My mom drove me (and eventually me and all of my cousins) to midnight book releases every year for books 3-7. Eventually, the car rides to the book releases turned into sleepovers at my house, all of my cousins and I jammed into a room with pillows and blankets on the floor as we held our personal reading marathons, finishing the books within 48 hours. (Though there was the one year where my mom insisted we get some sleep and turn out all the lights. We had the bright idea of reading-by-matchlight which, as I’m sure you can imagine, got shut down pretty immediately as soon as the smell of smoke made its way to my parents’ bedroom.)
When the movies started to come out, we added those to the midnight rotation as well. I remember my aunts thinking we were being ridiculous and chiding my mother for carting us around in the middle of the night for something so frivolous. But that was exactly the point.
I was a serious child. I did what I was supposed to, when I was supposed to, and never, ever broke a rule. My parents worked all the time. There wasn’t a ton of room for silliness or frivolity, it seemed. Until Harry Potter. Rowling was able to create an entire universe, complete with its own language and government, it’s own new creatures and mythologies. To pick up a Harry Potter book was to get hopelessly and wondrously lost.
The final book in the series came out when I was in high school. About my junior year, I think. I remember a deep, and very real, sadness at it all coming to an end. But then… after all those years of driving us around and enabling our obsession, my mom started to read them. She would forget character’s names as soon as she turned the page, but she worked her way through the whole series nevertheless. Where most of my friends were entering the age where they didn’t really want to talk to their parents, Harry Potter became a thread in our relationship, random calls and texts asking who this new character was, or for a quick reminder of some others obscure backstory from three books ago.
—Soraya Membreno, director of community
I received Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone from so-called “Santa” one Christmas when I was 11. I think that was the same year that the man in red velvet left me Donna Lewis’s album, Now In A Minute, notable for its constantly remixed “I Love You Always Forever” earworm of a tune. (You’re welcome for putting that song in your head.) Anyway, I loved them both immediately. Harry Potter offered a magical exit from the typical books I’d receive on religious holidays (one of my aunts is a Catholic nun, so most of the time if I was unwrapping something that felt like a book, it’d be The Bible Junior and other titles related to making something that’s generally rude to queer people more palatable to kids.) Have I read any of the other HP books since? No, but my brother did after I passed Sorcerer’s Stone down to him! Does that count? Either way, it’s one of the only Christmas gifts from my childhood that I distinctly remember receiving, and that’s saying something.
—Kate Lesniak, publisher
I remember shortly after the first book sort of exploded onto the scene hearing J.K. Rowling on Fresh Air, talking about all the rejection she’s experienced and why she used her initials instead of her full name when she wrote it, and thinking “I can’t believe female writers still have to do this shit.” But I didn’t read the books or see the movies until I had a kid, even though I was very aware of the phenomenon as it unfolded over the years—I kind of had to be, because people who wrote for Bitch regularly pitched stuff related to Harry Potter.
I’m glad I waited to read the books, because—WARNING: SAPPY MOM THOUGHTS AHOY—it was such a cool experience to experience the books and movies at the same time that my son was. We started the first book when he was five; he’s eight now and we pretty recently finished the last one. (We took a longish break between Goblet of Fire and Order of the Phoenix, mostly because I was in no hurry to start talking about the heteronormative boy-girl dating stuff that Goblet of Fire started in with.) And we waited until the end of each book to watch each movie. I know that J.K. Rowling has been dinged over the years about the quality of the writing, but I wonder if that comes from the fact that the books were such a crossover success with adults. Personally, I loved that the world-building wasn’t perfect, wasn’t always logical, because it opened up really fun, meandering discussions with my kid about why some magical things were possible but others weren’t, or, in the case of the last book, why Dumbledore left Harry in the dark about so much crucial stuff. (Answer: Because he was a stunt queen. Not cool, Dumbledore.)
As so many things did, the Harry Potter universe got a little too real in the runup and aftermath of the 2016 election, and—not unlike Star Wars—offered a way to talk to my kid about bigotry, power, oppression, and the importance of resisting those who want to hurt others whom they deem inferior. The morning after Election Night, his dad and I took him out for donuts and a brief conversation about some of the things that might happen, or that he might be worried about, or that people at school might be talking about. I remember saying “So basically, Trump is Voldemort and we have to be the Order of the Phoenix.” It’s cheesy, but you have to take these teachable moments where they find you.