Lessons from Harry Potter
This month marks twenty years since the publication of the first book in the Harry Potter series, which by some yardsticks is probably the most successful young adult series in literary history.
All kudos and congratulations to J. K. Rowling for her success, and for her determination to persevere in the face of what must have seemed, at first, like overwhelming indifference from publishers. That’s our first lesson. If at first you don’t succeed, keep trying. If your book is worthwhile, it may well find its readership sooner or later. Today, when you can publish it yourself rather than have to fight with the ‘gatekeepers’ (a.k.a. publishers) for access to an audience, that’s both easier and more difficult than ever. It’s easier, in that anyone can do it, but also more difficult, in that standing out amongst the flood of author-published books, so that potential readers can find one’s work, is more and more difficult. One wonders whether Ms. Rowling would have taken that route, had she appeared on the scene a little later?
For all that literary agents are often demonized by their disappointed clients, Ms. Rowling seems to have been fortunate in hers.
It’s hard to imagine a world in which the books (and films, and video games, and personality quizzes) might not have been published. But, according to J.K. Rowling’s first agent Christopher Little, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone was not an easy sell.
. . .
“When I received the submission from Joanne (as she was known at the time) Rowling, it just came in as an unsolicited submission (of the first three chapters) and was picked up by our then office manager who was looking through the slush pile,” he said. “She liked it and bought it to my attention. Once I read it, I had no reservations whatsoever and in fact felt very excited about it.
“It was clearly presented as a fully realized world […] I don’t think I recall reading anything so immersive since The Lord of the Rings many years earlier. We quickly wrote back to Jo asking to see the rest of the manuscript as soon as I had finished those initial chapters.”
. . .
“Over a period of nigh on a year, the book was turned down by more or less every major publishing house in the U.K. Various reasons were given including the story being too long, the fact that a story set in a children’s boarding school might feel too ‘exclusive’ to many readers, etc.”
There’s more at the link.
To me, one of the more amusing features of the Harry Potter series has been the life lessons people have drawn from it – lessons that I’m sure were not intended to be taken as such by Ms. Rowling. For example, Niklas Goeke suggests that Professor Lupin’s anti-boggart spell is also a useful lesson in productivity when facing daunting tasks. (His analogy reminds me of an old African proverb: “How do you eat an elephant? Mouthful by mouthful!”)
To celebrate the anniversary of the first Potter publication, Huffington Post is bringing out a series of articles all this month about Potter-related subjects. Some are dire, but others are fun reads. I think they’ll repay browsing from time to time as more are published. (For example, you might be relieved to know that “True ‘Harry Potter’ Fans Will Never, Ever Drink Unicorn Frappuccinos“.)
For myself, raised as I was on a diet of many classic children’s and young adult book series, even though I read Potter as an adult, I thoroughly enjoyed it. I’m glad to see that the art of writing for that audience is alive and well, despite everything political correctness can do to homogenize it.
Among the series I remember from my youth with great pleasure are:
- The Swallows and Amazons books by Arthur Ransome;
- The Abbey series by E. J. Oxenham;
- The little-known (and, sadly, almost forgotten) Cormorant series by George Elvey Haley;
- Elizabeth Enright‘s novels, both series and stand-alone;
- Monica Edwards‘ Romney Marsh and Punchbowl Farm series;
- George Macdonald‘s children’s novels;
- The Chronicles of Narnia by C. S. Lewis;
- J. R. R. Tolkien‘s The Hobbit, and (when I was a little older) his works for adults.
What series do you remember from your childhood and younger adulthood? Which inspired and shaped and formed your reading preferences? Let us know in Comments, so that, if so inclined, we can look them up and sample them for ourselves. Even in later life, I still thoroughly enjoy a well-crafted book for younger readers, and I’m sure many of you do the same.