Twenty years of Harry Potter

(I posted this article this morning at the shared writers blog to which I also belong, Mad Genius Club;  but because I think many of my readers will share my interest in the subject, I’ve cross-posted it here as well.)

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:

What book 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.



  1. love rudyard kipling, edith nesbit, the man who wrote 'waterbabies', and many others.
    our town had a carnegie endowed library so we were well supplied with excellent books.
    that was in the day before trash books and poor grammar became accepted.
    stupids in publishers offices say things like 'set in a boarding school it might seem too exclusive'.
    if you publish a book set in the north will readers in the tropics reject it?
    or will they gain knowledge of how othesr are affected by their climates?
    glad george macdonald was already published or we might not have his works, what with them being fantastical!

  2. Hey Peter;

    I remember the first book I ever read, the "Boxcar Children", I think I was about 7 or 8. Since then Anything history, fantasy like the dragonlance series, JRR Tolken, The Elfstones of Shannara, Red Storm Rising, and of course your and Jim's book.

  3. Heinlein, particularly Starman Jones, Starship Troopers, and Have Spacesuit Will Travel. Also Andre Norton particularly Star Rangers and Star Guard. Tolkien of course. Frank Baum's Oz series, and Edgar Rice Burroughs: Tarzan, the Mars books and the Venus and Pellucidar books.

  4. Rick Brant, Tom Corbett, and Tom Swift. The Lensmen, and the Skylark by Smith, and as Brother Pilot said, anything by Heinlein, and a lot of ERB's novels. I leaned toward the hard science fiction side, and although I read the Hobbit in my late teens, but I did not really become a fantasy reader until much later in life.
    My wife read all the Potter novels, but I lost interest about halfway through the series.
    We recently channel flipped into one of the Potter movies and I thought for a bit, then paused and asked my wife, "Why does no one ask why saving the world falls onto the shoulders of children in their mid teens. A much smaller burden than this would have crushed most adults." The novels and films took a very dark turn towards the latter third of the arc.

  5. Philip Turner's children's books – COLONEL SHEPERTON'S CLOCK, THE GRANGE AT HIGH FORCE, SEA PERIL, and WAR ON THE DARNEL are old favorites. How can you not love a book that includes the line "Batty Beckford, the blackhearted bastard, will disembowel you with a rusty banana"?. I also have fond memories of Lockhart Amerman's trilogy; GUND IN THE HEATHER, CAPE COD CASKET, and THE SLY ONE.

  6. Heinlein's juvenile fiction, of course. Those books are quite readable by adults as well. I seem to recall that someone once asked him why his juveniles did so well. His reply was supposedly, "I take a youthful protagonist, cut out the sex, then write the best story I can." He never wrote down to his audience. Some writers could learn from that.

  7. Before discovering fiction I was an avid reader of the set of encyclopedia which was centerpiece of an otherwise drab and empty living room in a drab and empty house. Probably the most expensive item in the entire house. This was later added to with a set of 'science and technology' encyclopedia, a thin set which covered many more up to date(late 60's) topics and theories. Dad had a seventh grade education, but thumbed through the encyclopedia often too.

    Discovered fiction in Jr. high library. One day just walking about the place planning to pick something science-related at random. Librarian walks up and sticks Rocketship Galileo in my hand, "Try this". Zipped through the entire small selection available, mostly the usual Heinlein suspects.

    Then I found(re-examined) the shelf of paperbacks my older brother left behind with more Heinlein, Asimov, Clarke. It soon became a matter of anything I could lay hands on. Science fiction book club got me out hustling for coin to support the One Eyed One Horned Flying Purple People Eater on my back. Soon turned back to finishing the encyclopedia. Ruined for life. If and Galaxy magazines too.

    But I still enjoy most zipping through the Heinlein books again every four or five years. Used the Hugo winners as a guide of new authors/things to try up until it became a better guide to things best avoided.

  8. My first love as an 8 year old, was the Tom Swift novels, I snapped up everyone in the series. When I joined the navy my first cruise on the carrier JFK, I was assigned a 8 man officer bunk room. There was a shared drawer containing a mix of books, and I then experienced Louis l'Amour westerns, and many science fiction novels. Wonderful exposure to many genre's.

  9. Heinlein, The Hardy Boys, Arthur C. Clark, Edgar Rice Burroughs, E.E. Doc Smith, Louis L'Amour, Zane Grey, among others.

  10. I started reading Stephen King and Louis L'Amour novels when I was about 8 or 10 years old (that would probably speak volumes to any psych, reading the master of horror at that young an age). I still read them at 40, along with a wider selection of both fiction and non-fiction.



  11. I read many of the above listed, but one that deserves mention is "the Mad Scientists Club". Still a fun read as an adult.

  12. Most of the above, at least anything published before 1975. Plus Jim Kjelgaard's outdoor novels. Rifles for Watie. I got bribed to learn my times tables to 16 with a wonderful book, Jaime de Angulo's Indian Tales. Doc Savage. Conan Doyle; my mother had loved his historical novels as a girl so I read them and liked them too.
    My sister's Little House books and Louisa May Alcott. I didn't care for Nancy Drew, though. Jules Verne. The Wind in the Willows. Pooh. Except for Mowgli, I didn't start reading Kipling until high school. After I finished reading everything C.S. Forester wrote, and, looking for something similar, came across a new book with one of the best opening scenes ever: Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin elbowing each other in the Governor's music room at Port Mahon. I didn't know it was the start of a series until years later, at which point it was like catching up with an old friend.
    The Tod Moran mysteries by Howard Pease. I was reading Analog and F&SF from about age 11 on.
    I was very fortunate in my 6th grade teacher. My reading group did oral readings (changing parts often) of all of Twelfth Night and Hamlet "stabbed through the arras" was the occasion of much laughter.) The enjoyment we got from this was a lesson in the potential value of assigned reading.

  13. Heinlien, ALL of them, but esp. Starship Troopers, and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Also, in a totally different direction, Mickey Spillane. Not just the Mike Hammer tales, but all of his noir books, and his young adult stuff is good, I think.
    Call me wierd….

  14. The Tom Swift Jr. books got me hooked on adventure sci-fi at about the age I learned to read. It didn't hurt that they were sold in my local toy store. Then the Hardy Boys. Later in Jr High and High School I found Heinlein. My local library had open stacks where I would wander, I found Frederick Burnhams "Scouting on Two Continents" that impressed me so much that 40 years later I ordered a used copy from Amazon. Burnham might interest you, Peter, as he scouted for the British in the Second Boer War.
    Bruce S Edwards

  15. My first delight was the Rick Brant series. I finally completed the series a few years back when I got a copy of The Magic Talisman. Also, I enjoyed the Hardy Boys. Someone in the comments here mentioned the Tod Moran mysteries. Loved those. Also, the Three Investigators. Tolkien, most of CS Lewis (His Space Trilogy was among my favorites). I also liked Matt Helm and James Bond. Loved to read.


  16. Mr. Garabaldi,

    The "Boxcar Children" was also the very first series I remember reading. I was in second grade, so I was 7 to 8 years old. (…about 1961-62)

    I hadn't thought about them in many years. I wonder if they are still in print?

    As I got older, I moved up to things like Heinlein's "Rocket Ship Galileo" and "Starship Troopers", Robert Louis Stevenson's "Treasure Island" and Jules Vern's "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea" and "Mysterious Island".

    I was also one of those kids who would pick up an encyclopaedia and read an article at random. I developed a fascination with sailing ships that way, even though I had never laid eyes on an ocean.

  17. For me Heinlein is tops. I re-read them every couple of years. The Freddy the Pig books are classics. Conan Doyle and ER Burroughs of course.

  18. For me it was Madeleine L'Engle, Andre Norton, and anyone I could find in the Sci Fi section of our public library. I didn't read Heinlein, Tolkien, MacDonald, or C.S. Lewis until adulthood.

  19. As a child born in the 80s..

    Hardy Boys books good easy reading. Every Biggles book was golden, especially the ones from the interwar period.

    Kipling was great, not sure preteens should be reading 'Kim' or 'Stalky and Co' but it's not like modern garbage is any 'cleaner'. Narnia good too obviously. Didn't read Ransome's stuff until I was older, sure it would have made a bigger impression if I'd read it earlier.

    In terms of singular books, I reread 'Tom Brown's Schooldays' from time to time.. shocking to consider that a nation in which Hughes could write his foreword about the natural similarity between Britain and Prussia found itself as the aggressor in that pointless war only fifty years later. I guess that's why they call them brother wars.

  20. I started with "Mad Scientists' Club" mentioned earlier (I still have a copy, my son loves it now), whatever SF was available from the Bookmobile that visited our community (I still recall the plots but not titles or authors and have never found any of them since), and my school's collection of "Pogo" compilations.

    Later I found Heinlein's juveniles, LotR, Lloyd Alexander's "Prydain" stories, and "Doc" Smith.

    Good times.

  21. Wow.lots of lengthy comments. But back to J.K. i read the final publisher was not impressed until his daughter read the book and craved the next book. Hense the series published

  22. Let me think a bit…

    Tom Swift. The Lord of the Rings. Dragonlance. David Eddings's Belgariad. Star Trek novels. I was just as voracious a reader in my childhood as I am today; my parents noted that the easiest way to get me to chill out and be quiet was to stick a book in my hand. 🙂

  23. There are quite a few. I'm old enough to catch the first few Harry Potter books while in almost their target age bracket.

    But I've read so many, many things before then.

    Comics are an important part of yound adult reading. There was Asterix, Lucky Luke, Clever & Smart, Spirou & Fantasio and Prince Ironheart (Prinz Eisenherz)

    Books I read as yound adult contain quite a few things I shouldn't have read as matter of principle, the Authors de Sade and Nabakov spring to mind (My parents didn't secure their naughty stuff anywhere well enough).

    Today of course quite a few more books would be considered 'bad': Robinson Crusoe, all the Karl May books, quite a few of the comics. Ehprahim Kishon (Slaughtered that name in all likelyhood) books probably too

    Astrid Lindgren and Terry Pratchett also wrote quite a lot my reading material. So did Tom Clancy.
    Then there are the Perry Rhodan serial collection editions knowns as Silber Bände of which we have enough to fill an Ikea Billy Board by itself.

    Oh serials, Mr. Dynamite was devoured and we had a lot to devour of those and so was Dr. Morton.

  24. I'm amazed no-one has mentioned Susan Cooper's "The Dark Is Rising" sequence. I read those shortly after reading the Hobbit. Between the two, I fell in love with fantasy that continues to this day.

  25. For me, it was "The Wind in The Willows", "The Phantom Tollbooth", "The Black Stallion", and the Moomintroll books, along with a good dash of the Hardy Boys.

    A little later, it was Heinlein, Clarke and Zelazny

  26. Bobsey Twins, Tom Swift, Danny Dunn, Agatha Christie's The Toff? series. Anything by Alistair MacLean, starting with The Guns of Navarone. All the grand old men of SciFi, Paul and Poul. By high school, the entire SF section of my local library.

    The Little House books, Narnia, the Thomas Covenant series, lots of Alan Dean Foster.

    Star Wars came out when I was in fifth or sixth grade, which should place me in time….


  27. I came across Heinlein's "Rocket Ship Galileo" in the school library when I was 7, and his books, along with Andre Norton's, were my go-to reading for years. Enid Blyton's "Famous Five" were also in there, along with Tom Swift, the Hardy Boys, and a lot of mythology.

    I didn't run across Lloyd Alexander's "Prydain Chronicles" until well into adulthood, unfortunately.

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