The power of story and the year of reading Harry Potter out loud
The power of story. I recall the difficult year I read J.K. Rowling's seven books of Harry Potter out loud to my kids. As was the case for millions of people around the world, Rowling entertained us, and changed us, and helped us along the way.
When I read the entire Harry Potter series out loud to my sons, I was a newly single mother, recovering from a divorce. Eli, my older son, was going on eleven, the same age as Harry in the first book. Lev, my younger son, was six. It took us an entire year to read the series out loud.
The dog would leap up onto Eli's bed and whatever adults were around that night would assemble in the boys room, sitting on the floor or settling into the big chair or flopping down on the bed. With only the reading light illuminating the room, Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone would begin.
Ruth loved that the stories were so ridiculously overwrought, they just begged to be overacted. Joel inspired her. He was such a ham, and she loved listening to his renditions. She felt she could fully indulge her inner ham, too.
In Ruth, we had a professional storyteller. Ruth had been reading from her two popular novels, My Year of Meats and All Over Creation, for more than a decade. She'd read to 2,000 people in Central Park. She'd read at universities and on radio and TV.
“It felt like I was casting a spell. Drawing you all in, occasionally hearing a burst of laughter, but mostly listening to my voice and the boys’ rapt silence. I remember feeling so grateful to the books, because I love reading aloud, but mostly when I do it, it's in the context of a public performance, and I'm reading something that I've written, which means that I'm requred to feel a kind of personal investment in the outcome. But these books were not mine. I didn't have to take them personally. I would simpy enjoy the act of reading, for its own sake," she said about the stories that filled our evenings.
"I just loved curling up in the big chair in Lev's room, with the rest of you all piled in bed, aware of my own voice rising and falling, aware of the quality of the boys' attention, aware of you gently scratching Lev's back while Eli scratched the dog's ears.”
While I would inevitably get tired half way through a chapter, Louise and Ruth would always finish. They usually kept going long into a second chapter, while Eli would prop himself up on his elbow remaining utterly still lest he break the spell and they'd stop. Lev would snore softly in the background. They'd read until both kids were asleep and then laugh with satisfaction that they'd outlasted them.
Louise and Ruth were up for endless discussions with the kids the next day about the plot, the characters, the author.They'd confer with them to see what they'd missed, at what point they'd gone to sleep.
Much of the story went over Lev's head. But like the rest of us, he relished the community we formed around reading Harry Potter.
Eli's questions were endless, his understanding of Harry's struggles deep.
People you love will die
Harry showed us so well that if you keep your heart open, make a good, close friends and stay loyal to them, be brave and understand the difference between good and evil, you can not only face your demons but possibly defeat them.
I add possibly because Rowling doesn't sugar coat the truth. What I admired about her most, as I read chapter after chapter out loud, was that she never tried to dupe kids into thinking there is a formula to getting through difficulties.
Evil is real and you have to face your demons head on. I was shocked and, well, terrified, when Louise intimated as we got into Book 4 that some of my favourite characters were going to die. She had already read the series out loud to her neice and she knew what was coming.
The movies that followed the books, although great, were action thrillers. They didn't come anywhere close to matching the multi-layered story or complex themes Rowling handled so eloquently. No amount of Hollywood special effects could match Rowling's facility with language, character and plot on the page.
Who is J.K. Rowling?
By Book Five, I wanted to know everything about Rowling. What an incredible writer! What a masterful storyteller! How did she do it? How was it possible to carry so many stories forward in one coherent piece?
The legend I'd heard was of a single mother writing in a cafe and living on nothing and how publishers at first thought the first book was too short to sell. I always thought she'd a son, but turned out, it was a daughter, Jessica. And although it seemed, when the first book came out, that J.K. Rowling came from nowhere, in fact she came from Oxford University where she'd obtained a degree in languages after not standing her ground with her parents when what she really wanted to study was English.
Her excitement, when the first book was finished, she recalls on her own blog:
"Finally it was done. I covered the first three chapters in a nice plastic folder and set them off to an agent, who returned them so fast they must have been sent back the same day they arrived. But the second agent I tried wrote back and asked to see the rest of the manuscript. It was far and away the best letter I had ever received in my life, and it was only two sentences long."
When we read Harry Potter, J.K. Rowling was already a billionaire. Her books had earned more than any other books in the world. Millions of children, like my kids, watched the movies over and over, and like my son, have read the books all the way through two or three times. Rowling broke ground not only as a writer, but as a woman writer.
Many brilliant women writers preceed Rowling, but none accomplished as much financially through their work, or reached as many people.
Closing the last Harry Potter book that night in my sons' room brought the satisfaction of the strong ending, but it also felt like someone had died. Not just the characters in the book, someone close to us. Someone important. Someone who had been there for a year every night providing insight and the best entertainment. The loss felt as epic as the books themselves.
What do you read after Harry Potter?
Sure, people gave suggestions. We tried Narnia, but it bored us. We attempted other fantasy series, but none of them rang true. Unlike the Rowling books, where magic seemed real, the fantasy of everything else we attempted seemed make believe and distant from real life.
What book could possibly rival Harry Potter as a story that both children and adults could enjoy?
Well, some things just can't be replaced. The loss had to be faced and although I constantly struggled to find books that would grab my kids as much as Harry Potter had, I only occasionally scored.
Isaac Beshevis Singer's childhood memoir, "In My Father's Court" was the only book I remember coming anywhere near to delighting them as much, and it ended too fast. We tried other Singer stories and they were full of strange and beautifully described characters and tons of humour, and I remember some fun nights when Ruth was reading a story about a goat and Singer's way with words allowed her to ham it up almost as much as she had reading Harry Potter.
Still, there was no other book that could last a whole year, no other series to replace Harry Potter. As much as I hate to admit it, every book that followed paled by comparison.
Those nightly readings that engaged Louise and Ruth and Joel soon fell away. The kids were growing up. The bunk beds were turned into singles, as Eli moved into his own room and the kids both began to read to themselves. Meanwhile, the stories of our own lives unfolded with unexpected grace and ease.
Rowling's stories delivered us into this new life stronger. They had brought us more closely together, bonding us with dear friends and beloved family. Those readings, this story, those evenings became a sweet memory that put a golden glow around a year we might have remembered otherwise, but will always remember just so.