In 2007, more than 1,000 people queued outside Waterstones Piccadilly, Europe’s largest bookshop, to get their hands on the final saga in the Harry Potter series. Tomorrow night I’ll be revisiting that bookshop to celebrate the first global Harry Potter Book Night and the release of the series with the new cover illustrations from Jonny Duddle. A marketing ploy you think? Yes, indeed, it’s time for Bloomsbury to re-release the series with a new modern look, and to create a moment, a day, to celebrate the brand. For me, there’s nothing wrong with that at all – Harry Potter (or rather JK Rowling) has redefined children’s literature. She started the ball rolling for a groundswell of readers who wanted more children’s literature and wanted it recognised in its own right as a major genre.
Since 1998 when the Potter books first burst onto the scene with their modest print run, children’s books are finally being celebrated. In 2000, The New York Times created a special children’s bestseller list alongside their adult one, as Harry Potter was squeezing out so many other titles. In 2002, Phillip Pullman won the overall Whitbread Awards for his children’s book, The Amber Spyglass, beating all adult titles. In 2014 children’s book sales were up ten per cent against a book market that was generally about 2 per cent down.
What did JK Rowling do in Harry Potter that had such an effect? The magic of Harry Potter works on many levels. It invokes the age old conflict of good versus evil. It consistently and continually poses mystery – everything is a question that JK answers pages later. Why can Harry hear snakes? What happened to Moaning Myrtle? And the third component is the voice – the ability of the author to step inside a child’s head and understand the nuances of friendship, the emotions involved, and the frustration with the adult world – to eke out the bonds behind certain relationships – loyalty, trust, and empathy.
JK Rowling is not the only writer to do this, other writers before her wrote wonderful children’s books – so did she just hit the zeitgeist head on – was she in the right place at the right time? Barry Cunningham, the man credited with finding JK Rowling, had been asked to set up a Bloomsbury children’s book list only a couple of years before the manuscript was submitted. He had previously worked with Roald Dahl, amongst others.
Not only did the Harry Potter series rejuvenate the children’s book market, it also enticed adults into reading again. It was an easy read for grownups who had long abandoned reading for pleasure of any sort. And reading is habit-forming. Harry Potter doesn’t only reach across age ranges, it also breaches the gender divide. Although JK Rowling was encouraged to be named as JK on the cover, not Joanne Rowling, because the publishers thought that books about boys written by a woman were not going to sell, it seems it no longer matters. Harry Potter has reached girls and boys, men and women, from 8-80 yrs.
This Thursday is Harry Potter Book Night. It’s an event created by Bloomsbury to celebrate Harry Potter and introduce him to the next generation of readers. Many many schools, libraries and shops throughout the country are holding parties – it’s a great excuse to celebrate children’s books. I’ll be tweeting from the event at Waterstones Piccadilly, and blogging again tomorrow after the event. Have a great Harry Potter Book Night for those that do.