Celeste Headlee, The Takeaway
Celeste Headlee, is a former co-host of The Takeaway.
Fifteen years ago today, "Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone" hit bookshelves in London. Joanne Rowling was paid an advance of less than $4,000 and the publishers printed only 500 copies on the first run, 300 of them going to libraries. Ten years later, one of those first editions sold at auction for more than $33,000, more than eight times the amount of Rowling's advance.
The book landed on American shores a year later, with a new title, "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone." Thousands of children rushed to the bookstore to read about the boy with the unruly hair and the distinctive scar who lives under the stairs until he's plucked away to a secretive school of magic. But at this point, most people have either read the books or seen the movie, so I don't need to recap the plot. And the characters are familiar to many of us — stern Professor McGonagall, the resourceful Hermione, stuttering, stammering Professor Quirrel and, of course, the bemused Headmaster gazing over the top of his half-moon spectacles.
The story of the book seems epocryphal, but is now widely known. A single mother on welfare writes a book for young readers on an old manual typewriter and just five years later, she's a multi-millionaire. Now, she's one of the richest self-made women in the world, worth more in pounds sterling than her monarch. But like so many parents, I don't begrudge her a single cent. My son was born the year that Harry Potter first arrived in the States, and J.K. Rowling may well be responsible for his obsession with books. We recently bought a Kindle for him because we simply can't buy books fast enough. He devours them like candy on Halloween, and has barely put down one novel before he's picked up another. Is Rowling the driving force behind his passion? Of course not, he is. But was her book the impetus? Possibly.
Before Rowling, no other author had captured the imaginations of our children since Roald Dahl and his chocolate factory. She found the right hero, a young man who feels insignificant and awkward, like so many children do. And she made the ultimate elementary school dream come true — the discovery that inside he's special and unique, with fantastic powers and a mysterious past. It's an escape from an unhappy place to a castle where the food is delicious and abundant and there's no washing up after dinner. What child, faced with the many terrors of everyday life, doesn't wish he or she somehow had magical skills to fight the darkness and vanquish evil? Children so often feel powerless in this world, but Harry and his friends have natural gifts. They don't need to run to their parents for help, or even teachers — they do it on their own.
Our copy of "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone" is pretty beat-up now. I read it to him four or five times until he got into kindergarten and started reading it on his own. And every time a new book in the series was due, we were in line at Borders at midnight, waiting for our reserved copy. He once ran into a light pole in the parking lot because he was already absorbed in the book, just ten minutes after buying it.
I remember hearing stories about the multitudes of people on America's shores, waiting for the newest installment of Charles Dickens to arrive by boat, itching to get their hands on the newest chapter. With Rowling, history repeated itself. Another British author, and more stories of young kids in boarding schools, colorful characters, hateful villains and pure-hearted heroes. During his most formative years, my son believed that a new book could be as exciting as a new video game, that a novel was just as thrilling as a 3D movie, and that good writing was as valuable as good food.
So, happy birthday Harry Potter. And best wishes to JK Rowling, known to her friends as Jo. My son loves to read. And it may well be thanks to the boy who lived.
In celebration of that birthday, take the quiz below to find out how much of the first book you remember.