The Harry Potter Novels, by J. K. Rowling:
Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (1997)
Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (1998)
Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (1999)
Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (2000)
Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (2003)
Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (2005)
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (2007)
I have read each of the seven Harry Potter books more than once, listened to the audiobooks for all of them at least twice, read three of the novels in Italian as well as English, and read Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone in French, too. I own Italian audiobooks of the first two novels in the series and have listened to them countless times, in part to practice Italian and in part for the joy of immersing myself in Harry’s universe. Of course I took my place in line at the bookstore when new volumes of the series were released. My great pleasure in the novels could be credited to pure escape from such adult problems as sleepless nights and worrying work, but escaping is just a fraction of the attraction J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter novels have for me.
In the stories, Harry is a preteen and then a teenager; I identify with him even though I could be his grandmother. Part of the reason is that I remember my preteen and teenage years especially well. As for nearly everyone, my first two decades have continued to illuminate, enrich, and haunt the decades since. The only era that is sharper in my memory than my rocky adolescence is the period from age two through six, when I was, I believe, among the happiest children on the planet. My schoolyears paralleling Harry’s in the novels were the most discouraging time of my life. I only this month finally exorcised the ghost of my high-school days by attending my fiftieth reunion and unexpectedly enjoying myself—after I had approached the reunion with the same trepidation with which I used to enter Brandywine High School on the day of a big test.
In school I craved a lasting close friendship such as Harry Potter, Hermione Granger, and Ron Weasley have together. In spite of their magical powers, they are believable and realistically complex young people. I can’t lose myself in fantasy peopled by improbable personalities living in worlds with practically no link to my own, but I can lose myself in Harry Potter’s experiences. The rules of Harry’s universe are clearly defined and unswerving. Within the overlay of magic and the castle-like school, many of the characters’ joys and difficulties parallel those that readers have known. Among them are family pleasures and problems, bullies, misunderstandings between friends, unfair judgments and treatment, a need to push back boundaries, and relationships with the full gamut of authority figures—including the vindictive (Severus Snape), the cruel (Dolores Umbridge), the tough but fair (Minerva McGonagall), the deadly dull (Professor Binns, who hasn’t let becoming a ghost stop him from reciting centuries of names and dates), and those who substitute style for substance (Professors Lockhart and Trelawney).
Some of the delight of the books is naturally in the magic and the richness of Rowling’s imagination, from the Hogwarts Express to Dobby the house elf to Luna and Xenophilius Lovegood to Horcruxes. Our actual universe encompasses enough incredible wonders—and daily life on Earth includes ample mystery—for an ability to cast spells, dive into the Pensieve to relive the past, Apparate, or walk for a time with the dead to seem simply an extension of known reality. But in some ways, Harry, Hermione, and Ron live in an appealingly simpler world than ours, one in which conversations are conducted face to face rather than by cell phone or on social media, and owls, not text messages, convey correspondence. For Harry, Hermione, and Ron, chess pieces are animated, but they are real, not virtual. Homework is written on parchment, not a laptop, and the Hogwarts Express is pulled by a steam locomotive and has a candy vendor who rolls her cart through the aisles.
For Rowling’s witches and wizards, community is stronger and more inclusive than for most of us now. Harry, Hermione, and Ron do not consider age differences when they strive to overcome Lord Voldemort, see Rubeus Hagrid as one of their closest friends, and revere Albus Dumbledore for his wisdom and distinctive personality. Minerva McGonagall is sometimes intimidating, but she is never mocked as an old-maid schoolteacher. Each character assumes a role suited to his or her time of life. Some abuse the power of their positions, but no one is relegated to greater or lesser importance because of age or gender. Hermione, for example, is strong willed, courageous, and an exceptionally enthusiastic student, and I am happy when I see a little of her in me. Throughout the books, admirable qualities appear or are deficient in both children and adults. Even in her manner of writing in the later novels, Rowling does not create boundaries between the word choice and level of subtlety usually selected for children and a style that is more complex.
Harry and his friends confront some of life’s most difficult challenges, particularly the death of loved ones, the power of evil, and life-and-death risks for themselves. Although the three friends always eventually triumph, they find no easy answers. Harry is a Seeker in Quidditch, and also in the Quaker sense of seeking to grow in understanding: the reasons people act as they do, the nature of individual responsibility, and the relationship between the living and the dead. Such questions are not only for childhood but also continue to engage us throughout life, and Harry confronts them with a depth of inquiry suited to any age. In the front of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Rowling quotes William Penn, and so perhaps suggests the Seeker-Quaker connection is not unreasonable.
The novels’ characters are vividly depicted, consistent, rich in their qualities and attributes, and highly credible within their world. To get to know them over the course of the more than 4,000 total pages in the U.S. editions of the books has been to add dozens to my share of close acquaintances. I not only compare them to people I have known; they themselves help to people my life. Harry, Hermione, and Ron have joined Jo, Meg, Amy, and Beth March as best friends who continue to accompany me long after the weeks spent reading their stories.
 Louisa May Alcott, Little Women, first published 1869.