Yesterday marked 20 years since Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone was published. To commemorate the occasion, some of my workmates reflected on how the industry has changed since then. Most significant is how the book's success forced people to start taking children's books, and the children who read them, seriously.
I was one of those children. I first read Philosopher's Stone at 11, the same age Harry was when he received his acceptance letter from Hogwarts. And just like Harry's letter, my book would prove to be a passport to another world, and then ultimately, onto a sprawling, ever-expanding set of worlds that exist simultaneously and joyfully in a multitude of forms and places.
20 years have passed and thank goodness for the Harry Potter fandom.
Like so many people of my generation, I grew up with Harry, Hermione and Ron. My teen years were punctuated by the arrival of the next six books. I sped-read each one on the day it arrived, closed the final cover, and then immediately reread it for a second time. And in between each book, I had endless debates with other people about the characters and their lives.
Reading Harry Potter was a way to become part of the conversation - it became a kind of secret language. Together we tried to decipher Rowling's clues about what was coming. We tried to guess who would die in the next book. Sometimes we were right, and sometimes we weren't, but really it didn't matter because this is what the fandom gifts readers - the option to step outside of the canon. To maybe even pick that canon up, chuck it on a trash heap and set it ablaze.
Going off canon means opening yourself up to the possibility that other spaces exist, ones you didn't know about before. Going off canon means that you're creating more avenues, more doorways for people who don't fit within the boxes. Going off canon means you don't need to feel constrained by what the author says is true or untrue.
I've never have a problem with Rowling's ongoing contribution to the universe. Perhaps I'm being sentimental, but I just don't feel like it's necessary or even desirable for her to step away from the world she created. If I was her and I created these characters, I wouldn't want to let go either. In some case, I even agree with her contributions. Because, and this is the important part, nobody has to agree with Rowling anymore. After 20 years, she has lost her authorial grasp on the Harry Potter universe with the fandom moving far beyond the books. The buzz around the fan-made trailer for prequel, Voldemort: Origins of the Heir, is just one example.
Over on Buzzfeed, you can read a really fascinating article about how the hulking beast that is the Harry Potter™ franchise is not keeping up with the expectations of fans. Alanna Bennett lays it out simply: "There’s never been a more confusing time to be a Harry Potter fan, whether you’re talking about issues of representation and cultural appropriation, Johnny Depp’s presence in the Fantastic Beasts movies, or the revelation that Lord Voldemort fathered a daughter with Bellatrix Lestrange." Fans expect a lot and they're right to, but we should accept that Rowling is never going to be able to please everyone either.
(If you are one such confused fan I highly recommend you seek out the Witch, Please podcast. Marcelle and Hannah are smart, sassy and always interesting as they talk through the books, films and expanding fandom. They directly tackle a lot of the issues that exist in these stories and they do so in a loving way that's both critical and affectionate.)
The Harry Potter fandom have gifted us a stack of excellent things. My personal favourites include a cult YouTube musical (A Very Potter Musical), an alternative soundtrack to the first film (Wizard People, Dear Reader), and a brilliantly apt vision of Harry Potter today (Modern Day Harry Potter).
The fact that none of these things are 'authorised' doesn't stop me from reading them as true. You don't have to own the official merchandise to be a true fan, and you don't need your stories to approved by Warner Brothers to be valid either.
I've felt so lucky to be part of the Harry Potter fandom over the years. It's a passionate and engaged community of readers and creatives. The fandom is also a hot mess of ongoing debates and arguments, and I love this about it. A lot of people who engage with the fandom are younger than me and their experiences of the seven Harry Potter books are so different from my own. They have plenty to say about what the books mean for them in their lives, and it's worth listening to. (People who question the legitimacy and value of fandoms outside of the internet have probably never heard of The Harry Potter Alliance.)
20 years ago, Philosopher's Stone convinced people to start taking young readers seriously. Let's keep on doing that.