I think my daughter read the first Harry Potter book 30 times when she was in third grade but that devotion didn’t last. However, for her friend, Leah Bartels, the worlds spawned by Harry Potter still exert their mystical (and youth-subcultural) pulls to this day. In fact, in August she and her mother are off to Toronto with friends for “Prophecy 2007: From Hero to Legend,” which describes itself as “an academic conference geared toward adult fans of Harry Potter who want to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the series in a unique way.”
Bartels, a rising senior at Princeton High School, didn’t get into Harry Potter until the third book came out. She was more than a little dubious about the phenomenon at first, thinking, “Oh, I won’t jump on the bandwagon. Everyone is reading those books, and I’m probably not going to like them.” But when her mother bought her one of the books when she was about 10, the “I’m different” pose flew out the door.
Trying to explain what turned her into such a diehard fan, Bartels says, “Because no other book I’ve read has had me so engaged in the plot — there are plenty of other books where maybe I appreciate the quality of the narrative more. But nothing has the quality where I don’t want to put it down, and if I am forced to put it down, I can’t wait to get back to it.”
For Bartels Harry Potter is much more than a book — it is an alternative universe that has inspired the creativity of its denizens.
First, there’s the fan fiction. That’s when fans — not only of Harry Potter but also of “Star Trek” and “Doctor Who” — borrow characters and situations and write new episodes and sequels. “Fans are playing in a premade universe,” says Bartels, “and they fantasize things that will never happen.” What might happen, say, if Draco Malfoy and Harry Potter went out on a date?
This fictional genre even has its own terminology. A “character introspective,” for example, might answer a question like “What was Danny thinking in this scene?”
Similarly, fan art comprises activities like drawing characters, and “wizard rock” is the work of bands like Harry and the Potters and the Whomping Willows, who write and songs about Harry Potter. Another wizard rock band, Remus Lupins, is performing on Thursday, August 9, at Princeton Public Library.
“It’s a huge subculture,” says Bartels. “Think of any creative outlet and people have done it for Harry Potter: recipe books, costume parties, knitting clubs — you name it, it’s been done.”
At the August convention, whose name changes every year, Bartels looks forward to meeting simpatico attendees but also to rubbing shoulders with the “marginally famous” — hosts of podcasts on some of the better-known Harry Potter Web sites, like leakynews.com or mugglenet.com.
Bartels also plans to be at the Friday, July 20, block party organized by the Princeton toy and bookstore Jazams. “I’ll be there in my Hufflepuff robes,” she says. “A few Halloweens ago I had my mom make robes, and I’ve been wearing them ever since.”
Joanne Farrugia, owner of Jazams, has been organizing these block parties for five years. If it’s a publication year for a Harry Potter book, that’s the theme; otherwise, it’s been a summer solstice party.
Since the first party, when revitalizing the Princeton downtown was a big concern, Farrugia says she was “determined to make it a community event.” The result has been fun for the participants — between 1,500 and 2,000 are expected this year — and spurred the growth of solid relationships between participating retail merchants.
Booths will offer crafts, activities, food, and drink. For example, Kitchen Kapers will have Harry Potter trivia questions and gifts of gold coins, Red Green Blue will sponsor hat making, and Jazams will offer classes in potions and herbology, with live animals. This year the Princeton Arts Council will have a costume for “best dressed” as well as wand making at Ollivanders.
Palmer Square is helping Jazams with the evening’s expenses, but the evening will definitely take a big cut out of Farrugia’s budget. And what it will do for her store? She thinks in terms of the long-term dividends. “It makes people remember you, draws people to town, and makes the town more exciting,” she says. “If you want to have a vibrant community, it’s not necessarily economically wise but an emotional thing you can’t measure. It’s a quality-of-life issue.”
When it gets dark, “Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets” will be screened on the Green, and at 11:30 p.m., Jazams will have a storyteller reading, in preparation for the midnight green light to sell copies of the new book. This year Jazams will offer a 20 percent discount off the cover price ($34.99), but the store has ordered only a few hundred books. Many people, she admits, will come to the party and buy the books elsewhere (Amazon is taking pre-orders for $17.99).
Looking at the effects of the Harry Potter phenomenon on toy retailing, Farrugia thinks that interest is trending downward. “There’s not the fever there used to be,” she says. “I think this will be the biggest block event because it’s the last book, but we’re not selling as much product.” And at the recent American Specialty Toy Retailing Association convention (Farrugia is president of the group), she says, “it didn’t come up at all.”
Even if Harry Potter toys are on the wane, Kate Elliott, Jazams’ book buyer and a student at the School of Communication, Information and Library Studies at Rutgers, suggests some continuing influences on readers and writers. First of all, a burgeoning interest in fantasy for kids who never would have tried it. As a result of Harry Potter mania, she has seen more interest in authors who were already writing fantasy, like Eva Ibbotson, Diana Wynne Jones, and Philip Pullman, as well as new writers entering the genre because of its popularity with readers and hence with publishers.
Most important for Elliott is that the Harry Potter books have either ignited or reignited a passion for reading, “something that lasts with you for a lifetime. When people have finished with Harry Potter,” she says, “they love the feeling of being immersed in a book and its characters and ask, ‘Now what else can I read that will give me that feeling?’”
To serve this need, Jazams and other bookstores are sharing lists of “If you like Harry, you’ll like…”
Elliott credits Harry Potter mania to author J.K. Rowling’s creation of incredibly memorable characters and successfully blending three genres. The first, says Elliott, is the school story. “Sneaking out of the room, fights with the teacher, bonding with fellow classmates, has a long literary history,” Elliott says. Kids like to picture a world more exciting than their own school. The second is the underdog — “The kid who is picked on finding his day — what an appealing concept!” The third is fantasy. “Rowling does such a good job of making this kind of magic that adults and kids want to have these things in reality.”
Not only do kids read the Harry Potter books but they remember all the details. Princeton Public Library is offering a trivia contest on Friday, July 20, at 4 p.m.
According to Susan Conlon, teen services librarian, contestants will be sorted into four “houses,” actually teams, and will have to answer questions on the first six books that were prepared by a volunteer, Don Suplee, a retired Montgomery Township teacher and a Harry Potter fan.
As a librarian, Conlon is already wondering about the next series that will capture her readers in the same way — turning reluctance into voraciousness, or at least enthusiasm. But in the meantime she offers a short-term prediction for the day after the last Harry Potter book makes its midnight showing: “I predict it will be really quiet all over town for the amount of time it takes people to read the book.”
Conlon treasures a memory of her own daughters, now 17 and 19, who will of course get to read the home copy before she does. Years ago a friend was visiting, and the kids, six of them, wanted to go out and buy the newest Harry Potter book at midnight. They piled into her car — six kids and two adults — and as she pulled into a parking spot near Barnes & Noble, before her car door was even closed, all the kids were skittering across the lot toward the store.
Ironic, perhaps, coming from a children’s librarian in a day of electronic options galore, but Conlon turned to her friend, still sitting in the car, and asked, “Did you ever think you’d live to the day to see kids running for a book?”
Harry Potter Trivia Contest, Friday, July 20, 4 p.m. Princeton Public Library, 65 Witherspoon Street, 609-924-8822.
Harry Potter Block Party, Friday, July 20, 6 p.m. Palmer Square, Hulfish Street, Princeton. Crafts, costume parade, and contests (street closed to traffic). Screening of “Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets” at 9 p.m. on the Green. “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallow,” the final book of the series, will be sold at Jazams at midnight. Reserve at 609-924-8697.
Harry Potter Party, Friday, July 20, 7 p.m. West Windsor Library, 333 North Post Road. Ages 8 and up. 609-799-0462.
Midnight Magic Party, Friday, July 20, 8 p.m., Barnes & Noble, MarketFair. Evening of contests, games, trivia, potions, prizes, and a costume contest. “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows” arrives at midnight. 609-716-1570.
Potter Palooza, Friday, July 20, 9 p.m., Lambertville Public Library, 6 Lilly Street, Lambertville. Screening of “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire,” crafts, prizes, games, magic, and experiments. At midnight receive pre-ordered copies of “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.” 609-397-0275.
Grand Hallows Ball, Friday, July 20, 9:30 p.m. Borders Books, 601 Nassau Park. An evening of drama, games, and magic while awaiting the midnight release of “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.” Costumes and formal attire encouraged. 609-514-0040.
Harry Potter Storytime, Saturday, July 21, 11 a.m. Barnes & Noble, MarketFair. Storyteller Gwendolyn Jones presents stories and songs for all ages. 609-716-1570.
Harry Potter Scavenger Hunt, Saturday, July 21, 7 p.m. Plainsboro Public Library, 641 Plainsboro Road. Find natural treasures and potion ingredients on the municipal complex grounds. 609-275-2897.