This week my son’s Elementary school is engaged in a venture into the world of Harry Potter. The teachers of 3rd, 4th, and 5th grades have divided the students into the four Houses of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. This is an opportunity to look back on the single person who created a series of fictional children’s books that revitalized reading for millions of people of all ages.
Any story of great personal success is characterized by being the correct person, in the correct place, at the correct time. That is a requirement. The story of J. K. Rowling is more compelling for why she was the correct person.
Her birth name is Joanne Rowling and she uses “Jo” in casual environments. She has no given middle name but was asked by her publisher to disguise her name so that young boys would not know that Harry Potter was written by a woman. Since she had no middle name she used her grandmother’s name, ‘Kathleen,’ and thus became, “J. K. Rowling (her last name is pronounced, ‘rolling.’)
Rowling accomplished the unthinkable. At a time when reading books was declining and the Internet was blossoming, the idea that one person could ignite a renaissance of book reading was considered absurd. Rowling’s first publisher told her to get a day job because writing children’s books would never provide enough income.
Like William Shakespeare, there is no significant indicator in Rowling’s pre-Potter life of her eventual rise to the top of the literary world. Still, there are earlier experiences that probably contributed to her success. Among them are the following:
- Her parents met at King’s Cross Station in London, which became the fictional departure point for the fictional train station departure point to Hogwarts. [Potter influences]
- As a child she was known to write out a story and read it to her sister, Dianne. [Early fiction writing]
- Her mother, Anne, was a science technician and also taught science at the Secondary school that Rowling attended. [Priority of education]
- She speaks English, French and studied German in Secondary school. [Broad-based education]
- She read and is an admirer of Jessica Mitford, a British-turned-American journalist, author, and political activist. [Ethics, writing, and honor]
- She has a Bachelor’s of Arts degree in French and the Classics from the University of Exeter. [Writing and knowledge]
- She studied a year in Paris. [Broad-based education]
- She taught English in Portugal [Life experience]
- Her mother had multiple sclerosis (MS) and died while she was writing her first Harry Potter book. [Life experience]
- Rowling suffered from depression triggered by several life events (Unemployed, her mother’s death, her divorce, etc.) [Life experience]
The idea for Harry Potter apparently came in 1990, during a four-hour train delay to London. She began writing as soon as she reached home and among the first chapters written was the final chapter of the last book. The first book was not finished until 1995. It was submitted and rejected by twelve publishers before it was finally accepted by Bloomsbury Publishing in England the follow year.
She went from living off of State benefits to a millionaire in five years. Since then, she has devoted a large portion of her fortune to philanthropic causes.
Though remarkable, Rowling’s financial success is not as significant as what she did for slowing the decline of children reading for fun during the period her books were published (1996-2007.) According to a study by Common Sense Media, 9-year-olds reading for fun at least one to two per week dropped only one percent from 1984 to 2004; however, by 2012 that dropped by another four percent (76% in 2012.) For 13-year-olds the decline in reading for fun from 1984 to 2004, was six percent, but that decline nearly doubled five years after the last Harry Potter book was published (down an additional eleven percent in 2012 to 53%.)
No one, including possibly Rowling, herself, could have expected anyone to capture a worldwide audience, as did the Harry Potter series. She brought new readers into the literary market that had no interest in reading. Her unexpected achievement is a reminder that what is possible extends beyond the impossible.