“Mr and Mrs Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much. “
This is the opening sentence to Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone that was released to the world on 26 June 1997.
In the twenty years since the first Harry Potter book in the series hit the shelves, the world of children’s literature has been turned upside down.
The series of seven books, published by Bloomsbury in the UK and Scholastic in the US have delighted children and adults alike. They are now in 75 languages and have sold over 450 million copies. They cover between 3300 and 4100 pages (depending upon the edition that you have) and have spawned not only great films but a global industry of add-ons.
The opening sentence is beautiful in its simplicity, 22 words that very neatly lead us to what may follow yet tell us little. It is intriguing, as is the story behind the creation of this Wizarding World that we’ve all grown to know and love.
So, we know the book is about Harry Potter, the title tells us that. It is an ordinary name, no flamboyance, a quiet name so no clues there about magic.
The Philosopher’s Stone does give us some more clues though. From the Middle Ages to the late 17th-century it was believed that the Philosopher’s Stone was a substance that could turn ordinary metals such as iron, tin and lead into precious metals like gold and silver.
It also was thought to act as an Elixir of Life, with the power to cure illness, renew the elements of youth and for those who possessed the stone, make them immortal.
The Philosopher’s Stone may have been red or white, colours often used in alchemy or it may have not have been a stone at all, but a powder; the exact details are not known. In JK Rowling’s book, it was a stone, a red stone.
Over the centuries, many brilliant minds searched for the Philosopher’s Stone, even Sir Isaac Newton who was known to have a great interest in alchemy.
Long before Newton, however, there was Nicolas Flamel, a French bookseller and notary who lived in Paris during the 14th and early 15th centuries.
In 1382, Flamel claimed to have transformed lead into gold after decoding an ancient book of alchemy with the help of a Spanish scholar.
Whether this was true or not, Harry Potter fans might recognize the name, as J.K. Rowling incorporated Nicolas Flamel into the first book in her world-famous series.
So the title tells us of an ordinary boy and a mystical stone – interesting. The first sentence takes us however in a completely different direction.
Mr and Mrs Dursley, this is a real surname but the “Dur” in the name suggests something very ordinary, even slightly dull? (apologies to any Dursleys reading)
Equally evocative is their address, number 4 Privet Drive.
Privet is an evergreen shrub, sometimes green and sometimes ‘gold’, much loved in British gardens as a front hedge. It is quick growing, leafy in all seasons, and above all easy to keep.
It is pleasant enough, conventional but plain. Does that describe the family who lives in the house?
So, the name, the street name and the dialogue ‘perfectly normal, thank you very much’ tells us much – they want no “strange goings on here please”. Delightful.
The book promises with its mystical title that Harry will be everything the Dursleys are not.
We like Harry before the book even starts.
Joanne Rowling was born on 31 July 1965 in Gloucestershire, the eldest daughter of Peter and Anne Rowling. Younger sister Dianne. Had an idyllic childhood and enjoyed school.
Joanne Rowling has always wanted to write; she wrote her first book, called Rabbit about, not surprisingly, a rabbit when she was six. When she was eleven, she wrote a book about seven cursed diamonds and the people who owned them.
She went to secondary school at Wyedean and it was there that she met her close friend Sean Harris, who owned the original Ford Anglia and to whom the Chamber of Secrets is dedicated.
Those years were some of her happiest memories a teenager, whizzing around the country roads with Sean. She spoke often of her ambition to be a writer and he believed wholeheartedly she would be a success; this meant a great deal to her and how right he was too.
After University in Exeter, Jo worked in London. In 1990, she decided to move with her then boyfriend to Manchester. One weekend after flat-hunting, she was travelling back to London and the train was delayed.
For four hours, she sat with her notebook and pen and Harry came fully formed into her mind. The small dark haired bespectacled boy who didn’t know he was a wizard became more and more real to her. So, from that day she held on to her ideas, adding to them as she went along.
Sadly, in December 1990, Jo’s beloved mother passed away from Multiple Sclerosis a disease she contracted when Jo was just 15.
About 9 months later, with the need to get away from London, Jo decided to take up a post in Portugal teaching English. Here she met and married a Portuguese man and her daughter Jessica was born.
The marriage did not survive and in 1994, Jo arrived back in the UK with her daughter. Now a single mother, penniless and without prospects, she chose to move to Edinburgh where her sister was living and took a very small flat, living off the money she was given by the government as a single parent.
She knew that the manuscript that she had now been working on for almost 5 years, would have to be finished and so when Jessica slept, Jo wrote feverishly, in cafes during the day and in the flat at night. She typed the manuscript herself on an old typewriter and got the first 3 chapters finished.
She sent these off to a literary agent who immediately sent them back. Undeterred Jo sent them to a second agent Christopher Little who sent Jo a letter containing just two sentences asking to see the whole manuscript. She was over the moon.
Jo then took up a teaching post so that she had an income and could look after her daughter well whilst continuing to hope that her agent would have success and her book would be taken up by a publisher.
It took a year and many rejections before Bloomsbury Publishing made Jo an “offer” to publish her book. They made her an offer of £1500 for the first book (about $1900), it felt like a fortune, indeed it was to her.
From that day in August 1996, Jo Rowling’s life changed forever.
Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone was published on 26 June 1997 by Bloomsbury Publishing.
Its initial print run was five hundred copies, of which the majority were intended for school libraries. They are a children’s book, written by a parent and intended to be read by children.
Such was the interest in the books however, that later editions were published with more “grown-up” covers so that adults could read them without having to hide the covers.
The first book was published in the US by Scholastic Publishing on 1 September 1998 under the name Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (the name change was because the Publisher felt that the US audience would be unlikely to buy the book with the word “Philosopher” in the title. Jo Rowling agreed to the name change and suggested Sorcerer but she always regretted the decision which is why later books and the films remain unchanged).
Jo received an advance of $105,000 for the US version showing the interest since the book had first launched and the expectation for the future books.
The final book Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows was published by Bloomsbury on 21 July 2007, 10 years after the publication of the first. Such was the anticipation that apparently, Bloomsbury spent £10 million trying to keep the book secret until publication.
With the Harry Potter seven book series Jo Rowling brought, joy, excitement and imagination to millions of children. Children who had never really been readers became so and the books changed the course of children’s literature; we owe Jo Rowling a great debt of gratitude.
The Harry Potter franchise is now vast with books, movies, memorabilia, plays, theme parks and more; all of this has of course made Joanne Rowling a very wealthy woman and rightly so.
She is a very private person and values her privacy and that of her family above all else. She believes strongly in giving back and has always been grateful for the help she received when she arrived back in Edinburgh in 1994, penniless and a single mum.
Her Philanthropy is significant, she is deeply involved with charities at home and across the globe. For more information on that visit jkrowling.com/about.
In 2008, JK Rowling was asked to give the commencement speech at Harvard University and it is now one of their most viewed speeches.
Jo Rowling chose to frame her speech around the benefits of failure and the importance of imagination, two things very close to her own heart.
In it she said
“A mere seven years after my graduation day, I had failed on an epic scale. An exceptionally short-lived marriage had imploded, and I was jobless, a lone parent, and as poor as it is possible to be in modern Britain, without being homeless. I was the biggest failure I knew.
So why the benefits of failure? Simply because failure meant a stripping away of the inessential. I stopped pretending to myself that I was anything other than what I was, and began to direct all my energy into finishing the only work that mattered to me.
Had I really succeeded at anything else, I might never have found the determination to succeed in the one arena I believed I truly belonged. I was set free, because my greatest fear had been realised.
I was still alive, and I still had a daughter whom I adored, and I had an old typewriter and a big idea. And so, rock bottom became the solid foundation on which I rebuilt my life.”
Equally she spoke of the importance of imagination as
“Imagination is not only the uniquely human capacity to envision that which is not, and therefore the fount of all invention and innovation.
In its arguably most transformative and revelatory capacity, it is the power that enables us to empathise with humans whose experiences we have never shared.”
Here is a link to the full speech
So, if it were not for that day in 1990 when Joanne Rowling was stuck on a train and Harry came to her fully formed in her mind, we would not now have these wonderful treasures that bring joy to so many across the world.
The books will endure and many new generations will experience the delights of Hogwarts and its Magical Creatures.
And so, mere Muggles I say to you, what is your One Thing you will do today in Your Way to change the world because one day really does change everything?
Whatever you do, I hope you have a very good day and I leave you with the parting words of JK Rowling from 2008.
“We do not need magic to change the world, we carry all the power we need inside ourselves already: we have the power to imagine better.”
All is Well.
Until next time.