Potter Fans Reflect On Growing Up With Harry

The Hartford Courant

In 1999, Helena Morris was an articulate 9-year-old from Simsbury with firm opinions. In an interview with The Courant that year, she described "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone," the first in the J.K. Rowling series, as "the best book in the world, maybe in the universe."

Twelve years later, as the final Potter movie — "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2" — is set to open at midnight Thursday, her feelings haven't wavered much.

"I still love the books very, very much," says the 22-year-old, who's ever more aware of what a huge part they played in her childhood.

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"I used to pray every night that J.K. Rowling would live to finish the series," says Morris, who will soon be a senior at St. Olaf's College in Minnesota. "I'd say, 'Dear God, and let her live beyond that, but especially until she finishes her books.'"

Lately, she says, it's been a "huge point of contention" that her boyfriend has not read any of the books.

"I keep telling him: 'You have to read the books. I can't go out with someone who hasn't read the books. You don't have to love them, but you have to read them to understand so much about my childhood.'"

In the coming decades, Harry Potter will no doubt find a place in the hearts of many children, but perhaps none will have the deep-seated passion for the world of Hogwarts shared by those who grew up with him through the seven-book and eight-movie series.

To explore that special relationship, The Courant contacted five first-generation Potter fans we interviewed a decade or more ago. Their experiences with the books are woven deeply into their childhood memories.

Lily Wilkinson, who was 10 and living in Durham when the first Potter film came out, recalls that "most of the books came out when I was at summer camp, which was sort of an issue." So she'd pre-order the book before leaving for Vermont and await the day when a larger-than-usual mail truck pulled in.

"For the next week, no one cared about the [camp] activities," says Wilkinson, who is turning 20 this summer and lives in Boulder, Colo. "It was just a bunch of girls walking around with their noses in Harry Potter."

Brett Carroll of Farmington, who spent a couple of Halloweens as Harry Potter and posed for The Courant at the age of 9 in costume, says the books "were definitely our generation's series."

"I still think they are interesting books," says Carroll. "I still like the story-line … It's just kind of cool to imagine there was a whole different world … It was pretty easy to read, lots of action."

Carroll, who is now 18 and 6 feet 4, will be attending college in Salt Lake City starting next month.

Holly B. Gonzalez, who was 12 and living in Plainville, helped critique the first Potter film for The Courant and says she's not as obsessed with the books as she used to be, but her interest is still strong. For a college party, she dyed her hair red to be Ginny Weasley, while her boyfriend dressed up as Harry Potter. Now 22 and working for a bank, she hopes to eventually get into publishing.

"I want to make things like [the Potter series] for other kids," she says.

Potter devotees talk about common elements in their childhood: attending midnight book store parties in character costume; the sweet-but-torturous waiting for the next installment; the bittersweet feeling on reaching the final page; reading and rereading to try to discern and predict future plot turns; arguing over the finer plot points and details with the intensity of scholars.

Sally Reis, a professor of educational psychology at UConn, says the books had a particularly deep impact on kids who grew up with Harry, partly because the readers were transitioning through life's stages with him.

"I think many of those young people who were so touched by his life, they were seeking something themselves, seeking a way to do similar things," Reis says.

Kids bring their own interests to what they read, she says, and in many cases they may feel as Harry did going through adolescence: "a little bit different, a little unique, very bright, maybe without a lot of peers … Many identify with Harry on a very personal level. They saw in him a hero, a person who triumphed over evil, who gains friends and people who love him through his valor and his self-journey."

Teikyo Mowchan, 19, who will be a sophomore at Wheaton College in Norton, Mass., this fall, says the book series is not as huge a part of his life now as it was a decade ago, though it did inspire him to want to be a writer. He was living in Newington when he critiqued the first Potter film for The Courant. (He said that movie skipped a bit too abruptly from scene to scene.)

"It was something that guided me through my childhood," Mowchan says. "It did sort of provide help for adolescent problems. Every teenager goes through the same basic things. Harry and I were pretty much synched-up age wise. It was kind of like he was my guide in a way. It was really nice."

Morris identified most with Hermione.

"I was always a huge nerd in school," says Morris, and Hermione suffered with her reputation as "a smart girl … really kind of a dork."

"People were always putting her in a box," Morris says, but then Hermione proved that she was far more complex and courageous.

As the youngest in a large family, Wilkinson identified with Ginny Weasley. "I just remember that first book when they are being dropped off at the train station and everyone is saying, 'Oh, don't worry Ginny, you'll get to go next year,' and that was the story of my life."

The delay of a year or more between books intensified their influence. While the kids were waiting for the next book, they read and reread the books they had, looking for clues about what might happen next.

Children starting the books now "will still love the books, but there won't be the fascination for what's going to happen next," says Reis. "I don't think they will think about it so deeply because they can pick up the next book."

Just before the sixth book came out — "Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince" — the fans of the series remember the obsession with trying to determine who would die in that book.

"Oh yeah, some of the best times were waiting just before the books," Mowchan says. "You knew you were going to know in a few days, but you had no idea what you were going to know."

The anticipation about what might happen and the realization that "it didn't happen the way you thought it might, engaged [young readers]," Reis said. "They became part of the writing process by waiting."

The first generation of Potter fans worry that kids won't be mature enough to appreciate the books if they buzz through them quickly, and others fear they will just see the movies.

Mowchan thinks the series "lost something of its sparkle now that it's complete."

But that doesn't mean he isn't planning to see "Deathly Hallows." Mowchan and Wilkinson already have their tickets for the midnight showing. Only Morris won't be going. She's always refused to see the movies because she feared Hollywood would ruin them for her.

"I would get invited over to people's houses and I'd say, 'I'm going to leave if you are going play this movie,'" Morris says. "I've fought it my entire childhood."

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