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A generation came of age with Harry Potter

In a few days, a generation of children who grew up with the Harry Potter series will learn the fate author J.K. Rowling has for the boy wizard who was with them through it all.
/ Source: The Associated Press

They were just learning to instant-message their friends when Harry Potter got his first owl from Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.

As they were using their freshly minted licenses to drive to school — stopping for that status-symbol Frappuccino on the way — Harry was meeting his estranged godfather Sirius Black.

When they were already stalking old boyfriends and girlfriends through MySpace and Facebook, Harry was getting his first kiss, battling evil wizards and discovering a prophecy about his future.

And in a few days, a generation of children who grew up with the Harry Potter series will learn the fate author J.K. Rowling has for the boy wizard who was with them through it all.

Makenzie Greenblatt, a 20-year-old student at the University of Washington, began reading Harry Potter in 1999 when she received the first book in the series for Chanukah. Back then, people barely knew the significance of a lightening shaped scar when her friend’s little brother dressed up as the boy who lived for Halloween. Now the cultural boom is inescapable.

“It’s been weird to watch the phenomenon of it spread and to see how big it’s become,” Greenblatt said, dressed in a witch's hat, cape and Harry Potter shirt at the recent midnight premiere of “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix” in Seattle.

In the past decade, Greenblatt and her peers hoarded every word of Rowling’s unfolding series for the past decade. Now they’re in college or at their first jobs, but their love of the wizarding world has not abated.

A cultural phenomenon
“Harry Potter is part of a shared cultural heritage. It serves as a touchstone for their experience that they can look back on, and binds them as a group culturally and generationally,” said Philip Nel, an associate professor of English Kansas State University who teaches a course on Harry Potter and wrote “J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter Novels: A Reader’s Guide.”

Meeting someone who hasn’t read the books, or at least watched a movie is weird for Terra Morgan, a 21-year-old University of Washington student who sat next to Greenblatt at the movie, wearing a Gryffindor-style gold and crimson striped scarf. For Morgan, Harry Potter is more than a book series.

“It’s social more than anything else because everyone knows about it,” Morgan said.

In fact, Morgan and Greenblatt met while creating a Harry Potter-style competition for the drama department at the University of Washington.

After the sixth book in the series, “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince,” came out two years ago, Matt Hungerford, a 19-year-old student at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, spent a week discussing plot nuances with his friends.

“I think in five or 10 years when people look back it will definitely be something people remember,” Hungerford said. “I can’t think of any other books that have captured more attention than this.”

Growing up with Harry
For Sarah Harper, a 19-year-old student at Centenary College of Louisiana, reading the series through her adolescence was like growing up with Harry.

“At 15 his experiences were very similar to my experiences in a weird way. Except I wasn’t fighting evil wizards all the time,” Harper said.

Many readers feel a similar connection, said Nancy Pearl, author of “Book Lust.”

“One of the things for people who did come of age as Harry came of age is that the increased complexity of the books made it worth their while to keep reading,” Pearl said.

She compared the Harry Potter books to other cultural milestones, such as “Star Wars” in the 1970s.

“It’s as much a cultural icon as cell phones and the Internet,” Pearl said.

The end of an era
As the hours countdown to midnight Saturday, members of the Potter generation are preparing for the end of a decade-long affair.

Some plan to reread the series. Caroline Reaves, a 19-year-old student at Colby College in Waterville, Maine, sped through all 885,943 words of the first six books in 24 hours to prepare for book seven. She said she might slow down her reading speed to savor the last book.

Emerson Spartz, creator of the popular Potter site , said the last pages of the books would be bittersweet.

“Each page is going to be like a death clock counting down,” Spartz said.

After the last page is turned, what do Potterphiles do next?

“We read them again, and again, and again,” Greenblatt said.