It seems to be a (fucked up) truth universally acknowledged that girls are more willing to read books with boys on the cover than boys are to read books with girls on the cover, but let me tell you now that I was never so acquiescent. The gender bias was strong with me, albeit in the opposite direction; as an early reader, I only read books with girls, or horses, or maybe rabbits on the cover. (I eschewed every volume of The Chronicles of Narnia except The Last Battle, which found its way into my heart via unicorn.)
Until, at 9 years old, long before I’d more-than-willingly pick up copy of Pride and Prejudice prominently featuring Mr Darcy, with no rabbits or unicorns in sight, I had my first – and maybe only – Austen heroine moment.
Picture me: scrawny and prone to chewing on my hair, wearing the brand new glasses I was sure were the direct result of having spent the last few years reading after hours with only the muted glow of the streetlight outside my bedroom window to see by. I’m in a bookshop – fully lit, which feels luxurious – and there’s a display obnoxiously blocking my path to the fairy tale retelling section, the sole source of of my adolescent brain’s diet. The display is stuffed with copies of a single book, and beyond being annoyed that it’s in my way, I also think it just looks a bit stupid, to be honest. What’s so interesting about a skinny boy looking a bit dopey on a broomstick while reaching out for a ball anyway?
There was pride, there was prejudice, and there was the (less fucked-up) truth universally acknowledged that a girl with specific reading criteria may find herself, at some point or another, eating crow.
A month after that fateful, prejudiced bookshop meet-cute, my fourth-grade teacher sat us down for story time and produced Harry Potter and the (what was, to me, 12 years before I moved to the UK) Sorcerer’s Stone.
And while it hadn’t been love at first sight, it most definitely was love at first line.
Now. We all know what they say: Don’t judge a book by its cover. And while you might say the story I’m about to tell you proves it, I would argue that it remains an exception and not the rule, in the same way that just because your one friend married a guy she met on Tinder does not mean you should swipe right on every guy on Tinder, amirite? A gem is one a million but a waste of time is, like, 1 in 1.5. Trust me, I’ve read a lot of books – good covers, bad covers, and covers in between. Nothing’s ever done it for me like this.
And the point is, this did do it for me. This was my one gem in a million. This was my Tinder date gone right. My Mr Darcy. My Harry-fucking-Potter.
Hogwarts lit a fire in my lonely, nerdy little heart that autumn in 1999, and nothing – nothing – has ever compared to it. I found love in a crowded place, quite literally – there were a lot of kids in my class that year. But every day after lunch, when Ms Geanette cracked open the Sorcerer’s Stone, everyone else disappeared and I found myself immersed in a place where I finally felt I belonged. I found myself completely at home.
But it wouldn’t be a love story without an obstacle, now, would it?
And I know I’m not alone when I say, for me, that obstacle was none other than incredibly misguided religion.
Not long after Harry, Ron, and Hermione narrowly missed being caught out of bed on an ill-informed duelling dare, Ms Geanette abruptly announced that our after-lunch reading sessions – and, possibly even worse, our Hogwarts-themed Halloween party – were cancelled following complaints from some parents who didn’t care for their kids to be exposed to witchcraft. No similar problems were reported about the Nancy Drew books that lined our classroom library, because exposing kids to murder and money laundering is fine, I guess.
Nevertheless, I persisted – actually, my mom did. She picked up where the fourth grade left off, reading a chapter a day out loud, all the way up to the end of Goblet of Fire. And after we read? We prayed. Because, this may surprise someone out there, but God has bigger problems than your kids reading a fucking book about good triumphing over evil and the power of love and all that shit.
But my star-crossed relationship with the wizarding world’s brush with intolerance wasn’t quite over: During the drought between Goblet of Fire and Order of the Phoenix, I attended a Christian school where Potter books were banned and where, I kid you not, my Bible teacher dedicated two lessons to proving to us that Harry Potter really was satanic.
In my first experience with #FakeNews, I was informed that “Potter” is the name of a Wiccan god and “The Sorcerer’s Stone” is an ancient pagan idol. You can’t possibly imagine the strength of my teenage eyeroll here, and the Hermione-esque pride in my research I felt when I secretly slipped a printed list of “Christian Morals in Harry Potter,” alongside a note to clarify that “Sorcerer's Stone” wasn’t even the book’s real name, so argument = invalid, into her mailbox the next day.
A truth not so universally acknowledged? Humans are so tragically good at finding the devil in the details and missing him in all those big, sweeping strokes of cruelty and misfortune that books (and maybe Harry Potter more than most!) actually help us identify and slowly learn to correct.
Years passed; I changed schools, got contacts (and started reading with the light on), and fell deeper in love with the wizarding world every day. I looked to the Harry Potter books for all kinds of hope and discovered that I could fill in the gaps they left with online fandom. Without those years scouring the internet for a good AU fic, arguing passionately (with page numbers!) in favour of Ron/Hermione, developing all kinds of fan theories, and building characters for role-play sites, I might never have learned how to do my research on any topic. Never have learned to entertain other points of view. Never found my voice as a writer.
It definitely would have taken me a hell of a lot longer to learn anything at all about sex, but that’s another essay.
But even though these books have been my lifetime love, they’re not jealous: They’ve always encouraged me to explore the rest of the library, to leave them behind for a while and imagine other worlds and other lives. To ask myself: “What would Hermione do?” (The answer, of course, is “read ALL the books”). Loving Harry Potter made me a braver, more open-minded reader. And I know I said it’s totally fine to judge a book by its cover, but in realising I loved a book with a cover I fucking hated, I will say that I became open to a shitty cover, or a “gendered” cover, in a way that I had simply refused to be before.
Reading Harry Potter has expanded so many horizons for me – in my approach to reading and stories and friendship and different lifestyles (thanks, fanfiction.net!), but also literally: It’s the first and most formative seed that led me to move to the UK.
Now, let me be clear: I don’t live in London because of the easy access to the Warner Bros. Harry Potter Studio Tour (though I might if they offered season passes ;)). I live in London now because I came here for a summer in 2011, and I fell in love. With a person, this time, not a book. A person who I didn’t think looked stupid on first glance and with whom I’ve had a very (thankfully, IMO) un-Austenian love story. A person who, it pains me to admit, never read past Goblet of Fire (but has made me an “in case of emergency” hard drive full of the films and audiobooks, so is mostly forgiven).
But I can’t deny that when I first came to this country that summer it was because, 12 years earlier, I met a boy who I did think looked a bit stupid on the cover of a book, a boy whose adventures delighted me and taught me and expanded my mind and my heart and made me so, so curious about the place he came from.
I am where I am, in love with who I’m in love with, believe what I believe, write about love and books and human stories, because 20 years ago a publisher put a silly-looking book out into the world, and two years later I fell in love with it.