June 26, 1997. Twenty years ago today, HARRY POTTER AND THE PHILOSOPHER’S STONE was published. Over the next two decades, that one book would grow into seven books, eight movies, a stage play, and even a spinoff series. Harry Potter is a massive franchise and a beloved cornerstone of popular culture.

It all started with a little boy who lived under the stairs…

But it wasn’t always that way for me. I grew up in one of those churches. People talked about how J. K. Rowling was the devil, magic is evil, and I wasn’t allowed to read it. I couldn’t escape it, though. My first grade teacher read the book aloud to us. I was horrified, thinking that I wasn’t supposed to read it. Harry Potter continued to follow me. In fourth grade, the teacher made me read HARRY POTTER AND THE CHAMBER OF SECRETS because all her other books were not advanced enough for me. This time, I was older. I sneered at the book, and its silly, evil plot. Of course, to this day, CHAMBER is my least favorite of the series.

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So what changed? When I was fifteen, my best friend invited me to see HARRY POTTER AND THE ORDER OF THE PHOENIX in theaters. She had an extra ticket to the midnight showing and didn’t want to go with her mom. I came along, fully intending to be underwhelmed. At this point, I no longer believed Harry Potter was evil; I just thought it was overrated.

Then Nymphadora Tonks came on screen, purple-haired clumsy punk, and I fell in love. I left the theater a full convert. The final book was soon to be released, and I was desperate to catch up. I went to the midnight book release dressed as Hermione Granger. I finished the book in nine hours.

How do I love thee? Let me count the ways:

The Characters

J. K. Rowling is a master of characterization. Whenever you ask someone who their favorite Harry Potter character is, they could say anyone. There are just too many well-developed, interesting, and endearing characters to choose from. In fact, despite being the star of the franchise, few people would name Harry as their favorite. This isn’t because Harry is a bad character (shoo, OoTP haters), but rather because someone else has stolen their affection. Let’s break it down.

“Don’t Call Me Nymphadora” Tonks

You had me at “wotcher.”

As I mentioned earlier, Tonks was my first favorite character. When I was fifteen, she was all I wanted to be in life. She was sassy and unafraid to be her own person. I spray painted my hair pink and wore a leather jacket to look like Tonks the next Halloween. When I read HARRY POTTER AND THE HALF-BLOOD PRINCE, I was enraptured by her love for Remus Lupin (more on him in a moment). Her story leads to an ultimately tragic end, unfortunately. She is sadly removed from much of the action in HARRY POTTER AND THE DEATHLY HALLOWS due to her pregnancy, but she can’t stay away. When I got to the part where she is revealed to be dead, I cried so hard I couldn’t see the page anymore. That’s an impressive emotional response to elicit from someone who became a fan just weeks earlier.

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Remus “Why Is Life So Terrible” Lupin

Poor Lupin.

I first fell in love with Lupin as Tonks did. She was my gateway drug, so to speak. But the more I read about Lupin, the greater admiration I had for his character. This was a man who had suffered so much tragedy in his life. Yet he still believes in good and fights for what he knows to be right. He still supports Harry, even when they have a huge fight. Seeing him in the end, when Harry uses the Resurrection Stone, was heartbreaking. He had finally found happiness with his wife and son. And in the end, it’s ripped away from him. Lupin became a werewolf when he was only four because his father had angered Greyback. He finds unexpected joy in his friends but loses them all in one night. Sirius is redeemed to him but dies two years later.

Can Lupin catch a break? No. He just dies.

Minerva “Maggie Smith” McGonagall

#BossWitch

I mean, come on. McGonagall is an amazingly cool character. She’s a tough lady who won’t hesitate to put you in detention, but she’ll also give you a biscuit and advice. McGonagall gets a bad rap as the tough and unsympathetic head of Gryffindor House. Of course, when your series follows rule breakers like the Trio, McGonagall is going to have to hand out punishment. But she’s not unsympathetic. She worries about Harry and wants what is best for him. She disagrees with Dumbledore’s actions, thinking that they should do better for someone who has already lost so much. This is a woman who sat for an entire day watching the Dursleys, a day the rest of the Wizarding World celebrated, because she didn’t think they were good for Harry.

The moment that McGonagall sees Harry’s “dead” body in HARRY POTTER AND THE DEATHLY HALLOWS, she lets out an anguished wail. That, for me, was one of the most well-written moments in an amazingly well-written series. Harry remarks that he couldn’t believe McGonagall would make such a noise. McGonagall is so tough, so self-possessed, so in charge, that it’s hard to imagine her in anguish. But this is a woman who has watched and worried over Harry for years. Of course, she cares about him. To see him dead is too much for her.

Neville “BAMF” Longbottom

He just needed to believe in himself.

Neville is just the best. This poor, poor boy. What happened to his parents was such a tragedy. You don’t think about it too much, since Neville is such a goofball, but his parents were aurors. What would his life have been like if they were able to raise him? So many of his problems stem from the fact that his grandmother had to raise him. She loved Neville, but she mourned her son, and the pressure she put on Neville to be like Frank was too much. In the end, it’s only when Neville realizes he doesn’t have to be his father, he can just be himself, that he blossoms.

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Neville in HARRY POTTER AND THE DEATHLY HALLOWS is an amazing character. Here is a man who had been mocked, insulted, attacked, and overall horribly treated by many of the students. Yet when it came down to it, he was willing to put himself at risk to protect them. It’s been six years, and I’m still mad about how the final movie portrayed him as still oafish. Neville deserved better. He truly was a Gryffindor. He just took some time to realize it.

Luna “I Blame the Nargles” Lovegood

Cinnamon Roll. Too good. Too pure.

Who doesn’t love Luna? She’s a breath of fresh air in HARRY POTTER AND THE ORDER OF THE PHOENIX. When Harry is dealing with some (justified) angst over his mentor abandoning him, a homicidal maniac desperate to kill him, and a teacher who is actively torturing him, Luna is there. Harry’s friends don’t understand. They want to help, but they don’t know how to deal with his emotions. Luna doesn’t care. She doesn’t judge; she just listens. Luna openly proclaims her support when many think Harry is lying or worse. Although she comes off as a ditz, she isn’t afraid to call people out. The moment when she is happy to go to Slughorn’s party with Harry “as friends” is both endearing and heartbreaking.

Arthur “Massively Underrated” Weasley

He’s just so sweet.

Arthur Weasley, when it comes down to it, is just a decent man. He’s a family man, and he works hard to support his family. Although he doesn’t make much, he still goes to work every day. While he could advance (and therefore make more money), he stands by his convictions. He won’t kowtow to a minister he doesn’t believe in. And while he seems generally harmless, he’s an integral part of the Order. Better, he supports Harry. Molly wants to baby Harry, keep him innocent (as if that’s even possible anymore). But Arthur knows that information is the best weapon for Harry, warning him about Sirius Black. Later, when Harry sends Arthur information about the Malfoys, he listens. Arthur is a good father, a good wizard, and a good man.

“Just Harry” Potter

A rare moment of happiness.

And let’s not forget poor Harry James Potter. He might just give Lupin a run for his money in “most tragic character.” Harry has lost everyone. He loses his parents. When he finds Sirius, he loses him too. Then he loses Dumbledore, his mentor and the only hope he had of saving the world. He loses Lupin, the only one left for him. He even loses his innocence when, at fourteen, he sees a friend murdered before his eyes. This drags on Harry constantly. When everyone around him seems to die, he internalizes that. It becomes a massive fear for him, and he self-isolates because he thinks that will keep people safe.

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In the end, Harry willingly walks to his death to save other people. He knows that Voldemort will kill him, that he will lose anything he has left. But other people need saving, and Harry isn’t going to back down from that. And yet people constantly mock Harry as “moody,” “angsty,” and “annoying.” How can anyone hate Harry? He’s just a poor kid that has been through so much but refuses to give in. He doesn’t want any of this; he wants to be just Harry.

Hermione Granger

Yes, Hermione deserves her own section. Hermione Granger is such an important character. For a nerdy bookworm like me, Hermione was a goddess. She was a nerd but that was a good thing. How many times did she save Harry and Ron because of something she read? How many times did she save the world because of something she read? And even when she faced persecution, from her fellow schoolmates up to evil racists trying to kill her, she never backed down. When Ron mocked her for being better than him in class, she cried. But she didn’t back down. She knew the importance of learning the proper methods and being prepared.

Also #BossWitch

Taking that idea to the extreme, when Bellatrix tortures her, Hermione doesnt. give. in. She is strong enough to withstand repeated and horrific torture from someone who had literally tortured people into insanity before. And after that, she still manages to pick herself up, dust herself off, and break into Gringott’s. She follows Harry into Hogwarts, knowing that she may die. Worse, she knows that other people might die if she isn’t smart enough, quick enough, and brave enough to save them. That’s a lot of pressure for an eighteen-year-old.

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And let’s not forget all she sacrificed. Hermione erases herself from existence, essentially. She was willing to give up her family to keep them safe. She completes an incredibly difficult bit of magic to save them, knowing that she might never see them again. But rather than run and hide with them, she went with Harry, because she knew that it was the right thing to do and that he needed her.

A good role model.

Hermione’s not perfect. But she is my hero, the person I aspire to be.

Maturity

When the series first emerged, it was definitively for children. The first books were innocent enough, though there is darkness if you look more closely. Young children got to enter a magical world where anything is possible. Although there is danger, Harry is able to prevail with the help of his friends and his determination. The first books also place an emphasis on the magical qualities of the wizarding world. There’s a focus on classes and Quidditch that fades as the series goes on. In the first book, Harry spends an amazing Christmas at Hogwarts. In the fifth book, he spends it in Grimmauld Place, terrified that he is becoming Voldemort and guilt-ridden over seemingly attacking Mr. Weasley.

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That’s a massive shift over four books. And that’s something that’s impressive about these books. They mature alongside their audience. Children who were young when the first books came out, like me, got to grow up with Harry and co. As our youthful naivete faded, so did Harry’s. The books started to address serious issues, like racism, slavery, poverty, discrimination, and hatred. They follow children fighting in a war for their lives and their principles. The way that Rowling is able to subtly mature the books is something else. If you take a direct look at just HARRY POTTER AND THE PHILOSOPHER’S STONE and HARRY POTTER AND THE DEATHLY HALLOWS, there’s a clear and distinct difference. No one can argue about the fact that the first book is for children and the seventh one is not. Yet when you read the series, the changes are subtle enough that you don’t really notice.

“Hogwarts is my home!”

Yet the books are not all hopeless. There’s whimsy alongside the darkness and hope is never completely gone. Rowling shows the darkness of the world but doesn’t forget the light. That’s an important message to send.

Legacy

Harry Potter lives on, twenty years after the first book and ten years after the last book. The story lives on through the movies, obviously. While I must admit some disappointment with the movies, that doesn’t mean I didn’t watch them every “Harry Potter Weekend” on ABC Family. The HARRY POTTER franchise is a massive part of popular culture. These films made a lot of money, and that reception allowed them to create good movies. I’m not completely satisfied because I probably get too intense about my fandom. But these movies are definitely no ERAGON.

Thunderbird House represent

Without HARRY POTTER, we also wouldn’t have the delightful FANTASTIC BEASTS AND WHERE TO FIND THEM. Some people claim that FANTASTIC BEASTS is just a transparent money grab. But FANTASTIC BEASTS is so much more than that. It uses the same mythology and wonder to tell a completely different story. FANTASTIC BEASTS addresses issues like child abuse and discrimination. Moving forward, who knows what we’ll see? With both Dumbledore and Grindelwald appearing in future movies, it’s possible we’ll see the results of an ill-fated same-sex youthful romance, one that went against social values.

CLICK: HARRY POTTER fanfiction features a bevy of same-sex relationships. Read about slash fiction here!

And it’s not just movies. The Wizarding World of Harry Potter is a huge tourism draw. Orlando Studios made the right call here. The park has rides and stuff, yeah. But that’s not what pulls people in. What the people want is a chance — however tiny — to experience Harry’s world. They want to believe in magic, go to Hogwarts, and drink a Butterbeer. This park allows them to have that experience.

A magical experience.

HARRY POTTER is for everyone. It reaches across age, race, national origin, sexual identity, sexual orientation, ability. Who else can say that?

Personally Speaking

I may have come to HARRY POTTER late, but I definitely couldn’t resist its pull forever. I’m a proud fangirl, and I’ll vociferously defend my fandom against any and all attackers. HARRY POTTER has become such a part of my identity. Every Halloween, I dress up as Hermione Granger. Whenever a little Hermione comes to the door for candy, there’s a moment of joy, of shared enthusiasm. I even made a vinewood wand to look like Hermione’s. As I mentioned earlier, she’s a definite role model for me, just as she is for countless little nerd girls everywhere.

More than you.

HARRY POTTER became part of my academic achievement as well. I took a class on HARRY POTTER in undergrad (because my school is cooler than yours). I’ve presented on HARRY POTTER at academic conferences. At these conferences, we watched HARRY POTTER AND THE HALF-BLOOD PRINCE and had a fierce debate, the kind you can only have with a group of academic nerds. I’ve even written papers on HARRY POTTER, including a 20-page close analysis of color in HALF-BLOOD PRINCE.

I read HARRY POTTER fanfiction. I own the super-fancy Blu-Ray British edition box set of the movies. My bookshelf proudly displays my well-loved copies of the books. I know my house (Gryffindor) and my patronus (cat). And I’m not ashamed of any of this. The HARRY POTTER fandom is massive, and it’s a welcoming and inclusive community. I know that there are other people all around the world who have a shared interest with me, and that’s something special.

They grow up so fast.

When I teach, I hope to teach HARRY POTTER. If I have children, I’ll read them the books and watch the movies with them. I’ll teach them the lessons that HARRY POTTER has to offer.

And remember:

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