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Judging a Book by its Cover — How Harry Potter Changed our Expectations

Let’s hop in the Way Back Machine for a moment and take a ride to 1997. It was a strange year for many across the world. Princess Diana tragically passed away in a freak car accident, the Florida Marlins upset my dearly beloved Cleveland Indians, and North Korea’s fearless leader, Kim Jong II, was promoted from “Dear Leader” to “Great Leader.” In the midst of all of this, a children’s book known as Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s (or Sorcerer’s) Stone hit stores in the UK. It would slowly make its way over to the United States by the start of the school year in 1998. But we’re going to sit in 1997 for this post because I believe something significant happened in the children’s publishing world that changed the course of what kids read. Harry Potter was more than just a great story, but it changed the way we treated books. It blazed a new trail for book covers (at least in the American versions), making them mysterious and enchanting. The worldbuilding was something that hadn’t been tried in children’s publishing since the times of The Hobbit, thus acknowledging the intelligence of its readers. And finally, the format of a multi-year series is the reason we see so many books written in the same vein today.

Publishing in children’s literature in 1997 was an abysmal place. Take one look at the covers of books released back then, and you would think kids preferred washed out bland-looking novels. It seemed like every book published in 1997 looked outdated and from the 1950s. You’re always told not to judge a book by its cover, but the sad thing is, even the books themselves were as dull as their covers. Look at what was released at the time. Ella the Enchanted, a modern retelling of Cinderella. The 10th Redwall book that no one remembers the title of because it’s the 10th Redwall book. The Gardener, a story about a girl with a rooftop garden in a city. The last one had some great art, but the story itself is so dull that you wouldn’t expect any kid to open the cover. Then we get Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. The original cover pops as Harry, a boy with a strange scar on his forehead, stands in front of an oncoming train with the words “Hogwarts Express” on the front. Next to the train is a modern subway car, letting the reader know that the story takes place in recent times, but may not stay in our known world. So much about this cover invokes mystery and curiosity. The covers only improved once they hit the U.S., where they left little clues as to what would happen in the book. All this made reading exciting and worth taking a stab at for a kid of seven-years-old. The ploys of alliteration or some abstract art displayed on the cover were thrown out the window, and instead, Harry Potter threw at its readers what it was, magic.

Thankfully the world of Harry Potter lived up to its enticing covers. Remember, this was 1997, and the most complex and in-depth stories kids were reading were still from the minds of Tolkien, Dahl, and L’Engle. R.L. Stein was the only other prominent storyteller for children at the time, and even he wasn’t known for his rich worldbuilding. There was a void in the publishing world for children, and Harry Potter was precisely the right fit. It didn’t insult the intelligence of its readers. Instead, it challenged them and made them pay attention as the story unfolded, referencing back to previous events, characters, and locations. Even how the story opens was unprecedented for the time, taking a risk by not showing the main character until the very end of the chapter. But it all pushed the reader further and further into a world rich in lore and layered with mysteries. Now, compare that to The Million Dollar Shot, another novel released in 1997 for the same age group. The only fact given about this book was over 1100 US and Canadian libraries hold the story. Now, doesn’t that sound exciting? Nothing else at the time could touch Harry Potter’s worldbuilding, and it only got better from there. We can see what the story and world have become now as we look back through time, but in 1997 Harry Potter was a breath of fresh air.

The final blow Harry Potter delivered to children’s publishing that would allow it to dominate the industry for the next ten years (and still somewhat today) was the fact it was a multi-year series. It was an approach that was fitting to the main character who attended a new year of school with each book release. It mimicked the lives of the readers who consumed Harry Potter novels, giving the audience a more profound sense of connection with the story. The tactic struck gold and made both authors and publishers alike give the long-form series an earnest look. Of course, there were series publications long before Harry Potter, but they were sparse or above the appropriate reading level. Yet, look at what happened after the magical series launched. Anymore it seems like if an author isn’t planning on developing a series, then publishers want nothing to do with them. There are good reasons for doing this that include long-term monetary incentives and shifting readership bases, but in 1997 there was nothing like it. Now, if we take a look at the landscape of children’s publishing, we pretty much only see series. We have Percy Jackson, Diary of a Whimpy Kid, Inheritance, Fabelhaven; the list goes on and on. These all stemmed from the mega-craze that was, and still is, Harry Potter.

What hasn’t already been said of Harry Potter that could provide some new take? It’s a series analyzed by both academics and Potterheads to this day, and I’m sure it will be in the lives of the generations of kids to come. It did so many things right for so long that it’s difficult to not look at the series as a pillar of children’s literature. But, in 1997, it was still new, and the freshness of Harry Potter took the world by storm. And rightly so.

Enjoy our in-depth conversation on Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone in our episode of Parallel Quest.

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