“So what did you think of the movie?” I asked my son Stephen as he, my husband Don, and I walked out of the darkened theater into the bright afternoon sunshine. We had just seen the final Harry Potter movie, The Deathly Hallows, Part II.
“It was good.” Stephen, at 16, was a man of few words.
Squinting, almost blinded, I couldn’t see his face and couldn’t tell what he was feeling, but unexpectedly I felt disoriented, empty, almost weepy. This was a big deal. The end of an era. After years of reading the books and watching the movies, it was over. Saying goodbye to Harry was like saying goodbye to part of our family. Heat waves from the asphalt rose around us as we walked back to the car. No one spoke.
Stephen had first met Harry in the spring of his second grade year. “I’m jealous,” he’d complained one afternoon as we drove home from school. “All my friends are reading Harry Potter.”
“Really?” I was surprised. The only book I’d heard him read out loud was The Bravest Dog Ever: The True Story of Balto, an easy reader he’d recently brought home from the school library. I knew his reading skills were improving but to jump from a simple chapter book to Harry Potter seemed too big of a leap. Plus, in the first book, The Sorcerer's Stone, Harry learns his parents have been murdered and begins his often violent fight against dark magic—topics that hardly seemed appropriate for a second grader. The idea made me uneasy. It seemed to me he’d be better off lingering in the easy readers for awhile.
“Do you really want to read Harry Potter?” I studied him in the rearview mirror. With slightly over-sized glasses dominating his thin young face he even looked a bit like Harry. I didn’t want to hold him back but also didn’t want to set him up for disappointment if the book was too difficult.
“Yes,” he said emphatically.
Don and I had read to Stephen since the day he was born. He’d resisted when I signed him up for soccer and largely ignored his bicycle, but he’d always loved looking at books–something I’d encouraged. I decided I wasn’t going to stop now.
“Okay then.” I smiled. “Let’s go to the library and see if we can find Harry Potter.” Stephen clapped his hands and shouted, “Yes!”
At the library, luck favored us. A tattered copy of sat on the shelf and within the hour Stephen was reading, stretched out on the sofa, the book propped up on his chest.
In two days, he devoured The Sorcerer’s Stone and read the next three books in quick succession. For Christmas, his grandmother gave him his own hardback copies and he began re-reading them. By his own count, he read each one six times.
I’d read The Sorcerer’s Stone with my book group years before. Although I enjoyed the book, I didn’t like it as well as my own childhood favorite, A Wrinkle in Time , which I had first read when I was ten and still held a special place in my heart. I wasn’t inspired to read the successive books but Don loved the Potter series and read them right along with Stephen, the two of them often arguing over who got to read the newest book first. Dinner conversations frequently revolved around Harry’s latest adventure. In this way, Harry joined our family.
Even though Stephen was happy reading and re-reading the first four books, when he asked to read The Order of the Phoenix, book number five, we hesitated. When it was published in June of 2003, Stephen was eight, starting third grade in the fall, but Harry was now an adolescent, starting to date and drawn deeper into the dark struggle against Voldemort. Concerned that the content might be too mature, we decided to make Stephen wait. But after only a few months, his incessant whining wore us down and we gave in. Whatever issues the book might have raised didn’t faze Stephen. He sailed right through it and only fell deeper in love with Harry and his magic.
In July of 2005, Stephen was ten, almost in fifth grade, and we now fully embraced Harry Potter. Like everyone else, we were caught up in Harry mania, anxiously counting the days until release of the sixth book, The Half Blood Prince. In fact, it seemed the whole country held its breath until the boxes, shipped in secret and stacked in bookstore basements, would be sliced open, spilling books into our waiting arms. How thrilling to have a book—not a movie or video game—inspire such enthusiasm. This was every reading parent’s dream come true.
Loath to miss a good night’s sleep, I made Stephen skip the midnight publication party at the Red Balloon, our local bookstore, but early the next morning we shouldered our way into the crowded store. Children, dressed in robes and sparkling hats, waving magic wands jammed the narrow aisles between waist-high stacks of The Half Blood Prince. I grabbed a copy and we pushed farther into the store where a Jeopardy-like game of Wizard Trivia was being played.
“In what house did Harry live?” The questions started easy enough.
“Gryffindor!” roared the crowd.
“Who was Harry’s godfather?” called the announcer.
“Sirius Black,” they shouted back, not missing a beat. Clearly Stephen was not the only one who’d read the books multiple times. Once the game ended we pressed through the crowd to the parking lot out back, where a large white tent spread across the parking lot. All the seats were filled and we stood near the edge of the crowd, trying to glimpse the magic tricks a grown-up wizard was performing. But his magic was no match for Harry’s and Stephen soon elbowed me, saying he wanted to go home and read.
When The Deathly Hallows, the final book, was published, Don took a very excited Stephen and his best friend, Jacob, to the bookstore’s midnight celebration. Now 12, almost seventh graders, Stephen and Jacob’s interests were expanding but they hadn’t become too cool to care about Harry.
“What are the Harry Potter books really about?” I’d asked Stephen and Jacob the next evening over dinner.
“It’s about school and fighting Voldemort,” Stephen said, leaning forward, his eyes shining.
“And it’s about spells and potions and magic wands,” Jacob added, with a wave of his hand, as if to illustrate the power of a magic wand.
“Yes,” I’d said, “the books are about all that and more. But what are they really about?”
They were silent for a few minutes. Stephen leaned back in his chair and said, “Harry Potter is really the story of how a boy becomes a man.”
Tears sprang to my eyes. Not wanting them to notice, I quickly turned away. I hadn’t thought of that before—and was surprised that Stephen understood this deeper truth. How did he know this? Maybe my little boy was growing up, faster than I realized.
After watching The Deathly Hallows, Part II, I couldn’t stop thinking about Harry Potter. That night in bed, I couldn’t fall asleep. I thought of the small wooden dowel, tucked away in a drawer, the one I’d never been able to throw away, the one Stephen had turned into a magic wand when he duct-taped a laser light to it. I remembered his wizard’s cloak, its black voluminous folds now barely contained in a box in the basement. I’d stayed up late, night after night, hunched over my old Singer, fabric sprawled across our dining room table, sewing frantically to finish it in time for Halloween the year Stephen was eight. I’d searched through drawers of buttons at the local sewing shop until I finally found what I was looking for: a silver button, the size of a quarter, engraved with the image of a lion.
“It’s for Gryffindor,” I’d told Stephen as I handed him the finished cloak. His eyes shone as he touched the button, running his finger across it reverently, as if it might contain some of Harry’s magic. After Halloween, Stephen continued wearing the cloak around the house, running, spinning, fanning it out around him, as if by sheer force of will he could summon the wind that would carry him to Hogwarts.
“Wingardium leviosa,” he’d shout, punching the air with his magic wand. He wore the cloak for two years, until the day his arms no longer fit into the sleeves.
I realized there was more I needed to tell Stephen.
It’s not over. I want him to know that. Remember what you said years ago, about how Harry Potter was the story of how a boy becomes a man? His story is your story.
We watched Harry grow up and as he did, he discovered something powerful, something deep inside himself. To a degree, his mother’s love protected him but she died and he had to go on without her. Dumbledore’s wisdom guided Harry for awhile but Dumbledore wasn’t perfect—and his motives not always the best. And in the end, Harry discovered that the bad guy wasn’t always someone else. A bit of Voldemort’s evil lived inside himself.
Harry learned to trust himself and when he faced his greatest challenges, he faced them alone. And he prevailed.
I don’t know what lies ahead for Stephen but I hope he grows up to be like Harry Potter. I hope he learns to trust himself and find his own strength. I want him to learn that sometimes saying goodbye doesn’t mean letting go—it means taking someone with us.
Harry isn’t gone, not really. I’ll say. He’ll always be as close as your bookshelf—and your mirror.