It’s been 25 years since the first Harry Potter book was published in June 1997. For my generation, who were the first group of children who grew up reading these books, the almost annual release of a new episode was a huge event. , the highlight of many summers, and captivated us with a magical world long after we’d naturally put aside children’s tales.
I was 11 when I was given the first two Potter books in the summer of 1998, shortly after the Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets was out. Living in Ireland I entered the series before most of my contemporaries, thanks to my English grandfather who had heard of the hype growing around the books in the UK and obligingly brought them on his annual visit. . My sister and I devoured them; by the time the first movie came out, in 2001, most of our friends had done it too. Every time a new book was published, we would set up a rotation to read it – two hours each – late into the night, unable to put it down.
When the last book was published in July 2007, a decade after Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone debuted, I was 20 and studying English at Trinity. I still remember the sadness after finishing it – more than anything else, the conclusion of the series felt like the end of my childhood. However, years later I found myself in a world of magic and adventure while writing my own books, so it’s clear the series instilled an enduring fascination with the art of storytelling.
Of course, it wasn’t just Harry Potter that fostered my generation’s love of children’s literature. The 1990s were a particularly rich decade for Irish children’s writers, published by local presses such as Poolbeg, O’Brien Press and Wolfhound. These formed the backbone of my primary school’s small classroom libraries and were more accessible and widespread than any of the overseas titles.
Some of these books are still well known today: Marita Conlon McKenna’s Famine trilogy had just been published and I remember reading the first of them, Under the hawthorn, in class. It certainly did not obscure the horror of that time – the intimate descriptions of starvation, disease and death evoke the reality of that time better than any history textbook. Conlon McKenna has a singular gift to evoke the places and its descriptions of the Irish countryside, with its yellow lands and its white hawthorn flowers in lace, are particularly lively, especially in counterpoint to incessant human suffering which constitutes such a large part of story. Although under the hawthorn had only been published for a few years when you read it in class, you already felt that it was destined to become a classic.
Another writer who dominated Irish children’s literature when I was young was Siobhán Parkinson. I’m afraid Sisters… No way! and the fantastic name Four children, three cats, two cows, a witch (maybe)but it wasn’t until I started writing this piece that I realized she had also written Amelie, a historical novel set in 1914 in Dublin and one of my old favourites. I had first picked out a plastic-wrapped copy from my classroom shelves because I liked the cover – the original showed a girl in a green dress with gloves up to her elbows. The cover illustrates perfectly the starting point of the story: the world is about to go to war, there are stirrings of a rebellion against British rule, but Amelia’s main concern is to know what dress she will wear for her 13th birthday. For a 10 -year -old girl who then worked for a fashion magazine, it seemed to me to be a set of fairly reasonable priorities, even if of course, Amelia soon finds herself in troubled circumstances without any use for a sparkling dress color of emeralds. Revisiting it as an adult, it’s clear that Parkinson did a remarkable job of evoking the atmosphere of such a difficult and unstable time and bringing it to life.
There were also lesser-known books in the school library. Badger, Beano and the Magic Mushroom was a great example. The content was as trippy as the title and for years afterwards I wondered if I had simply hallucinated it, given that I had read it while stuck at home for a weekend of the St. Patrick’s Day with chickenpox and an incredibly high temperature. I was never able to find a copy afterwards, although I looked for it from time to time, but recently, through the miracles of the internet, it resurfaced and I have since learned that it was written by Jack Scoltock, and published by Wolfhound in 1990.
My own novel Toppers, contains a lot of fantasy and magic, but it is firmly rooted in the present. Max, the 12-year-old protagonist, is unable to touch anything electrical – if he does, he destroys it. However, he turns out to be an anti-spell – a person with a gift for neutralizing magical objects – and he apprentices to his grandfather, who lives in a secret seaside village overlooked by a spooky castle and a rather terrifying guardian. As you can imagine, adventure inevitably follows, as Max must use his newfound power to try and save the village and his family. Although I was certainly inspired by my childhood reading, I was keen to write something that would appeal to a new generation of young people, to continue the tradition, while adding something different.
I guess everyone is affected to some degree by the stories they read when they were young. They have a way of sticking with you in a way that the books you read as an adult never do. Perhaps that’s why there are so many adults who still wish they could find a way to Narnia, why Disney attracts as many adults as children, and why, 25 years later, there are million Harry Potter readers worldwide. who are still secretly hoping for a letter saying there is a place waiting for us at Hogwarts.
Cat Grey’s Spellstoppers’ was released by Usborne on July 7. For more information, visit catrionagray.com