20 years after J.K. Rowling’s first Harry Potter book, students reflect on how it shaped their lives

Tran Linh lived in Vietnam when she first came across a book’s cover illustrating a boy flying on a broomstick, reaching for a golden ball with little white wings while she was wandering inside a bookstore.

“I was curious,” said Linh, 19, Thursday while outside Orange Coast College’s library. The book cover prompted her to read J.K. Rowling’s “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.”

Now living in Costa Mesa, Linh still beams with delight as she recalls memories of when she first read the young adult fantasy series.

Monday marks the 20th anniversary of Rowling’s “Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone,” published June 1997 in the U.K. The U.S. published the book under the title “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.”

Rowling’s best-selling wizarding-world series follows Harry Potter, an orphaned English boy who discovers on his 11th birthday he is a wizard living in an ordinary world with people known as Muggles. He attends Hogwarts, a boarding school for wizards, where he creates a band of friends and learns the truth about his parents’ deaths.

The series spawned a franchise of films, theme parks, video games and memorabilia.

It also transformed the way kids consume literature and it inspired readers to create their own multimedia content, said Jonathan Alexander, chancellor’s professor of English at UC Irvine who lectures on young adult fiction.

Prior to Rowling’s series, young adult novels such as S. E. Hinton’s “The Outsiders” and Robert Cormier’s “The Chocolate War” dealt with “gritty realism” about conflict among social classes and the transition of childhood into adulthood.

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Though Rowling does tackle issues of intergenerational conflict and being an outsider, Alexander said Harry Potter “struck a needed tone” with readers on the importance of using “real life magic with the power of imagination to lead a better life.”

Media industries realized they could make additional components to the book series, he said, and readers realized this too.

Readers began writing their own fan fiction — borrowing characters or story plots from an author to create their own storyline — and fan videos and sharing it on the Internet.

“A wealth of media has cropped up with these stories,” said Alexander, who added that it coincided with the birth of the worldwide web. “We hadn’t seen that kind of media around a set of books before.”

During his lectures on young adult fiction, Alexander said he incorporates the Harry Potter series to show historical landmarks in the development of young adult fiction. Almost all students respond positively to the fantasy novel and often discuss which house they were sorted into by the Sorting Hat on Pottermore.com.

“The characters are very easy for not only kids to relate to but everyone,” said Megan Cole, a UC Irvine student majoring in literary journalism and English. “It was the first book I read that was complex like that. Characters were multifaceted and were just like me.”

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Cole, 21, remembers being 8 when she read the fourth Harry Potter book. Her grandpa gifted it to her not knowing it was part of a series. She loved it so much, she bought the books available and attended midnight launches held at Barnes & Nobles for each new installment.

“I’ve been a huge bookworm all my life. I really don’t really know if I’d be that way if it wasn’t for Harry Potter,” she said. “It’s the first thing I remember that’s really struck me.”

Since then she’s been dedicated to studying literature and writing with plans to be a journalist or professor in literature.

Linh knew Harry Potter would be triumphant in the end, but she kept reading for the rest of the characters. And when certain characters would die, she’d turn to fan fiction to read alternative endings.

The series inspired her to read more fantasy novels, Linh said, though she hasn’t found a story that has caught her interest like Rowling’s.

For Orange Coast College student Nayeli Gaytan, 23, it was a family experience watching all the movies.

Gaytan said she saw all the movies before reading the series, saying she wanted to see what “details were missing” from the blockbusters.

She even visited the platform 9 3/4 at King’s Cross station in London and has plans to visit Universal Studios’ new Harry Potter light show this weekend.

The book’s cover also attracted Wan Fong, another OCC student. She was 10 when she first read it.

Fong remembers finding a cubicle in the library and dedicating hours to reading the series.

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“I really didn’t have a life outside of school, so reading Harry Potter opened up a new world for me by seeing what happened to him and following his adventures,” she said.

Priscella.Vega@latimes.com

Twitter: @vegapriscella

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