J.K. Rowling and the Evolution of Children's Literature


Image via Little Brown

I'll begin this article with an admission: I have yet to read the final Harry Potter book. (That actually may not be so shocking if you previously read Of Books and Bandwagons: The Allure of Popular Reading.) I do plan to go back and see Harry and the rest of J.K. Rowling's amazing characters through to the end of their story someday, but, as happens with every reader, I've found that my literary journey has meandered onto other paths. Still, I consider the Harry Potter books a very big part of my youth as a reader, and even a contributing element to my resulting life as a writer (to spell it out, I was a Harry Potter FanFiction writer back in the day – you know, before all those wonderful Pride and Prejudice sequels were published and the mainstream eye fell on FanFiction a bit more steadily). I wrote horrid, nonsensical stories back then, but everything we do is a small, relevant piece in the puzzle of what we become, right? So I've learned that even those horrid bits matter, very much.
I remember early on in the Harry Potter series when, at least here in the States, there wasn't a clear young adult genre to speak of and the books were considered simply children's literature. And I remember, as a fourteen year-old often mistaken for being three or four years older, the absolutely mortifying experience of having to traipse – sneak, really, as I did – to the very back of the children's section of the bookstore to find my beloved Harry Potter books. I remember always getting a strange, sometimes condescending look from a patron or employee as I did, and I remember thinking that the Grown-Ups had done this on purpose, putting the Harry Potter books in the back of the children's section as a way of humiliating us Rotten Teenagers. I swore it was a conspiracy, and I suspected the government of being involved as well.

The amazing thing about J.K. Rowling, and one of the reasons why I have such unfaltering respect for her, is that not only did she bring children to children's literature (and eventually, some would say, shape the genre of young adult fiction), but she brought adults to children's literature. Eventually all those cynics that had given me the stink eye were trying to steal away to the back of the children's section themselves because they just couldn't get enough of Harry's world. Take that, Grown-Ups. Of course, it was shortly afterward that the young adult genre came into fruition and all the books were moved more casually into the vicinity of Fiction & Literature. They think they're so smart.

While there have been a lot of prominent authors over the years who have made marvelous contributions to the world of children's and young adult literature, J.K. Rowling is obviously one of the first to come to mind when thinking about how the genres have evolved; and now, happily, as we're all aware, she’s taking her art to yet another plateau with her first adult literary work. The Casual Vacancy. If you've missed out on the details, the novel will weave the story of a tranquil English town's upheaval when a local man's sudden passing leaves an empty seat among the parish council. Said to ring gently of dark comedy, I'm expecting an interesting and vastly telling look at society and the spectacle of what our natural self-centeredness can become when greed and power are at stake. All of this with the clear ability to create colorful characters and detailed worlds that Rowling has already proven she’s capable of. I'm excited.

But where I think this new venture transcends anything that's been done before is in the audience Rowling will be bringing with her. As she's exploring new territory as a writer she'll be bridging that gap from young adult fiction to adult fiction with her readers in tow; young people who have grown with Harry Potter will be able to grow further yet through her continued literary pursuits, much as she brought children's literature into a new variety of fiction. I can't think of a more fulfilling situation for a writer, really. She's leaving a breadcrumb trail of books for future generations to create a literary journey out of. I'm frankly amazed at the feat, and so excited to see it grow further.

I feel like we all have a J.K. Rowling story to some degree. Whether she inspired you to write, introduced you to a new world, or simply motivated your passion for reading enough to send you, red-faced, to the Back of the Children's Section, where no self-respecting teenager ought to be (or so we thought). You know my story: now tell me yours.