Growing Up Is Seeing Your Heroes Fail
How J.K. Rowling Has Spent the past Few Years Breaking My Heart
I grew up on Harry Potter, like so many people my age. J.K. Rowling shaped my childhood. I literally do not remember a time before I'd read her work. Which is why it's devastating to think about how willfully she now ignores all criticism; behaves in racist, sexist, and homophobic manners; and exploits the deep desire people in marginalized communities have to see themselves represented in what's arguably the most popular piece of media in decades.
For all the children and Y.A. lit that I've read and enjoyed, there's only one other children's author whose work I can say had as much of a formative impact on me. That's K.A. Applegate, the author of the Animorphs series. And she's handled it all with much more grace.
There are so many surface level similarities between Rowling and Applegate. They both wrote children's books with large fanbases that can be enjoyed by older readers. Both series have spectacularly well-developed characters with arcs spanning across many books taking place over a period of years. Hell, they even both wrote using initials with their last name instead of their first names.
But Applegate hasn't supported an abuser. When a fan tells her that they always thought of a character as bi, or that they, being trans, really related to a different character's struggles, she tells them she's glad they saw something they found helpful in her work, but also that she wished she'd made that something explicit in the text. She doesn't act like she wants credit for something she never actually wrote or intended, like Rowling does when talking about Dumbledore as gay, or Hermione as black.
Unlike Harry Potter, Animorphs had explicit character descriptions. Of the main characters, one was a black girl. Another was a Latino boy. At least one was of a Jewish background. The fact that most characters didn't get a physical description in Harry Potter made it easy to interpret them as being PoC...but that's not the same thing as actual representation. We shouldn't assume the default is white, but that applies to things like casting, and fanon representation because of "Death of the Author." Rowling imagined them as white, and she shouldn't get credit for providing representation that was nowhere in the text.
Harry Potter ended when I was nine, and I remember how excited I was in those days, weeks, months leading up to the release of The Deathly Hallows. I remember theorizing with friends and reading all the ideas people had online. I remember the days before Rowling was on Twitter. The year—more?—where her Tweets were few and far between, and all variations of the same thing. It was a better time—she was insisting that Harry Potter was over, rather than clinging to it and randomly bringing up points never made in the text in a seeming attempt to stay relevant (which she doesn't need, because again, she shaped a generation) or get attention for something. It was far easier to like her when she was the quiet children's author that donated to charity rather than the performative Twitter personality she seems to have become.
While it would be a definite stretch to say Rowing was ever a "hero" of mine, I was certainly a fan of hers. It's heartbreaking to watch her block and mute the people that criticize her for behaving in ignorant ways and saying things that are harmful to the communities to which she claims to be an ally. Seeing all of this now makes questionable past behaviour much more obvious, and it sours all of her work for me.
Harry Potter was more than just a children's series. It was a cultural phenomenon. It was enormously impactful in getting kids to enjoy reading and get excited about books. It represented an entire era. And until relatively recently, it was something I could look back on fondly. Not so much anymore. I still like the books. I still think they had a valuable influence on both readers and writers. But J.K. Rowling's refusal to acknowledge criticism for her actions has tainted them, and I'm never going to be able to look at them the same way again.