Correction: An earlier version of this piece misidentified Parkland student Emma Gonzalez as Emma Velazquez.
Editor’s Note: Rachel Sklar is a New York-based writer and the co-founder of TheLi.st, a network for professional women. The views expressed here are solely hers.
After the 2016 election, I was bewildered by many things. One of them was how 41% of millennials voted for Trump when they had been raised on Harry Potter.
I loved the Harry Potter books. I was well into adulthood by the time I read them (unabashedly in my law firm cafeteria, I might add), but I marveled at how effectively J.K. Rowling had illustrated the notion of moral courage. There were shades of gray, of course; a huge seven-volume series would have to have nuance (which is why Draco Malfoy made it through to the end).
But the big questions of right and wrong had firm bright lines, and made clear where a person should fall. A bad person was on Team Voldemort. A good person stood with Dumbledore’s Army.
A year and a half later, I’m still bewildered by the election (oh come on, Russian meddling and gerrymandered voter districts and $130,000 payout to a porn actress haven’t made anything any clearer), but I am no longer confused about Harry Potter. Turns out, he’s been with us all along – just ask the Parkland generation.
Time reporter Charlotte Alter made this astute observation on Saturday after the March for Our Lives. In a series of tweets, she noted that the Harry Potter story of rising up in resistance against takeover by an evil regime has become a blueprint for the Parkland student activists. “They’re aided by a beloved principal & teachers. Gov officials are often useless,” Alter notes. “They call Rick Scott ‘Voldemort’ …@Emma4Change [Parkland activist Emma Gonzalez] compared this battle to the showdown between the Dumbledore’s Army and the Death Eaters inside the ministry of magic.”
Alter also notes a parallel between the student activists and student wizards: “Many of them pointed out that ‘Expelliarmus,’ the disarmament spell, is the go-to spell for Hogwarts kids. Disarmament is the #MarchforOurLives strategy, both literally and rhetorically.”
As a loyal acolyte of Harry Potter, I get it (especially the Rick Scott comparison, if just for the uncanny resemblance to the smooth and serpentine movie version embodied by Ralph Fiennes). But the tweet that rang especially true referenced “Dumbledore’s Army” – the band of students at Hogwarts who came together in resistance to fight back against the encroaching evil of Voldemort – and the craven, complicit adults who enabled it.
No doubt some adults are right now pooh-poohing the comparisons to Harry Potter, scoffing at children’s books with fanciful names like Hufflepuff, Flitwick, Slughorn and Diggory. But they are missing the power in these stories, and their deep and pervasive effect on the generation who grew up on them.
The final Harry Potter book came out in 2007, which, for the first generation to consume Harry Potter, meant a seven-year wait for resolution after the return of Voldemort in “Goblet of Fire,” which came out in 2000. But for kids who came of allowed-to-read-Harry Potter-age after 2007, those books were devoured early and, if memory serves, in one sitting (“Order of the Phoenix” got me through a full day at the DMV and passport office).
These were books that became points of reference with friends, that spawned movies played and replayed in Christmas-day marathons on ABC Family (and then, Freeform), that provided archetypes and role models (especially for every Hermione who ever frantically waved her hand, or every Neville Longbottom who screwed up the nerve to stand up to his friends). Its 4,224 pages created a universe that spawned a common shorthand that allows for the widespread references and nerdy in-jokes that have lent themselves particularly well to these times.
They were – are – books with quiet lessons about what it means to be invisible, about class and prejudice, about grief and loneliness and yearning (reading about Harry finding the Mirror of Erised in book one will always make me choke up). There were, of course, lessons about friendship, loyalty and truth (the books even inveighed against Fake News in the form of Rita Skeeter), and parents as real people who would defend their children and not apologize for swearing.
But as the series got darker from “Goblet” to “Phoenix” to “Half-Blood Prince” to the final, upsettingly unvarnished “Deathly Hallows,” the lessons were darker, too. Friends turn. Good people die. Death can be random. Adults won’t protect you. Actually, they’re on the other side. And even the good ones won’t be around forever. At some point, it will be up to you.
These are rough lessons in the book, but they are far rougher to see unfolding in real life. At The Cut, Lisa Miller took a thoughtful look at the legacy of Harry Potter and other young adult fiction for the Parkland student activists, and this quote from 15-year-old Parkland survivor Anna Crean is telling: “We’ve grown up with teenagers in dystopian eras that have fixed everything and become the heroes of their city. Then they put us into a dystopian era in real life and they don’t expect us to do anything? We can make a difference because that’s what books and movies have told us since we were little.”
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The Harry Potter books are fiction. There are no wizards and witches among us. There’s no such thing as Hogwarts or Diagon Alley, and King’s Cross has no Platform 9 3/4. But the stories have meaning, and they map onto the real-life experiences of their readers, because that’s what good stories do. We connect to them, see ourselves in them and learn from them.
And sometimes, these stories are also blueprints. So, if the students railing against mass shootings and the NRA and the spineless politicians who buy into its agenda want to use Harry Potter as their blueprint, well, they’ve got a great one.
And while life doesn’t always imitate art, there’s one tweet I look forward to someday seeing from @Emma4Change: “All is well.”