LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:
It's hard to remember a world before "Harry Potter." The children's book series is a juggernaut that spawned a film series, a theme park, a Broadway play, a museum exhibit.
ROBERTA OLSON: You enter the portal to Hogwarts. We have Albus Dumbledore.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: At the New-York Historical Society, Roberta Olson is a curator of a new exhibit called "A History of Magic," which traces the roots of author J.K. Rowling's novels.
OLSON: So with all kinds of basilisks here, unbelievable objects. The sphinx you can touch.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: The exhibit also marks 20 years since "Harry Potter And The Sorcerer's Stone" was published in the United States. WEEKEND EDITION's books editor Barrie Hardymon has this look at the impact Harry Potter has had on what children read.
BARRIE HARDYMON, BYLINE: Potterheads of all ages are milling about the exhibit, looking at bezoras, mandrakes, crystal balls. In addition to the magic, there's the more mundane spell work, Rowling's detailed plot diagrams and original drawings on napkins, a glowing review from an 8-year-old who was an early reader of the series. The reviews of the books haven't changed much in 20 years.
ADALIE TYAU: I just, like, like it because it's, like - it makes our world feel kind of boring. And it's, like, so creative, like, all the candy and Hogwarts and everything. So I really like it.
HARDYMON: Adalie Tyau considers herself a superfan.
ADALIE: I read all of them 11 times.
HARDYMON: She's 10. Twelve-year-old Kaitlyn Kruemmel has also read the series multiple times.
KAITLYN KRUEMMEL: They just are magical. And it's cool to think about all the different things, like, that aren't really happening. But you can imagine yourself there and having the experiences that the characters are.
HARDYMON: I ask every single person to tell me what else they've read that they enjoyed as much. And sure, the people that are from my generation say "Narnia" and "A Wrinkle In Time." And a lot of young people mention the "Percy Jackson" series. But every person tells me that the "Potter" books are unique. There's nothing else like them. They read and reread, pour over details and never really get over them.
ARTHUR LEVINE: It was the fact that he was me, even though I was not an orphan. And I'm not English.
HARDYMON: Arthur Levine is the editor who's responsible for bringing "Harry Potter" to the United States. We're in his office at Arthur A. Levine Books, an imprint of the publishing giant Scholastic. And he's telling the story of how he fell in love with the book.
LEVINE: What I could relate to so strongly was this idea that maybe there's something inside of you that nobody else can see.
HARDYMON: He knew that it was the kind of story that speaks very particularly to children, that makes everybody feel seen.
LEVINE: The idea of hidden identities and the goodness and rightness of who you are is not necessarily mirrored in society. I mean, this is a theme running through "Harry Potter." It would have been a huge thing in my life as a little gay kid growing up. And there isn't much that is explicitly gay in "Harry Potter."
HARDYMON: Levine knew at the time he was taking a risk on an unknown author in a genre that wasn't selling that well.
LEVINE: There was no market for hardcover children's fiction. Fantasy was not a hot, sexy thing.
HARDYMON: It paid off. At this moment, half a billion "Harry Potter" books have now been sold. But it was barrier-breaking in other ways, too. It was a book that both adults and kids could talk about at dinner. Levine says he got letters from kids with dyslexia, kids who had trouble reading, who realized for the first time that they could read and love a 700-page book.
LEVINE: Everybody wanted that next book. It wasn't just, like, the two nerdy readers in, you know, the class. It was the whole class.
HARDYMON: It appealed to a huge variety of readers. But it didn't reflect every reader. The three main characters in the books are white. And the experience of the British boarding school, magic or not, is a fairly narrow one. Levine acknowledges this but says that what the series did do was create a whole new generation of readers of all backgrounds who would go on to become writers and editors themselves.
LEVINE: All of my editors now were people who had grown up loving "Harry Potter." And that love sparked this idea. I want to make books.
KAIT FELDMANN: I connected the friendship. I love that there is a thread of very young people having the power to make a difference. And that was my end.
HARDYMON: Kait Feldmann is one of those editors. She's 26. She grew up reading the "Harry Potter" books. And now she works with Levine, shaping the next generation of children's books to reflect a wider variety of identities.
FELDMANN: You know, I definitely as a girl and as a Chinese girl growing up didn't always see that direct experience of mine reflected in books. And that's definitely something I want to see open up in the world.
HARDYMON: But the industry, as a whole, still has a long way to go.
KATHLEEN HORNING: The story is that things really haven't changed in the last 20 years.
HARDYMON: Librarian Kathleen Horning is the director of the Cooperative Children's Book Center at the University of Wisconsin. She says fewer than 10 percent of books feature characters of color or are written by non-white authors. And there's not a lot of variety in those books, she says. There are often historical narratives about slavery or civil rights.
HORNING: What we don't see a lot of with diversity are books like "Harry Potter" that are just pure fantasy. And, in fact, those are the kind of books that African-American children, for example, really are clamoring for.
HARDYMON: But Horning is hopeful. And just over the last couple of years, there have been some breakout titles, like, last year's "Dread Nation" by Justina Ireland, the "Akata Witch" series by Nnedi Okorafor and "Children Of Blood And Bone" By Tomi Adeyemi.
KAITYLN: I've read, like, other books about magic that are kind of similar but in a different way.
HARDYMON: Back at the "History Of Magic" exhibit Kaitlyn Kruemmel, at age 12, is still heavily invested in her love of "Harry Potter," but she's also branching out.
KAITYLN: Like, "Children Of Blood And Bone" - that's a new, good book. And it's about magic in the same way and younger people. Yeah.
HARDYMON: Barrie Hardymon, NPR News.
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