Last night I made my kids roar with frustration. They hurled noisy complaints at me. Said that Life Wasn’t Fair.
And I couldn’t help feeling rather happy.
Not least because I can actually lay the blame for my kids’ despair at the feet of Jim Kay and J.K. Rowling; last night we finished Kay’s amazingly illustrated Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, our first ever family foray into the world of Hogwarts.
It’s been a brilliantly mesmerising experience. Taking a story that is so embedded in our culture, so ubiquitous and normalised as to have become something that didn’t excite or spark curiosity, and then to have the scales fall from our eyes in breathtaking fashion.
Yes, back in the late 90s I joined hundreds of thousands of other commuters on the London underground network reading the early books in the series. It was one of the first times I really experienced the community-building aspect of books. Books as bond builders, rather than something that marked you out as nerdy or posh or simply an outsider. I loved this new experience, the glances between otherwise total strangers as we smiled acknowledging the membership of the club we were both members of, proudly holding those brick-sized blue and red tomes in our hands.
But I never made it past book 4. I haven’t seen any of the films other than the first one, and… well, time moved on (marriage, babies, chaos… that sort of thing) and I didn’t take Harry Potter with me.
And then we arrive in October 2015 and it’s my turn to read at bedtime to my kids, 10 and 7, and in trying to find a book I think will appeal to them both I decide to give the new, fully illustrated Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone a go. Neither kid had read any JK Rowling themselves nor seen the films so I was starting with a blank canvas, their only experience of the Hogwarts’ world being witnessing other kids at school dressed up as HP characters on World Book Day, and a few hours’ very happy play in the attic at Seven Stories where they got their first taste of Kay’s illustrations.
And then something astonishing happened.
But before we get to that you need to know how bedtime reading normally works in our home.
One parent reads a novel to both kids at the same time once they are in their pyjamas. Whilst the parent is reading, the kids do NOT sit still. They dabble and doodle. They fiddle. They do all sorts of stuff that makes us grown-ups wonder if they are really listening to the story. I’ll freely admit neither of the adults in the home like this arrangement. It makes us uncomfortable and at times, on a bad day, I know we both wonder if it’s all worth it.
Despite our misgivings, it works well. As we stopped reading picture books, the kids didn’t feel the need to sit in our laps or next to us and moved onto their bedroom floor. They wanted more time to work on their various projects and we wanted to keep reading to them so we compromised. We read. They played. And we’ve gradually learned to trust that they do really listen to and hugely enjoy the story – all their questions and suggestions and corrections make that quite clear.
But still, it’s not like those good old days when we snuggled up in bed and had a cosy time calming down at the end of the day. Often a bedtime reading session leaves the bedroom messier than before with pencils strewn everywhere, detritus (or treasure, depending on your point of view) littering the floor.
But this was the astonishing thing which happened with Kay’s HP edition: suddenly we were all back in bed together (in our double bed to accommodate everyone), under the duvet, arms round each other or head leaning on shoulders as everyone was transfixed and transported by this wonderful tale of wizardry.
Kay’s illustrations brought us together. They acted like a hearth around which we gathered. Whilst I had other imagery in my head, my kids came with far fewer preconceptions so they weren’t playing a comparisons’ game. For them the illustrations acted like enchanting spells in their own rights. Something to amaze and to delight and (on the odd occasion) to frighten.
And then there was the story! I had forgotten how funny this book actually is and how thoughtful Rowling is with the nuances of friendship. Last night I actually cried when Neville won those extra points for Gryffindor which made all the difference to winning the House Cup. The kids, on the other hand, punched the air and leaped out from the bed whooping with exhilaration. Through my tears I couldn’t have been more delighted. Kay and Rowling and transported my kids into new parts of their imagination. They’d given them joy and wonder and enlarged their worlds and dreams.
But now what?
Do we move on to my old tube-train-grime encrusted copy of Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets? I’m desperate to keep reading the stories with my kids as the last three weeks’ of bedtime reading as been such a wonderous delight for me (saying nothing of what it’s been like for the kids). The hour or so at bedtime has been the highlight of each day. I can’t imagine anything, really anything, having made me happier in such a satisfying way.
The kids have taken the decision out of my hands. There’s been debate of course, weighing up hunger for the story with the bewitchment of the illustrations but they’ve decided to… wait.
AARGH! Now it is me roaring with frustration!
So, dear Jim Kay and Bloomsbury please don’t keep us waiting long! Anticipation is delightful (as it was the first time round), but waiting is also HARD!