A sign of discomfort

Rebutting J. K. Rowling

J. K. Rowling is a popular punching bag these days, and for good reason. On top of her transphobia, the new Hogwarts Legacy game is riddled with anti-Semitic tropes and imagery. And as the saying goes, even if Hogwarts Legacy wasn’t intended to be transphobic and anti-Semitic, transphobes and anti-Semites are attracted to it.

While I understand all the arguments, Rowling’s downfall is still a hard thing for me to watch. In the 2000s, my daughter fell in love with the Harry Potter series. We bought all the books and toys, saw the movies, and went to the midnight launch parties. And as a writer, I looked up to J. K. Rowling as a hero. Here was someone who appeared to come from nothing and became an international literary sensation. If she can do it, so can I. (Perhaps she’s another example of “quit while you’re ahead.”)

So, as I started my own YA contemporary fantasy series for Fun A Day Reseda, I decided I would write a rebuttal to Harry Potter—the same way Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials series is considered a rebuttal against C. S. Lewis’s Narnia. But I wouldn’t find it sustainable and satisfying to just twist her universe around. Instead, I wanted to engage with the premise of her universe: a world of magical people and creatures that exists in parallel with our own.

This is one of the problems I had with the Harry Potter series back when the books came out. I got through the first three, but I wound up giving up a third of the way through Goblet of Fire. (Yes, I know that’s when things start getting interesting.) What lost me was the Quidditch World Cup. You mean to tell me that there are wizards around the world? OK, what did they do during wartime? Did British wizards square off against German wizards? And when you look at the controversies of her expansion of the Potter universe, you can see how it fell apart.

And there are harder questions. What happened during the Holocaust? Did wizards use invisibility cloaks to hide Jewish families? If not, then why not? What role did wizards play during colonialism and slavery? Not only doesn’t Rowling touch on those questions, some accused her of using Harry Potter to cosplay Jewish persecution under the Nazis. And what about the present? How would Harry Potter and his friends respond to Brexit, George Floyd, and the war in Ukraine? Would Hermione be as compassionate towards transgender people as she is towards house-elves? (I would hope she would do better by them.)

These are the questions I wanted to pursue in my book series. But to do this, I couldn’t attack Rowling’s world. I had to create my own.

The world of my story is our world—the real world with all its horrors and shortcomings. The Holocaust happened in this world, so did the Las Vegas shooting, and January 6. Even Harry Potter exists in this world. One of my characters says about one of my leads, “Maybe they named [her] after some movie character. You know how many girls at my school are named Hermione?”

The conflict comes from how my magical characters interact with our world. Mostly, they refuse to. Part of it comes from the persecution they get from non-magical people. (This is not a substitute or allegory of real-world bigotry and discrimination because that exists in my story too.) But a lot of it comes from how the leaders of this magical community use the fear of outsiders to exert control over their members. My main character says this about the leader of the magical community, “[He] sounds like a number of our politicians and media people who like to whip up fear to keep people in line. And you fall for it like many [of us] do. In that way, you aren’t any more powerful than we are.”

For both Rowling’s world and mine, it’s the characters that engage readers. I’m putting together a cast of relatable and human characters. In fact, my main character has no magic powers at all. (But he performs magic tricks for kids at the library.) He is a teenager with all the passions, insecurities, and idealism of a typical 16-year-old. When he befriends a lonely and bullied girl with magical powers, he finds himself caught up in the conflict between her world and ours.

The world I’m creating won’t be as fantastical as Rowling’s. It certainly won’t have as many merchandising opportunities. What I hope readers get out of my stories is a different way of looking at the world. To recognize that if you have the power to do good, use it. Even if you don’t, there is plenty you can still do. And I will certainly avoid the ugly stereotypes and plot holes that mar the world of Hogwarts.

I’m excited with my story and where it’s going. I have a lot of work to do. Some of it involves research that will have to be done in the fall. In the meantime, I plan to resume work on Christina’s Portrait by incorporating feedback from beta readers. (More on this later.)

So, J. K. Rowling wound up inspiring me after all. Rebutting her vision of a magical world existing alongside ours inspired me to create my own.