Until I accepted the invitation, I had no intention of picking up the HP books any time soon. But I knew that I had to have something beyond superficial familiarity if I was going to walk into the belly of the beast. I knew that every person at the conference would have read every book, and probably re-read every book. I knew that they would have seen all the movies and that many would probably be wearing HP clothing and accessories. I knew that they would all have at least a decade, if not a two-decade head start. I knew I could get nowhere near their level of interest, insight, or expertise. But I read the first two books and began the third one, and read some introductory scholarship, so that I would feel at least a little less than clueless.
The reasons I had never read HP were mostly coincidental. When the first book was published, I was just beginning grad school. And even if I had wanted to read HP, I was not reading anything that was not assigned for my classes or instrumental for my teaching. I also don’t tend to read a lot of books that are centered around male protagonists and I have never been a big fan of British literature. Because I do not have children, the books were never really on my radar and when I did begin reading again, I was much more inclined to read science fiction and dystopia and only turned to YA fiction when I ran out of Octavia Butler books. And soon I was deep in the world of YA dystopia with female protagonists—the “guilty pleasure” obsession that became my academic obsession. And, finally, I tend to be one of those readers/pop culture consumers who turn their nose up at wildly popular trends. For years, I was quite sure that HP was over-rated, but I certainly could not deny the impact that these books had on my family, friends, and colleagues.
So, I accepted the invitation to speak at the conference, in part, because I knew that this gig would challenge me and, in part, because the conference organizers assured me that my work would be relevant to the conference attendees. I accepted the invitation because I try to keep an open mind, and because I love to learn new things. And I accepted the speaking invitation because I will really accept any invitation that allows me to share my passion for young adult dystopia’s Girls on Fire. I was interested in finding out more about this HP world—or Potterverse, as the fans know it. I had assumptions and preconceived notions, but I also had a curiosity. As I have since confirmed via a few online sorting hat quizzes, I am Ravenclaw after all.
Overall, the conference was a wonderful experience, from the setting to the atmosphere created by a bunch of people who are passionate about Harry Potter and the work that they do—in and out of academia. Despite the fancy private college setting, the conference is put together with very few resources and with a lot of energy, and the conference organizers are committed to keeping the conference accessible to a diverse range of people. The papers accepted and presented are selected not based upon the academic credentials, but on the merit of the ideas presented in the abstract. There is also a clear effort to include undergraduates, independent scholars, and even high school students. The energy, the joy, the untapped possibility—they were all palpable.
As I noted during my plenary talk, what’s better than the HP books or the Girls on Fire books, is what readers, fans, scholars, and activists do with the texts. Even when I was unfamiliar with certain aspects of the overall story or later books, I found all of the talks to be interesting, insightful, enlightening, and some were even entertaining. More than once I was moved to tears by the passion of the participants, especially at the reaction of the two high school students who presented their papers and were awarded with scholarships to Chestnut Hill College.
I saw so many wonderful presentations and met so many incredible people. Dare I say the conference was … magical?! And, of course, the conference also did not disappoint in terms of my own learning and new insights I was able to glean regarding my Girls on Fire work. (Ravenclaw, again!) But for these insights, you’ll have to read the second part of this two-blog series! Stay tuned!