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The lesson J.K. Rowling is teaching a new generation

Harry Potter and the return of anticipation


 
Members of the public take pictures in front of The Palace Theatre, following the first preview of the Harry Potter and The Cursed Child play last night, on June 8, 2016 in London, England. The new Harry Potter play follows on from the British author J.K. Rowling's acclaimed series of books about a boy wizard. (Jack Taylor/Getty Images)

Members of the public take pictures in front of The Palace Theatre, following the first preview of the Harry Potter and The Cursed Child play last night, on June 8, 2016 in London, England. The new Harry Potter play follows on from the British author J.K. Rowling’s acclaimed series of books about a boy wizard. (Jack Taylor/Getty Images)

Anticipation is a rare commodity these days. In this on-demand era, there are few desires that can’t be immediately fulfilled with the swipe of a phone or click of a mouse. “There is a generation of kids who don’t have to wait for very much,” says Alysa Kim, mother of three in Toronto. She recalls an era when it would take 18 months for movies to be released for home consumption on VCR. Now they’re online in weeks. Entire TV seasons are released at one time, instantly dissected online. The latest fashions can be shipped overnight. Breaking news arrives in seconds.

But that “instant everything” concept doesn’t apply to J.K. Rowling’s creations. She wants fans to savour the details, to not know what happens on the next page, what revelation will completely upend a reader’s perception of a character. While writing her seven-book Harry Potter series that introduced hundreds of millions to a magical world full of brave witches and wizards, hippogriffs, Quidditch and an evil megalomaniac named Voldemort, the author repeatedly pushed back deadlines as plots became longer and more complex. (She also remarried and had two more children during that time.) It took three years for the fifth book to be finished, and two each for the sixth and seventh. All the while, she said little, but cautioned that shocks and surprises were coming. Fans waited and fretted, fearing she might kill her title character, Harry Potter.

It’s been nine years since the release of the seventh book, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, after which she warned fans that she was unlikely to write another book focused on Harry and his stalwart friends. Since then, she’s kept her word, writing four adult novels, including three mysteries under the pseudonym Robert Galbraith.

In those nine years, fans have reread their books, watched the movies, and introduced friends and family to one of the most successful book series of all time. The Toronto Public Library still keeps at least 150 copies of each of those seven books in its collection, replacing those that wear out. This year, it has purchased a minimum of 50 copies of each title. Yet despite those efforts, each title has a waiting list. What many readers want is more. More Harry Potter, Hermione Granger and Ronald Weasley. More about how those who defeated Voldemort at the Battle of Hogwarts have fared.

Now, after nearly a decade, Rowling has fulfilled fans’ wishes by dipping her toe back into Harry Potter’s universe. She didn’t write another book but instead co-created the story for a theatrical production, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child Parts One and Two (written by veteran, award-winning playwright Jack Thorne.) Described as the “eighth story, 19 years later,” the play picks up at the end of the the book series, with an adult Harry Potter sending his younger son, Albus Severus, off to Hogwarts. The play, like the rest of Rowling’s works, is a very personal creation, so much so that she sat in the mezzanine for the first preview performance, watching intently as the two-part, five-hour production made its debut in London.

As with her previous releases, she wants audiences to know next to nothing about the plot. Buttons printed with #KeepTheSecret were handed out to theatre audiences, while she took to Twitter to publicly call out sites spreading explosive details.

Pent-up demand means the golden theatrical tickets are a hot commodity. More than 175,000 tickets sold out within 24 hours of first going on sale last October (another 250,000 hit the market on Aug. 4.) Given the critically acclaimed play can only be seen by 1,400 people in each audience, Rowling decided to satisfy the desire of fans to know its plot. So she announced that fans around the world have been waiting for: The Cursed Child script is being published. And so, anticipation again returns to Harry Potter fans.

Ever since Alysa Kim’s daughter, Evelyn, finished Deathly Hallows two years ago, she’s been waiting, impatiently, for a new Harry Potter title.”When I finish a book, I ask for the next one,” says Evelyn, 13. “It’s agitating that it’s not out and I have to wait.” She’s been commiserating with friends, also in the same, unfamiliar predicament of not being able to immediately quench their desire for more Harry.

On Sunday, July 31 at 12:01 a.m., the script goes on sale. No one, not even media critics, gets it any earlier. (I saw the play in early June and have since fended off countless entreaties to reveal something—anything—about the plot.) Libraries and bookstores are happily taking pre-orders and throwing parties on Saturday evening as they stay open to hand out the books. Indigo, which is extending hours in all of its Indigo and Chapters locations, reports that The Cursed Child is the most pre-ordered book since Deathly Hallows, which itself set the record for advance sales. As of Thursday morning, the Toronto Public Library counted 1,078 holds for 227 books (as well as 431 electronic holds).

Remarkably, in this social media-obsessed world, many fans have shied away from trying to learn the secrets contained within The Cursed Child, including Evelyn Kim, who wonders about the title and whether it has something to do with Voldemort’s terrible powers, and whether they were transmitted to someone when he was destroyed. Unfortunately, Evelyn’s wait will be longer than many. Her family is going to a cottage for the long weekend and mother Alysa denied a request that she drive back into the city to get the book. Evelyn gets it on Tuesday. She read the previous Harry Potter books all day long, and expects the same with this one. She won’t be alone. After so much anticipation, millions will be putting down mobile phones, turning off electronics and satiating their thirst to once again enter Rowling’s magical domain.

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