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August 14, 2011

A family era ends with close of Potter series

As Harry Potter fans the world over flock to theaters for the final screenings of the final film in the eight-part series, I'm marking the end of an era myself, reading the last pages of the last book to my last child.

I read all seven books in J.K. Rowling's epic series to my older daughter, Abby, when she was in elementary school, and I've spent the last two years reading them to my other daughter, Allie.

Closing the book on Harry and his pals is bittersweet. Over the past 10 years, I've watched the wiz kids grow up in the pages and films _ and my own kids right along with them. The little girl I first snuggled up with to read these bedtime stories is now 14; the baby born two years after the first movie enthralled audiences is nearly 8.

As the creative mind behind the most successful book and movie franchise of all time, Rowling has been credited with singlehandedly "saving reading" in an era of electronic entertainment and fostering patience in a generation accustomed to instant gratification. At a more basic level, her originality has given a bit of depth to a movie genre dominated mainly by Disney fairy tales and live-action animation created primarily as a vehicle for special effects and plastic toys.

Other books or movies may one day surpass Rowling's success, but Harry Potter will always be remembered as a cultural phenomenon. Even people who haven't read the books or seen the movies know that The Boy Who Lived wears glasses, has a lightning-bolt-shaped scar on his forehead and attends Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. Second-graders play witches and wizards at recess, launching curses and protective spells at one another in duels with pretend wands. On college quads, kids who grew up reading Harry Potter play a version of wizard soccer (Quidditch) _ minus the flying brooms and self-propelled balls.

I'm not a big fan of the fantasy genre. I picked up the first Harry Potter book 10 years ago _ just to see what all the excitement was about _ and read it in two sittings. I was captivated by the level of detail Rowling put into imagining, so completely, this other world, from the framework _ wand lore, wizard law, the characteristics and history of various breeds of magical creatures, wizard school rules and routines, and the inner workings of the Ministry of Magic _ to lighter details, like the ingredients used in the all-important Polyjuice Potion or the Puking Pastilles and Nosebleed Nougats found in Fred and George Weasley's joke shop.

As someone who makes a living working with words, I love the plays on words that are sprinkled throughout Rowling's pages, in names of things, like floo powder (used to transport yourself from one fireplace to another) and people, like Professor Sprout, expert in all varieties of magical plants. I love the etymology behind the incantations. Who needs "abracadabra" when you've got spells like reparo (great for fixing broken glasses), accio (used to instantly summon an object) or lumos (to create light)?

More than just a well-crafted adventure story or a fantastic twist on the standard coming-of-age tale, the Harry Potter saga has enough layers of complexity to keep adults engaged and guessing until the end. The books build on one another in ways Allie won't fully understand until she re-reads them on her own. Details and characters that seem frivolous in one book turn out to be pivotal to the plot later on.

In addition to the central theme of good vs. evil, the books address issues such as racism and censorship, and pose serious questions about fate and free will, the danger of absolute power to corrupt, and whether the ends always justify the means. There's plenty of drama, too, with first love, unrequited love, unconditional love and tragic death woven throughout the epic tale.

With just three chapters to go, Allie and I will soon rent Part 1 of "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows" and don our 3-D glasses for Part 2. And then, finally, the magic will be over.

Unless, of course, Allie gets a mysterious letter from Hogwarts when she turns 11. As she pointed out the other night, magical powers usually manifest themselves by age 7 or 8 _ even in muggle families like ours.

Lisa Miller is a freelance writer and editor who lives in Oneonta. She can be reached at

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