On Harry Potter's 20th Anniversary, Listen To His NPR Debut

Jun 26, 2017
Originally published on June 26, 2017 4:55 pm

The first book of the Harry Potter series went on sale in the U.K. 20 years ago today. It offers a convenient excuse to reacquaint yourself with a world before anyone on this side of the Atlantic had heard of muggles, horcruxes or pensieves, before tourists would crowd into London's Kings Cross railway station simply to peer wistfully at the space between Platforms Nine and Ten.

Here's the first story NPR ever aired about Harry Potter — a wonderful piece by the late Margot Adler, from All Things Considered in 1998.

Some gems, from that bygone era:

  • "Most people in the U.S. have never heard of Harry Potter. It's not a title you see in the window at your local Barnes & Noble."
  • Rowling's recollection of how Harry came to her while she stared out a train window at some cows.
  • Margot Adler's uncannily accurate prediction that the word "muggle" will become a Whole Big Thing.
  • A Q and A session in which a kid asks Rowling about her writing, and Rowling reads the Reptile House scene from Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone.
  • A quote from a bookstore manager marveling at the fact that they've sold "hundreds" of copies.
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The first "Harry Potter" book came out 20 years ago today. And before there were multimillion-dollar movies, Sorting Hat Halloween costumes and temporary tattoos of a lightning scar, there were just two books published in England that were getting some buzz. Here's what our audience heard on December 3, 1998.



The books "Harry Potter And The Sorcerer's Stone" and its sequel were written by Joanne Rowling. She wrote part of "Harry Potter" on scraps of paper at a Scottish cafe when she was a struggling single mother.

SHAPIRO: That was the first mention of "Harry Potter" on our network.

SIEGEL: I guess I made the first mention of it. I was reading an introduction there to a story by the late great reporter and dear friend of mine Margot Adler.


MARGOT ADLER, BYLINE: When a galley of "Harry Potter" arrived on my desk last June, I popped it carelessly into my bag. Perhaps, I thought, a book to read out loud to my son during summer vacation. Our whole family sat riveted for a week.

SHAPIRO: This was just as American audiences were meeting Harry, Hermione and Ron.

SIEGEL: Here's more of that first report now, starting with a not-yet-famous, not-yet-billionaire author arriving at a party.


ARTHUR LEVINE: We're celebrating the arrival of J.K. Rowling and "Harry Potter's" publication in the United States.


ADLER: Arthur Levine, who brought "Harry Potter" to Scholastic, is speaking at a book party in Manhattan. Rowling, who is in her early 30s, has never been to the United States before, and she's come with her 5-year-old daughter. Rowling says the idea for 11-year-old Harry Potter came to her in 1990.

J K ROWLING: I was on a train, staring out of the window at some cows, thinking of nothing in particular, and the idea for Harry just kind of fell into my head. It was the purest stroke of inspiration I've ever had. I could see him. I could see little round glasses and I could see his scar. And, you know, he was a very real boy to me from the beginning.

The acorn that arrived on that train was Harry, a boy who doesn't know he's a wizard, who has always been able to make strange stuff happen but unconsciously, normally when he's scared or angry. And the fact that unbeknownst to him, his name has been down at this amazing school for witchcraft and wizardry since birth. But he doesn't know this because the relatives with whom he lives have hoped that if they're horrible enough to him they'll be able squash the magic out of him. They know what he is, but they've never told him.

ADLER: Much of "Harry Potter And The Sorcerer's Stone" takes place in a phantasmagorical alternate world at a wizard school called Hogwarts, a bizarre take off of a British boarding school, except this school is filled with giants and with professors with names like Sprout, Snape and Dumbledore. And there is a word in the book that could actually enter general usage - muggle.

ROWLING: Muggle is a word for someone who is totally non-magic. It's what wizards call people who have no magical blood in their veins. But people are writing to me very often now and using that word and slightly enlarging its meaning to mean someone fairly dull and unimaginative.

ADLER: In the book, the wizard world and the muggle world are totally distinct. They have different candy, different clothing, even different sports. I brought a few kids into our studio to ask Rowling a few questions. One is Skylar (ph), just about age 8.

SKYLAR: How did you get the idea of writing about magic?

ROWLING: When I was younger, I think my greatest fantasy would have been to find out that I had powers that I'd never dreamt of, that I was special, that these people couldn't be my parents. I'm far more interesting than that. I think a lot of children secretly might think that sometimes. So I just took that one stage further and I thought, what's the best way of breaking free of that? OK, you're magic.

ADLER: No one knows how successful "Harry Potter" will be in this country. It will be fascinating to chart how far "Harry Potter" will go in the muggle world.

SIEGEL: That's the late NPR reporter Margot Adler, who did our first story about "Harry Potter" in December 1998. The first "Harry Potter" book came out in the U.K. 20 years ago today. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.