I’ll never forget the first time I picked up a Harry Potter book.

It was the fall of 1999, and I was a 10-year-old fifth-grader at Sparta’s Lawrence-Lawson Elementary School, visiting the library for something new to read. Being both painfully shy and obsessed with reading, this was nothing out of the ordinary.

The display featuring a boy flying on a broomstick with a lightning bolt on his forehead, on the other hand, was definitely out of the ordinary.

I stopped to look at them and the school librarian, whose name I’m sorry to say I don’t remember, immediately started telling me how much I would love them. I wasn’t quite sure, but I couldn’t turn them down after a glowing recommendation like that. How do you say “No” to a librarian?

Turns out that she was absolutely right.

I devoured the first three books, reading all of them in a week (Fun fact: the one and only time I got in trouble in elementary school was for reading “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban” while I was supposed to be learning math. In my defense, learning whether Harry’s godfather was evil or not was way more interesting than whatever it was I was supposed to be paying attention to).

While it’s been 18 years since I was introduced to Harry’s world, the magical universe of daring escapes and mythical maladies turned 20 years old June 26, the anniversary of the United Kingdom publication of “Harry Potter and the Philospher’s Stone,” known as “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone” in the United States.

The occasion was marked by author J.K. Rowling, who tweeted, “20 years ago today a world that I had lived in alone was suddenly open to others. It’s been wonderful. Thank you. #HarryPotter20,” and celebrated worldwide as people remembered how they felt while sharing Harry’s story.

Harry Potter is so much more than wands and magic, creatures and characters.

I grew up alongside Harry Potter, and I mean that quite literally. Daniel Radcliffe, who played Harry in the movies, was born four days before me, on July 23, 1989.

More importantly, I grew up as book Harry grew up. I got a bit of a late start compared to Harry, but by the time “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows” came out in 2007, we were both 17, leaving school and becoming an adult.

I learned a lot over those years, even while I thought I was merely being entertained.

While Professor Albus Dumbledore taught Harry how to embrace the minor miracles that make our world worth fighting for, Rowling did the same for me.

From music to socks, Dumbledore delights in the little things, saying, “Happiness can be found even in the darkest of times, if one only remembers to turn on a light.”

Rowling gave me words to live by, including, “It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our actions,” and “If you want to know what a man’s like, take a good look at how he treats his inferiors, not his equals.”

Rowling taught a generation of readers the importance of fighting prejudice wherever you find it, not through an anti-bullying PSA, but by showing us how it affects characters — both those we love and those we hate.

Nobody can forget how prejudice led Hagrid into hiding in his cabin for a month, enduring nigh-endless harassment from people who didn’t even know him and yet hated him for not being entirely human. Neither should we forget how prejudice turned the house-elf Kreacher into a mean-spirited little jerk, and how its absence transformed him into a dedicated, if a little odd, assistant.

Sometimes I think Rowling is the reason I started writing at all.

“Words are, in my not-so-humble opinion, our most inexhaustible source of magic,” she wrote in the last book.

Think about your words carefully and know they have an impact, even if only on one person.

And, last, but not least, “Well, he should have some chocolate, at the very least.”

But the main takeaway from the books is simply this: Compassion matters.

Building compassion into your character, embracing your ability to love others as yourself, is essential when it comes to making the world a place worth living in.

I still read all seven Harry Potter books about every other year so I don’t forget.

Jourdan Vian is the suburban weekly editor for the River Valley Media Group, overseeing the Houston County News, Coulee News and Onalaska Holmen Courier-Life.

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La Crosse city government reporter

Jourdan Vian is a reporter and columnist covering local government and city issues for the La Crosse Tribune. You can contact her at 608-791-8218.

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