Harry Potter's impact

Owners of the Red Canoe, Peter (left) and Nicole Selhorst say that one of the Potter novels, "Harry Potter and Half-Blood Prince," helped their bookstore/cafe through its crucial first summer. (Jed Kirschbaum, Baltimore Sun / July 13, 2011)

Thirteen-year-old Alexander Williams was always so reluctant to read that his school arranged to get him special help. But he felt differently about the stories when they were told on a big screen.

Most people who love the films begin with the books. But for Alex, the process worked the other way around. When he was finally forced to page through J.K. Rowling's novels to fulfill a class assignment, the characters in the novels took on added life in his imagination.

"Alex was completely enthralled, to where he would not put the book down," said his mother, Erin Riley of Belcamp.

"He was reading during mealtimes, on the way to school, and even during school hours — to the point that he was getting in trouble for reading during other classes. He learned that reading could be fun and that the books were even more detailed than the movies."

J.K. Rowling's phenomenally popular magical world will achieve perhaps its final milestone at midnight Thursday, with the debut of " Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows — Part 2," the eighth and final movie based on the series of novels.

But that doesn't mean that the saga is coming to an end.

Rowling's fantasy epic about a boy with a wand and a scar shaped like a lightning bolt is beloved by an awful lot of people. The earlier films have grossed $6.4 billion worldwide, and the seven novels have sold more than 450 million copies since the first was published in 1997.

For Alex and other Maryland fans, the movies and books have an importance that eclipses their entertainment value. Some say Rowling's fictional characters have helped some people make sense of their lives and overcome obstacles.

The films and books were instrumental in helping a Halethorpe woman settle on a career as a journalist. They taught a new bride how to cope with her fears when her husband, a senior airman, left home for a six-month deployment. And the boy wizard's fans boosted sales at an independent Lauraville bookshop, helping it survive during its all-important first summer.

Salisbury University professor Ernie Bond is an expert on children's literature. He thinks that books and films like the "Harry Potter" series, in which a young hero or heroine faces a series of challenges on the road to adulthood, will always have an appeal that transcends generations.

"While the number of people purchasing adult books has been declining, the number of people purchasing young-adult books has increased by 15 percent" Bond said.

"And some of those purchasers are grown-ups. A lot of that is due to the popularity of Harry Potter."

Some readers use books to examine their own lives from a distance. By modeling their behavior on a character they admire, they discover reservoirs of hidden strength.

When Mark Vidrine left his home in Fort Meade in June 2010 for six months on an assignment for the Air Force, his new wife succumbed to an unexpected urge.

"Five minutes after Mark walked out the door, and with my face still covered in tears, I sat down on the couch and wrote a short story," Ashley Vidrine, 26, said.

"I wrote about the way Ginny Weasley felt when Harry disappeared for a long time. I wrote about what it felt to be left to be left behind, and the pain of not being able to be with the man you love for six months. I wrote about Ginny's fears for Harry's safety, and her not knowing what the outcome would be.

"But Ginny was the kind of character who would maybe let herself sit and cry for five minutes. Then she would tell herself, 'I have to get up because I have a duty to do,' and she would do her best to help out.

"And, by the time I finished writing, I was OK."

Just as movies and books celebrate the way in which its young characters discover and develop their hidden talents, Rowling's epic helped Maria Satyshur blossom as a writer.