How 'Harry Potter' changed their lives

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.

Like Alex, Satyshur was a reluctant reader as a child. Rowling's series was the first time she ever felt drawn into a book, and she later felt inspired to branch out. She developed a taste for complex narratives that took place in a particular place and era. She was drawn to stories told in installments, with prequels and sequels.

"When I was 16, I started writing short stories," said Satyshur, 22, of Halethorpe. "But I found that my style is more fact-based and historic. I got into journalism, and it turns out that I'm good at it."

Satyshur minored in journalism in college. After graduating, she accepted a job in marketing for a Towson firm. But at nights and on weekends, she works as a freelance writer, crafting news articles for websites and publications.

"Harry Potter kind of set me on my career path,' she says. "If I hadn't read those books, I really don't think I'd be a writer today."

Bookstore owner Nicole Selhorst credits the boy wizard with helping keep The Red Canoe afloat.

By the summer of 2005, the children's book nook in Lauraville had only been open a few months, and things weren't going well. The initial rush of customers was only a memory. Bills were mounting.

"I knew in my heart, we were really day-to-day," the former teacher says of her dream shop. "Then along came Harry Potter, and — poof — it was fabulous."

A former fourth- and fifth-grade teacher, Selhorst knew of Harry's draw. She had pre-ordered as many copies of "Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince" as she could afford.

On the evening of the announced publication date, Selhorst wrapped herself in a hat and cape, only to became a bit spellbound herself as she watched parents and children file through the doors.

She sold 55 books that night. Nothing for a megastore like Amazon, but everything for her.

"People bought enough books and spent enough money to get us over the hump, and over that horrible summer," Selhorst remembers.

The Red Canoe has been open six years now. It's not a big moneymaker, but it's solid. And Selhorst knows she owes that to a little wizard in black-rimmed glasses.

"So many people have made us what we are," she says. "One of them is Harry Potter."

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