Joanne Kathleen Rowling was born on July 31, 1965, in Gloucestershire, England. The daughter of Peter and Anne Rowling, an engineer and laboratory technician, she developed her interest in literature and writing during her childhood in rural southwestern England. In addition to her parents buying books, mostly British children’s classics, and reading aloud to Joanne and her sister Diana, Rowling created fantasy tales about rabbits, one of her favorite animals, to amuse her sister. Rowling enjoyed roaming the countryside near her home, viewing historical sites and castles that sparked her imagination. She also played with neighbor children named the Potters. Their games often involved fantastical elements such as pretending to be wizards and witches much like Rowling’s fictional protagonist and his friends.
At school, the teenage Rowling favored literature courses and disliked mathematics and chemistry classes. Writing funny stories to amuse her classmates, Rowling dreamed of some day publishing a book that she would see for sale in stores but kept her ambitions private in fear discouragement. Rowling also worried about her mother’s health. Ann Rowling was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 1980. Despite her angst, Rowling became more confident and earned high grades. She was selected Head Girl during her last year of school.
Rowling enrolled at Exeter University where she majored in Classics and French, both subjects which she utilized in her fictional creations. She later used her scholarly background to create the clever plots, archetypes, and allusions that make the Harry Potter books so appealing. The Harry Potter novels have a mythological foundation, and characters and places have French-derived names. Rowling’s parents had advised her to study languages in order to secure steady employment as a bilingual secretary. While she was in college, Rowling earned credits as an auxiliary teacher in Paris. This experience later influenced her to teach English as a second language. Rowling held a variety of positions, researching human rights issues for Amnesty International and performing office work in Manchester. Her job with a surveillance equipment manufacturer inspired some of her inventive devices used by the characters in the Harry Potter saga.
Disliking her clerical tasks, mainly because she was disorganized, Rowling often wrote at work, scribbling notes about characters and settings on office memos and sketching drawings of her characters. She completed some fiction for adult readers but did not submit it for publication because she questioned its quality. She also often traveled to see her mother whose health was worsening. Riding a train because she does not drive automobiles, Rowling daydreamed on her journeys. She has related in several interviews that it was during a delay on one of these trips in 1990 that she experienced an epiphany about Harry Potter, an orphaned wizard, who “just strolled into my head fully formed.” Lacking a pen and paper, Rowling brainstormed her idea then rushed home to jot down details about characters and settings.
Rowling planned to write seven books which would tell about Harry’s adventures at the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry and his confrontations with evil characters. She decided that each novel would focus on one year of Harry’s life at school from the age of eleven to seventeen when he would become a mature wizard. While Harry gained information about his family and identity, he also would seek vengeance for his parents’ murder, discover his magical heritage, and secure sanctuaries where good wizards and witches could peacefully thrive. By carefully planning each novel, Rowling skillfully placed subtle clues in the text that readers later recognize as crucial to characterization and plot development.
Rowling’s mother died in 1990, following which she decided to move to Oporto, Portugal, to teach English as a second language. She wrote about Harry Potter in the mornings before teaching her classes in the afternoon and at night. During this time, Rowling met and married journalist Jorge Arantes. Their daughter Jessica was born in August 1993. Several months later, Rowling divorced Arantes and moved with Jessica to Edinburgh, Scotland, where her sister Diana lived. Diana encouraged Rowling to complete her first Harry Potter novel-Rowling had shipped home boxes of manuscript drafts and notes that she had worked on in Portugal. Although the media emphasizes that Rowling was on public assistance during this time, Rowling clarifies that she reluctantly accepted such welfare because she was initially unable to find work that paid a sufficient salary for her to afford suitable childcare for Jessica. When possible, Rowling began teaching in a local school. Admitting that this period of her life was extremely difficult, Rowling says that the despair and depression that she experienced are what inspired her to create the joyless Dementors in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. She emphasizes that the Dementors symbolize the effects of depression, and how it can suck happiness out of people.
Rowling continued writing the first Harry Potter novel for her personal entertainment, solace, and sense of accomplishment. She did not envision her novel as a children’s book and did not create her fiction with any specific age group of readers in mind. She sent her manuscript to agent Christopher Little who recognized Rowling’s literary talent and began submitting the book to British publishers. London’s Bloomsbury Press bought Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone in 1996. The next year, Scholastic Inc. purchased the rights to publish the book in the United States, replacing the word “philosopher” with “sorcerer” in the title to attract American readers. The Scottish Arts Council gave Rowling a grant, the largest sum ever given to a children’s writer, to complete her second book, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. Her third novel, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban was published in 1999 and nominated for the prestigious Whitbred Award which was presented to Seamus Heaney’s Beowulf in January 2000, sparking heated exchanged amongst judges, many of whom did not think that a children’s book should be considered for the award. Rowling’s fourth novel, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, was simultaneously released in Great Britain and the United States. Hype surrounding the publication of the fourth Harry Potter book saturated print and broadcast media, and Rowling toured Great Britain in a replica of the Hogwarts Express. She sold Harry Potter film and merchandising rights to Warner Brothers, and toys began appearing in stores in 2000. The first Harry Potter movie was cast in the summer of 2000 and released in autumn 2001.
Both reviewers and readers have praised Rowling. She has won numerous awards, including the Smarties Prize for her first three books, and topped bestseller lists worldwide. Because the Harry Potter books dominated the New York Times bestseller list for so long, that newspaper created a separate list specifically for children’s books. In 2000, Rowling was named Author of the Year at the British Book Awards and received honorary doctorates from her alma mater, the University of Exeter, and the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. Now a celebrity, Rowling has been the featured reader at charity events and celebrations including the White House Easter egg roll. Appealing to a diverse audience of all ages and ethnicities, the Harry Potter books have been lauded by many as a catalyst for a cultural phenomenon that promotes literacy and humanity. Millions of copies of Rowling’s books have been printed in more than thirty languages and sold in over one hundred countries. In contrast, the dark themes in Rowling’s novels have caused some conservative groups to attempt to ban the books from classrooms and school libraries. Rowling herself asserts that she does not believe in witchcraft, and that her stories emphasize the triumph of goodness and morality over maliciousness and corruption. She also contends that children deserve to know the realities of evil.