Born on July 31, 1965, in Gloucestershire, England, Joanne Kathleen Rowling grew up in rural communities in the southwestern part of that country. Her parents, Peter and Anne Rowling, an engineer and laboratory technician respectively, bought books such as The Wind in the Willows to read to their two daughters. Rowling’s childhood experiences shaped her future literary creations. She explored the English countryside, visiting castles and historical sites which inspired her imagination. Although she disliked science and mathematics courses, Rowling excelled in literature classes. She penned funny, fantastical tales to amuse her sister Diana and friends, especially the Potter siblings whose name she later appropriated for her wizardry novels.
As a teenager, Rowling dreamed of becoming a published author whose books were sold in stores. She kept her ambitions a secret, though, because she feared criticism and discouragement from people who might declare that her writing was weak. Rowling gradually became more self-confident and was named Head Girl during her final year at school. Studying languages at Exeter University in order to be employable as a bilingual secretary, Rowling graduated with a degree in French and Classics. This scholarly knowledge aided her later clever construction of characters in the Harry Potter books. She also earned college credits while serving as an auxiliary teacher in Paris.
Rowling researched human rights issues for Amnesty International, then relocated to Manchester for other office positions. She worked for a company that manufactured surveillance equipment. The self-professed disorganized Rowling loathed her secretarial duties, often writing instead of working. She wrote fiction for adult readers but did not submit it for publication. She also often visited her ailing mother, who had been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis a few years earlier. During one of these train trips, Rowling had an epiphany about an orphaned boy wizard named Harry Potter and began inventing characters and settings. After her mother’s death in 1990, Rowling decided to teach English as a second language in Oporto, Portugal.
She outlined seven books to chronicle Harry’s adventures at the Hogwarts School of Wizardry and Witchcraft and his battle against evil forces. Each book would feature one year of Harry’s schooling as he aged from eleven years old to seventeen. During the search for his identity as he matured, Harry would avenge his parents’ murder, discover his family’s heritage, and secure sanctuaries where good wizards and witches could thrive. Rowling’s careful planning enabled her to place subtle clues that would later prove crucial to characterization and plot development.
Writing in the mornings and teaching in the afternoon and at night, 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 urged Rowling to finish the first Harry Potter novel. The media has emphasized that Rowling was on public assistance during this time, and Rowling clarifies that she was initially unable to find work that paid a sufficient salary for her to afford child care. Later, she began teaching in a local school.
Writing for her own entertainment and sense of accomplishment, Rowling did not intend to write a children’s book. Agent Christopher Little recognized Rowling’s talent and began submitting the book to publishers. Bloomsbury Press bought Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone in 1996. The next year, Scholastic Inc. purchased rights to publish the book in the United States, changing the title’s wording to attract American readers. Rowling received a grant from the Scottish Arts Council to complete her second book, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. She sold film and merchandising rights to Warner Brothers.
Rowling has received praise from reviewers and readers, winning numerous awards, including the Smarties Prize for her first three books, and topping the bestseller lists. She was named Author of the Year at the British Book Awards in 2000 and received an honorary doctorate from the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. Rowling has become a celebrity, appearing as a featured reader at such events as the White House Easter egg roll. The Harry Potter books are a catalyst for a cultural phenomenon. Millions of copies in more than thirty languages have been sold in over one hundred countries. Readers of all ages apprehensively wait for new books then voraciously read them. The dark themes explored in the series have caused some conservative groups to attempt to ban the books from classrooms. Rowling responds to such attacks by stating that she does not believe in witchcraft and thinks children deserve to know the realities of evil.