Happy Birthday Harry Potter and J.K. Rowling!

July 31, 2019 | Isabel

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July 31 is the birthday of both J.K. Rowling and her beloved character, Harry Potter. It is also known to many as International Harry Potter Day. We want to celebrate today by remembering a very special trip Rowling took to Toronto, many years ago.

J.K. Rowling at the White House  2010
J. K. Rowling at the White House, 2010. (Image courtesy of Daniel Ogren on a creative commons licence.)

Joanne Rowling was born July 31, 1965, in Gloucestershire, England. She started writing at a young age, completing her first (unpublished) novel at age 11. (It was “about seven cursed diamonds and the people who owned them,”* which is a story I would love to read.) The idea for Harry Potter came to Rowling in 1990, on a train from Manchester to London. For five years, she plotted out the entire series. During that time she moved to Portugal, got married, had a daughter, got divorced and returned to the UK.

The Elephant House Cafe
The Elephant House – One of the cafes in Edinburgh, Scotland, in which J.K. Rowling wrote parts of the first few Harry Potter books. (Image courtesy of Fred Hsu on a creative commons licence. The colour has been brightened from the original.)

Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone was published in 1998. In October of 2000, Rowling arrived in Toronto for a three-day visit. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire had just come out that July. Maybe you lined up for it in your local bookstore the night before, waiting breathlessly to get your hands on a copy. Did you stay up all night, reading well into the next day until you finished that book, completely devastated and hungry for more? I know I did.

But I digress. That October, Rowling came to Toronto for the Toronto International Festival of Authors (IFOA). On October 24, she read before a crowd of 20,000 people packed into the SkyDome (now the Rogers Centre).

The Rogers Centre (once known as the SkyDome)
Imagine these bleachers full of children. (Toronto Star Photograph Archive, 1989.)

A few days before the reading, on October 21, J.K. Rowling paid a visit to the Osborne Collection of Early Children's Books. Staff member Liz Derbecker was kind enough to give us her memories of that night:

“I was there in 2000 when J.K. Rowling arrived, and I can tell you what it was like. First of all, we were all sworn to secrecy. She came on a Saturday after closing time and was smuggled in the side door. She was very petite and friendly. Leslie McGrath, the Head of the Collection at that time, had only given birth ten days or so earlier, so she brought her son William in his little Moses basket, and J.K. Rowling really loves babies. (William's middle name is Harry, after you-know-who.) We showed her some of the gems of the Collection, among them the 14th century manuscript of Aesop’s Fables and a miniature bookcase. She signed all our HP titles and signed our guest book with an original drawing of the Sorting Hat. Then she was whisked off in a hired car to some other function. The visit was less than 40 minutes, I think.”

Harry Potter books
Harry Potter books signed by J.K. Rowling during her visit in 2000.

Services Specialist Martha Scott was also there for the visit:

“When J.K. Rowling visited in October, 2000, I was fortunate enough to give her a tour of Osborne's exhibit "Here Be Dragons: Wizardry and Magical Creatures at the Osborne Collection of Early Children's Books." This exhibit was put together to complement her visit. I remember she was particularly excited to see the case on griffins...”

The Enchanter Merlin, an illustration from The Story of King Arthur and His Knights by Howard Pyle
An illustration from The Story of King Arthur and His Knights by Howard Pyle, 1903. This book was featured in the above-mentioned exhibit and this copy has been digitized by the Osborne Collection.

Rowling may have been excited to see the griffins because that was what drew her to the Osborne Collection in the first place. Leslie, the former Department Head, had sent her a letter inviting her to Toronto. On the letterhead was Osborne’s logo, the beautiful griffin drawn by Maurice Sendak. Liz Derbecker recalls that the griffin captured Rowling’s attention and piqued her interest in the collection.

Griffin for Osborne by Maurice Sendak
The griffin, drawn for the Osborne Collection by Maurice Sendak.

After she signed the guestbook, the Osborne Collection “retired” it. Martha Scott says she still shows it to visitors on a regular basis. Rowling's note reads, “With many thanks for displaying some of your treasures to me!” Beneath her message she drew a smiling Sorting Hat.

Page from the Historia di Lionbruno
One of the treasures Rowling likely saw was Osborne’s 1476 copy of the Historia di Lionbruno (The Story of Lionbruno). This story contains the first known print reference to a cloak of invisibility, a magical item that also appears in the Harry Potter books.

The magic continued on October 22, when J.K. Rowling read at a Toronto Public Library fundraising luncheon at the Royal York Hotel. As Martha recalls, Mayor Mel Lastman introduced Rowling as “Harry Potter’s Mom.”

Half of the proceeds from the fundraiser went towards children’s literacy programs at TPL. The Osborne Collection used the other half to begin digitizing their Canadiana Collection. Over 5,000 items from the Osborne Collection have been digitized so far.

All of the books mentioned in this blog are available for viewing in the Osborne Collection Reading Room. The Osborne Collection of Early Children's Books is located on the fourth floor of Lillian H. Smith branch.

Happy birthday J.K. Rowling! And a very happy Harry Potter Day to everyone!

Were you in the SkyDome in 2000? Do you have a J.K. Rowling or Harry Potter memory? Feel free to share in the comments!

Griffin - Stubbs

Thanks to Liz Derbecker and Martha Scott for their recollections.

*Quote from J.K. Rowling's website.