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#InspiredbyHer. J.K.Rowling, from an English teacher to best-selling author, philanthropist and political activist

She opened up a whole new world, filled with wonderful adventures and fantastical creatures, transforming the boy who lived in the cupboard under the stairs in every child’s hero. J.K. Rowling wrote the first chapters of the acclaimed Harry Potter series on scraps of unused paper. And just like in the novels, her own life story proves that holding fast to dreams eventually pays off.

From an English teacher to one of the best paid writers in the world, J.K. Rowling became a house-hold name ever since her first Harry Potter book hit the shelves. Writing in her spare time, often in café shops, and scribbling ideas down on unused scraps of paper, Rowling created a fantastic universe that became an escape for millions of children the world over. And while the young and the old, held their breath until the last chapter of the series,  the story of the orphan wizard boy living in the cupboard under the stairs, overcoming adversities, finding love and friendship broke records after records and became not only one of the best-selling books of all times but also transformed Rowling into a millionaire.

The English teacher with a suite case full of dreams

Joanne Rowling was born on 31st July 1965 and grew up in Gloucestershire in England and in Chepstow, Gwent, in south-east Wales. Her love of words was apparent even during childhood and she candidly admits to being a bookworm, more interested in the paper-adventure that inspired her to become a writer.

“I lived for books. I was your basic common-or-garden bookworm, complete with freckles and National Health spectacles,” she says on her website.

At six, Rowling already wrote her first story, about the rabbit named Rabbit and five years later she announced the completion of her first novel, a story about seven cursed diamonds and their owners. These were the first steps of the author that will go on to make millions.

The love affair with words continued while she went on to study at Exeter where she was fined £50 for overdue books. The French and Classic syllabus proved quite in handy in creating her own magical universe full of creatures that resemble and takes us back through ancient and medieval mythology.

Harry Potter book

In 1990, Harry Potter was born, or more accurately, the idea of Harry Potter was born while Rowling was waiting on a train that was running late at King’s Cross station. That night, she began creating the fantastical world of witchcraft and wizardry. In a later interview, remembering those days, Rowling said that when she got off the train, she had the same feeling as meeting someone she could fell in love with.

“It was that incredible elated feeling that you get when you just met someone with whom you might eventually fall in love. That was the kind of feeling I got when I got off the train,” Jo said.

It took time for the universe to unravel itself and Rowling moved to Portugal. She continued her writing and by the time she divorced and moved to Scotland, Jo had a suitcase that contained chapters of her fist book. It took her five years to outline all the seven books, writing in every spare time she could find and, according to her own accounts, on odd scraps of paper, in longhand.

It wasn’t the best of times for Rowling and she often spoke about the difficulties of being a single mother, living on welfare, trying to get life back on track. She battled not only financial hardship but also depression and the experiences made their way into her writing.

A story worth billions

When she finished her first novel, Rowling started looking for literary agents, sending the first three chapters of the book, hoping to get published. She was warned that children’s story will not bring her fame and fortune but when the first 500 copies came out, the orphan wizard took the world by storm. And while Bloomsbury offered her a chance, other editors rejected her manuscript.

And the public’s love affair with the quintessential British magical universe was just at the beginning. An indexing made back in 2016 revealed that the seven books of the series sold more than 450 million copies and were translated in 67 languages. The Goblet of Fire broke the record for most copies produced in an initial printing, with 3.8 million copies while the next books, The Order of the Phoenix, The Half-Blood Prince and The Deathly Hallows continued to break records. The Deathly Hallows was released in 12 million copies. It also became the fastest-selling book in history.

JK Rowling awards

In a list of best-selling books of all times, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone is ranked fifth after classics like Don Quixote and the Little Prince and Charles Dickens’ The Tale of Two Cities. And all the books of the series are ranked in the first 20 best-selling books of all times

The movie franchise has grossed more than $7 billion and the last part of the series had the highest opening in American box office history while also winning the world box office opening record.

From the Harry Potter franchise, J.K Rowling made millions. In 2016, Forbes Magazine estimated her net worth at £600 million ($805.9 million) and ranked her third in their top of the world’s best earning authors.

And the franchise will live on with Rowling still developing the magical universe of Harry Potter with a play that made headlines and a new movie that reignited the world’s interest in wizardry, this time on US shores.

A taste for reading

Besides the success and fortune it brought to all those involved with the franchise, the books achieved something that  societies all over the world craved for,  to promote reading and to drive up literacy numbers. The National Endowment for the Arts found that children started reading more due to Harry Potter, a point later emphasized in the Untied Kingdom by the Education Department’s deputy director-general back in 2002. Alan Laughlin said the popularization of literature, especially the Harry Potter publishing phenomenon, was partly responsible for the lift in literacy because it had taken reading out of the “egghead” realm.

JK Rowling

The Harry Potter phenomenon even led scientists to try to quantify the way in which it influenced reading and reading habits among children. Data from The Kids and Family Reading Report, released by Yankelovich and Scholastic, found that just over half of Harry Potter readers ages  5-17 said they did not read books for fun before they started reading Harry Potter, but now they do, and 65% say they have been doing better in school since they started reading the series. The vast majority of parents (89%) say that reading Harry Potter has helped their child enjoy reading more, and 76% say that reading Harry Potter has helped their child do better in school. And the numbers were higher for boys than for girls.

The study also found that it changed reading behavior since children that started reading the series re-read the books and kept on reading them as they matured. And even parents started reading the books, creating a bridge between generations. And some of those that liked the series and re-read older books are convinced that Harry Potter has earned not only the title of a cultural phenomenon but also its place as a staple of the British culture as a whole.

Rowling was saddened by the ending of the Harry Potter series but suggested that the story came to an natural finish. Still, in 2016, the theater became the central focus point for all Potter fans as Rowling took up play writing and delivered the eight part of the series, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. The two part play was premiered in London and describes the events 18 years after the Deathly Hallows.

But Rowling is not solely concentrated on writing books for children. In 2012 she released, under her own name, the Casual Vacancy novel, that became a series and a best-seller. She is also the writer of several detective stories featuring Cormoran Strike, under the pen name Robert Galbraith. The detective stories were picked up by HBO with a release set for 2017.

The political voice

J.K.Rowling became a powerful voice not only in literature but also in politics. Not afraid to voice out her concerns, fears and aspirations, Rowling tried to make sense, also through storytelling, of the tumultuous political arena of 2016. She wanted to explain her own convictions while also promoting tolerance. She warned against Brexit and her life experience and cultural heritage, the same that have helped her create stories so uniquely British and strangely international in nature, have let her find comfort in diversity and acceptance. The feelings resonate not only through her political views, promoting the Stay campaign and cautioning against Donald Trump, Marine Le Pen and Vladimir Putin but also throughout her book in which outcasts and nerds become heroes.

“I’m the mongrel product of this European continent and I’m an internationalist. I glory in association with the cultures of my fellow Europeans. My values are not contained or proscribed by borders,” she wrote in an opinion piece on her website regarding the political evolutions in Europe, UK and America.

She also came out during Scotland’s referendum for independence by announcing that she will vote against Scotland’s separation from the United Kingdom.

While she came under attack for voicing her opinions, she was always a proud defender of freedom of speech.

Fighting for orphans

Rowling said that losing her mother has impacted the way in which her characters relate to their parents and the orphan wizard in search of a family has prompted her to use her fame and financial winnings to establish a foundation working to end the institutionalization of children. Lumos tires to help poor, disabled or children from ethnic minorities get a family arguing that institutionalization denies children individual love and care, can damage their brain development and destroy their understanding of right and wrong. Working in countries like Bulgaria, Romania, Moldova and the Czech Republic, Lumos wants to o transform an outdated and harmful system into one which supports and protects children and enables them to have a positive future. It also raises awareness about what life is like in orphanages and how children often grow up without any sense of belonging, deprived of genuine care, education and healthcare.

Speaking to journalists and in conferences around the globe, J.K.Rowling wants people to understand and never underestimate the importance of growing up in one’s family. She argues that most of the children placed in orphanages have at least one parent alive and they should be helped to take better care of their offspring.

She also took a bold stand against running orphanages like a business while getting under media scrutiny by not endorsing volunteering in such institutions. In series of tweets on her media account, Rowling explained that westerners volunteering to work with children from poor and deprived countries might give their CV’s a polished look but it will also perpetuate the problems with orphanages in those countries.

Rowling has also given money to support for research and treatment of multiple sclerosis, from which her mother suffered setting up the Anne Rowling Regenerative Neurology Clinic at Edinburgh University. She has also been involved with charities promoting reading, helping children with dyslexia or NGOs helping and giving tutoring to prisoners who cannot read.

Sylvia Jacob