By the Book: Raise your butter beer to J.K. Rowling

01/17/2011 9:41 AM |

Start with an image of a single mother on welfare walking around Edinburgh, pushing a pram until her baby daughter falls asleep, then ducking into the nearest café to work on writing her novel for the length of the nap. Jump to Orlando, Fla., where the Wizarding World of Harry Potter is part of Universal Studio’s amusement park. Thousands of visitors from all over the world come to drink butter beer on the cobbled streets of Hogsmeade and Diagon Alley. It is the kind of story that would be hard to make up, even if one were as gifted a storyteller as J.K. Rowling, the aforementioned young woman, the author of the Harry Potter books, and the reason I found myself in Florida despite my lifelong aversion to even the idea of an amusement park.

My critics would suggest it is intellectual snobbery that inures me to the charms of amusement parks, but may I add, in my own defense, that it is also a deep-seated physical cowardice that has always made me uninterested in speed. I prefer cross-country to downhill skiing, figure to speed skating, walking to running, and the one and only time I was stopped by the police while driving a car, it was because my excessive slowness on a mountain road caused a considerable backup behind me.

There may be some vestigial Calvinism involved, too, but I have never needed a whole park or an industrial complex or lots of expensive equipment to be amused. I like watching people, reading books and my own company just fine. Or sometimes a loaf of bread, a jug of wine and thou beside me, singing in the wilderness … whichever.

On the other hand, J.K. Rowling invented butter beer when she wrote about it, and all of us imagined it when we read about it, but it’s a pretty amazing thing that, thanks to all sorts of young marketing geniuses, people can sit in the Three Broomsticks Pub and actually drink it. It can’t be bottled and exported because it would explode, so you have to go to Orlando to try it. It is a two-step pour: A clear, golden, carbonated liquid, a bit like cream soda only more caramel-like and slightly brighter tasting, comes from a keg, then a head is added from a separate tap that is a sweet, foamy, whipped-cream-type concoction. Not exactly my favorite type of libation, but my 8-year-old traveling companion adored it, and I liked the way something that was imagined became real, and not just the butter beer.

There was also Honeydukes Sweetshop, which sells Chocolate Frogs, Liquorice Wands, Pepper Imps, Chocoballs and Bertie Bott’s Every Flavour Beans, among other delights. The Ministry of Magic has not yet licensed Fizzing Whizzbees, Drooble’s Best Blowing Gum, Toothflossing Stringmints, Ice Mice, Cockroach Clusters, Jelly Slugs, Blood Lollipops, Acid Pops and Sugar Quills, but it’s early days yet. Wizarding World only opened in August 2010.

At Hogwarts School, we walked through hallways with framed pictures that were conversing with each other and through classrooms like the herbology greenhouse and a room where a surprisingly lifelike 3-D projection of Dumbledore addressed us. Then Harry himself, with Hermione and Ron, suddenly appeared out of the folds of the Invisibility Cloak and urged us on to the next room while Hermione cast a spell that made it snow on us.

Next was the part that was like a roller-coaster ride, but with projections and computer-animated stuff. You were strapped into a seat and it was dark and everything was lurching, often with the impression of great speed and free-falling through space. But I was distracted by the Dementors and giant spiders, the quidditch game we were playing and the whomping willow tree, so I didn’t really get too scared. And then, of course, you exit through the gift shop.

There were Japanese families, some grandparents from France with their bespectacled Harryish grandson, every sort of American, all of us shaken and stirred and set down in a crowded store to try to memorialize the experience we’d just had with some sort of commodity we could buy. An interesting impossibility that nets the commercial Harry Potter empire lots and lots of money.

The story starts with a lack of money and time even, but plenty of talent, determination and luck. Seven books and seven movies later, at the end of the story, there’s lots and lots of money for J.K. Rowling, who does a lot of quiet philanthropy, and for the publishers and film studios, amusement parks and toy licensees. But in the middle of the story there were simply the books and the readers. The decision to publish Rowling’s first book apparently owes much to Alice Newton, the 8-year-old daughter of British publisher Bloomsbury’s chairman, who was given the first chapter to review by her father and immediately demanded the next. Although Bloomsbury agreed to publish the book, they advised Rowling to get a day job, since she had little chance of making money in children’s books. Her publishers also demanded that she use two initials, rather than her full name, fearing that their target audience of young boys might not want to read a book written by a woman.

The first book was published in Britain as “Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone” and in the United States as “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone” and found its readers in both places. Not all the people enjoying butter beer and rides had read all of the books (unlike my traveling companion and myself), but the books had to exist before the rest of the magic could happen. And the books started simply, as books often do, with a person stealing a bit of time from the rest of her life to imagine and write down what she imagines.

Ms. Johnson, of Greenport, is assistant director at Floyd Memorial Library and moonlights as an artist and newspaper columnist.