It’s not unusual for children to write letters to people who aren’t real — perhaps the Tooth Fairy, or Santa Claus. But the notes stuffed under pillows and left by fireplaces are a means to an end; their authors write for money and presents, rather than for a reply. But this wasn’t enough for me. I didn’t just want a coin from the Tooth Fairy; I wanted her to RSVP to my invitation to live in my dolls’ house when she was off-duty. I didn’t just want presents from Santa; I wanted a long missive explaining what exactly he spends all year doing at the North Pole. In other words, I wished for sustained and meaningful relationships with both mythical characters. Neither the Tooth Fairy nor Santa obliged, but I wasn’t discouraged. In fact, I corresponded with another magical character. When I was a child, I wrote to Hermione Granger — and she wrote back.
Well, to be precise, my mum, pretending to be Hermione Granger, wrote back. We exchanged not a few letters, but hundreds. We wrote to each other a couple of times a week for a year or so. Neither my mum nor I can remember how this fantasy began, but we know it started in the spring of 2002, six months before I was set to move from an infant school I liked to an unfamiliar junior school. I hadn’t started worrying about this transition yet, but my mum had, on my behalf.
In her role as Hermione, my mum monitored, legitimized and influenced my feelings about the upcoming change. In one lengthy letter (during which Hermione was on a school trip to a "SECRET dragon-breeding centre in the Romanian mountains!!"), she wrote to me: "How are you feeling about leaving your old school? Are you sad? Or are you excited? If you’re like me when I left my old school to go to Hogwarts, you’ll be feeling sad and excited." Obviously, all I wanted was to be like Hermione. I wrote back: "I’m like you I’m sad & exsited [sic]!"
In her role as Hermione, my mum monitored, legitimized and influenced my feelings about the upcoming change
I was most sad about leaving behind my beloved friends. It was this thought that I tearfully, persistently expressed to Hermione in the months before I started attending my new school. During the summer holidays, she told me: "I saw some of my old friends the other day and I left my old school 5 years ago!" I am sure I found this immensely reassuring. If my idol could keep in touch with her old friends despite changing worlds — let alone schools — that meant I’d be able to as well. And in the meantime, Hermione would always be there for me.
In September, I changed schools, but my very communicative pen pal remained constant. She made sure I didn’t feel forgotten at a time when my little life felt turbulent.
Since I stumbled across Medium’s in-depth analysis of how people define fanfiction, I’ve been wondering whether my mum's letters count as such. They’re certainly imaginative texts derived from the source material of Harry Potter, but they’re not "transformative" in that they don’t feature any earth-shattering revelations about life at Hogwarts. In fact, the letters adhere to the details of the books with impressive accuracy: In one letter, Hermione tells me she’s "visiting Winkie on Saturday down in the kitchens. I’ve knitted a hat for her." In another, she talks about S.P.E.W. badges and Dumbledore’s love of sherbet lemons. Mum did occasionally make mistakes: In one letter she mentions her Divination class. I, a pedantic six-year-old, replied, "I thought you gave up Divination?" Hermione diplomatically avoided the question in her next letter.
They’re certainly imaginative texts derived from the source material of Harry Potter, but they’re not "transformative" in that they don’t feature any earth-shattering revelations about life at Hogwarts.
Mum did take some creative liberties. For instance, Hermione told me that there was no owl post on Wednesdays, which just so happened to be the day that my mum had to hand in her essays for the undergraduate degree she was completing at the time. The thrilling adventures and unexpected events often featured in fanfiction were absent from Hermione’s letters; after all, they might have destabilied the canon I knew so well. Instead, the letters I received shored up my vision of J. K. Rowling’s wizarding world, by including intimate, quotidian details. At a time when my reality was shifting and changing, the reality of Harry Potter — because, yes, Hogwarts was a kind of reality for me — became more stable.
Through Hermione, I was able to discuss topics I didn't feel comfortable discussing with my mum. In one memorable letter, Hermione wrote to tell me that Peeves had stolen her bra and hung it on a chandelier. I was six-years-old and scandalized by this information. I wouldn’t have been caught dead talking to a grown-up about anything semantically associated with boobs, and I couldn’t contemplate such topics with the older sister I didn't have. Hermione partially filled that void in my life, though; she stopped embarrassing things from sitting in silence and becoming shameful. In an article for Bustle, Ash Princess author Laura Sebastian wrote of her relationship with fanfiction that, "Covered in the armor of fiction," and she and her friends "were free to explore topics that we weren’t yet ready to in reality." Similarly, Hermione’s letters constructed a fantasy space for Mum and I to communicate about certain aspects of reality that were difficult or awkward or confusing.
Through Hermione, I was able to discuss topics I didn't feel comfortable discussing with my mum.
My correspondence with Hermione may not have been traditional fanfiction, but it did teach me how imaginary spaces enable us to consider and communicate reality.
I rediscovered my letters from Hogwarts while packing up to move out of home; the words that eased one daunting transition reappeared, as if by magic, to help me survive another. Reading them as an adult, I’m not fooled: I recognize Mum’s turns of phrase and her wit. In my replies, I recognize my instinct for storytelling. Though the illusion is gone, it’s comforting to know that some things stay the same. Perhaps that’s why so many millennials self-prescribe the Harry Potter series as a balm during life’s tougher moments. The fantasy worlds we loved as children have only become more magical when we learn, as adults, how much truth they contain.