We take a look at the anticipation surrounding the new Harry Potter book, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, through the eyes of a lifelong fan. Warning: contains spoilers from past Harry Potter books.

Many years ago, I spent a birthday in London, a pit-stop on my first big adventure into the wider world as a young adult. I had a romance going with a floppy-haired English boy, and many more Euro adventures with my best friend to come. I had the run of my cousin’s flat while she was away, but in those heady days it felt like I had the run of the whole city.

It was a beautiful summer’s day in London, my birthday, but I saw none of it. In the morning I caught a bus down to the nearest Waterstones and joined a queue, waiting patiently for 9am when I would be allowed to place my clammy hands on Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, the final volume of the series I’d grown up with. I went back to the flat and read all day. My phone was buzzing with messages and calls from my boy and my BFF, but I ignored them all.

I can still remember the exact light in the room and where I was sitting when I read of Hedwig’s death—unceremoniously, at the top of a page in a couple of sentences, the prose quickly moving on to action that was somehow more important than the loss of Harry’s faithful companion. My friend ended up knocking on the door at 7pm asking if I was going to just “waste” my birthday in London, and I told her that I could maybe go out when I was finished, depending on my emotional state. We ended up going for out for a few drinks later that evening, but I was not very good company.

There are few threads that run as consistently through my life as Harry Potter and the wider magical world created by JK Rowling. It’s been a catalyst for some of my closest friendships, and a clear criterion for whether I’m going to like someone or not. Millions of fans around the world, reading in countless different languages (fun fact: the French word for “wand” is “baguette”), have had the same experience. Even Hollywood’s mega-babe of the moment, Margot Robbie, proudly revealed her young Potterhead past recently. With Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, a West End stage script co-written by JK Rowling and being released as a book today, many fans are finding themselves feeling conflicted about what this new story could mean.

Despite feeling like a cornerstone of my identity, it’s hard to pin down what exactly it is about Harry Potter’s world that has made it such a defining frame for my life. A large part of it was literally growing up with Harry—despite their roots in fantasy and the incredible world-building achieved by Rowling, the stories are painfully familiar and human, and her characters reflected and validated an alarmingly accurate range of teenage emotions and doubts.

Although the principal characters were a few years behind me in age and schooling, they were going through the same awkward problems, having the same sulks, tantrums and outbursts, all while still managing to save the world. In Hermione, Rowling wrote a character that spoke directly to book-smart kids everywhere, urgently telling them that their love of learning and knowledge was invaluable, and nothing to be ashamed of. Rowling’s cast of characters felt almost as diverse as my real high school. I remember reading about Cho Chang dating Cedric Diggory, and marveling that an Asian girl (just like me, I thought at the time) had bagged one of the most studly guys at Hogwarts.

On a more literary level, certain themes from the stories continue to resonate with me as an adult. These themes are timeless and translate across race, gender and many other lines. The Weasley, Black, Dursley and Malfoy clans demonstrate the challenges and expectations of family. Harry, Ron and Hermione constantly present the value of friendship and loyalty. Perhaps the most important thematic lesson comes from the core of the “Mudblood”/”Pureblood” conflict: the importance of fighting injustice and bigotry, and the courage required to stand up for what is right. Rowling has often invoked her characters to express her views on various social and political issues, including controversially confirming that Professor Dumbledore was gay.

Beyond its characters and themes, Harry Potter sparked a huge cultural shift in the way that our generation—particularly young women—used the internet, forming fan communities (“fandoms”) that had never existed on such a scale before. Harry Potter was a gateway drug for millions into online fandom, with the series gaining momentum at the same time that the dial-up era was ending and the internet was becoming a daily necessity. Never before had people from across the world been able to gather in an online space to ferociously debate whether Ron is a time-traveling Dumbledore or whether Draco is actually a werewolf.

Fandoms created a strong sense of community and safe spaces for many people who previously would have been too shy to share how much they loved something, for the classic fear of being labelled a weirdo, nerd and a freak. It’s a lot easier to openly declare your love for the HP world when you’re in an online or physical space full of other people decked out in Gryffindor scarves and robes.

Friends of mine who were still at school when the final book was released recall an unprecedented sense of union amongst traditional high school tribes. Everyone—jocks, nerds, slackers, music kids—was there together for the end of a journey started in childhood, and finished as 17-year-olds with 17-year-old Harry, Ron and Hermione. Some of my fondest memories are going to the midnight premieres of the later Harry Potter films with my friends from university, most of us wearing pointy hats, robes and Hogwarts house scarves. For the first time in our generation, you could openly love something with a nerdish fervor, and not feel like you were going to get up-ended into a trash can for being a dork.

Harry Potter and his world continues to be immensely important to me, and along with millions of others, I’m waiting for the release of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child with bated breath and complex emotional expectations. This new story revisits Harry, Ron and Hermione as adults and parents of a new generation of Hogwarts students, all caught in the long shadows cast by their parents. For the first time I’m not breathlessly and unconditionally excited for a new Harry Potter book. I’m actually a little anxious.

Although we all grew up with Harry and his friends, I never imagined them growing up with me. Reading the epilogue at the end of Deathly Hallows, where we first encounter the adult versions of these characters, I felt oddly queasy, like I’d been on the Knight Bus and it had unexpectedly lurched to a stop somewhere I didn’t recognize. In my head and my heart, they’re eternally 17, their lives paused at the conclusion of their teenage years, protected and prevented from getting older and making different, more serious mistakes, ones that feel less trivial and amusing in hindsight than the humiliating love note you passed to that guy in your science class.

The concept in fandom of “canon”—the irrefutable facts and figures of a fictional world—also comes into question. With the new story, the pillars of Harry Potter canon are at risk of cracking. First of all, given that it hasn’t been written exclusively by JK Rowling, there’s the issue of whether it even counts as canon. Secondly, as the release of Cursed Child grows closer, for some fans a sense of dread is growing, similar to how you’d feel going to a high school or family reunion where you haven’t seen anyone for 10 years.

What if that English teacher, who was so hot and poetic when you were 16, is now a pot-bellied middle-aged sleaze who keeps staring at your boobs? What if your coolest older cousin has become a fervent born-again Christian? If the older Harry conflicts fundamentally with how I remember the younger Harry, can I shut my eyes and shake my head and pretend he never happened?

Overall, I think most Harry Potter fans trust JK Rowling enough to expect that she won’t have turned Ron into a pot-bellied sleaze, or Harry into an Evangelical Christian, and the overwhelming feeling amongst Potterheads is that new material is exciting. After all, pre-orders for the Cursed Child script book have broken records—records set by pre-orders for Deathly Hallows back in 2007.

We’ll just have to wait and see whether this imagined future will affect how we see our collective, real-life, awkward teenage past.

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