Dhonielle Clayton is the author of The Belles series and Shattered Midnight, and the co-author of Blackout, The Rumor Game, and the Tiny Pretty Things duology, a Netflix original series; she is also COO of We Need Diverse Books. The Conjureverse series is her middle-grade fantasy debut, set in a magical boarding school.

Wands. Witches. Wizards. Platform 9 and ¾. Diagon Alley. Dumbledore and Voldemort. We know this world well. In late September, even the Empire State building lit up in Ravenclaw blue, Gryffindor red, Hufflepuff yellow, and Slytherin green to celebrate 25 years of Harry Potter in the U.S. The shadow of Hogwarts looms like the eye of Sauron, eclipsing (and burning) anyone who came before and after Harry. J.K. Rowling and her world have become the ultimate measuring stick for fantasy writers in the middle grade space—and even beyond. Reviews are often littered with comparisons. Readers make conclusions and connections between your work and hers (even *gasp* when they aren’t there). The media loves to anoint new, debut authors as the “next J.K. Rowling” to position their work in the market and try to siphon some of her publicity magic. Shorthands develop to sell the book using hers as the benchmark—“if you like Harry Potter, then you’ll love this book”—often reinforcing the parallels.

I’ve tried hard to not mention her books and her world. I want to be able to speak about The Marvellers and The Memory Thieves, the first two books in my new series about a global magic school in the sky, the Arcanum Training Institute for Marvelous and Uncanny Endeavors, without having to be interrogated about her work at every turn. I want to discuss all that my magical universe has to offer—the future of magic school where every kid gets an invitation. But Harry, Hogwarts, and Rowling always seem to find me no matter what I do or don’t do. Every time I talk about my own books and the Conjureverse, nice, well-meaning people ask me if I wrote this series to be in conversation with her or as some sort of Potterhead nod to her work or as some sort of love letter. The not-so-nice people believe I’m ripping her off or trying to make a “woke” Hogwarts or worse... that I’m challenging her legacy and stealing her ideas. It is difficult to make peace with my work being swallowed by the black hole of Hogwarts. All of these challenges would be enough to grapple with, but the author’s recent commitment to transphobia and harm adds a new dimension.

Nothing is original, however, J.K. Rowling’s fandom believes that the series is the first of its kind. The Hogwarts delusion is so strong many have forgotten several Hogwarts predecessors like Jill Murphy’s Worst Witch from 1974, set at Miss Cackle’s Academy for Witches; Jane Yolen’s Wizard’s Hall from 1991; Eva Ibbotson’s The Secret of Platform Thirteen from 1994; and more. These are the magic school books I encountered as a young reader. These are the magic schools that lived in my imagination. These are the worlds I was searching for myself in and not finding what I was looking for.

I was in the ninth grade when Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone hit the shelves. Too mired in the high school shenanigans, college prep assignments, and heavy reading lists from my Catholic school teachers, I went from a middle schooler reading four to five books a week to a high school student barely able to read for pleasure (another article for another time). I didn’t encounter the Harry Potter series until I was in the midst of my master’s in children’s literature program at Hollins University. I studied school stories and their significance as a perennial evergreen in the canon of children’s books. I loved her world as an addition to this burgeoning sub-genre of magic school stories. I, too, as a product of colonization and Anglophilia, fell in love with the cozy Britishness of Rowling’s magical universe. I’d been primed to love it having gone through the American school system and its obsession with British history, literature, and culture. However, during my deep dive into the canon as a scholar, I identified how there were so many children missing from the pages of beloved “classics”—and within the Harry Potter universe—and found an opportunity to set a new table for readers, to invite more into the wonderful genre of fantasy.

I started building the world of the Conjureverse in 2016 (when J.K. Rowling was still very much an uncontroversial creator) while sitting in my school library in East Harlem, New York. One of my fifth-grade students asked me a tough and heartbreaking question: “Would a magic school invitation find me in New York City or when I visit my grandparents in Accra?” As a librarian, I’d scoured publishing catalogs for children’s books that starred BIPOC and LGBTQIA+ kids as main characters and in worlds where their families and communities would be centered, but I’d found slim options in the fantasy space, especially ones written by BIPOC and LGBTQIA+ authors. The industry was in the midst of a slow upheaval with the rallying cry of the nonprofit We Need Diverse Books. We’d yet to see publishing lists reflect a diversity of characters and worlds, and the fantasy genre lagged behind contemporary and realist fiction.

I told a few editor and librarian friends that I was writing a magic school series and hoping to sell it. I was met with discouragement, skepticism, and concern for me. I was told not to write this story. I was told writing a magic school book would put me in the Potterhead crosshairs. I was told publishers would find it too challenging to publish a magic school book successfully in the Wizarding World era. The not-so-subtle subtext: Everyone wants an invitation to Hogwarts so it’s a fool’s errand and too expensive to try to create a new magic school and get people to read it.

But I was too stubborn to listen. Despite warnings that readers didn’t want a new magic school, I built the Conjureverse series in order to establish the future of magic school and introduce a cast of characters for a new generation. It went out on submission to 21 editors. All rejected but two (big shouts to Stephanie Stein and Tiffany Liao), with many of the others citing the inability to position a new magic school series in the era of Harry Potter.

Some of the skeptics were correct. It has been hard. I’ve had to work double time to differentiate from bad faith comparisons and backlash from the fandom to navigating an onslaught of social media comments. The swarming of my photos to nasty direct messages to rude letters to my P.O. Box, all claiming I can never be J.K. Rowling or have a fraction of her success. As a Black American woman, my entire life is defined as an interaction with whiteness, and this is no different.

Like our hero, Ella Durand, an 11-year-old deeply rooted in her Black American culture and New Orleans community, drawing magic and strength from those wells, she’s thrust into a new environment. Her identity (and mettle) are tested by a space that doesn’t want her there. She’s a Conjuror with big dreams to represent her community at the Arcanum Training Institute. However, in the novel, those two supernatural communities have been at odds for years. Marvellers believe Conjurors have otherworldly talents that are just too strange and too different to be full members of their community and live in their flying cities or attend their prestigious institute.

The universe of The Marvellers and The Memory Thieves is built from various communities and our hero, Ella Durand, is a bridge between worlds and is meant to be a disruption of the status quo—much like the series is meant to be in the all-white world of children’s fantasy. I want this series to talk about what the future of magic could look like when all kids are accounted for, and there’s a place for them to be centered and feel included. What does a global magic school look like where all of the kids of the world come? How does it help all readers reinvent their idea of a hero? How can inclusive worlds create more readers?

As the children’s publishing community grapples with how to talk about the Harry Potter world and its creator—if at all—the shift feels slow and difficult. For 25 years, the mention of the boy in the cupboard used to be met with bubbling excitement and nostalgia for a series that undoubtedly changed the landscape of children’s books. Harry has had a gargantuan cultural impact and Rowling has built the imaginations of so many children who have grown up fondly loving the world she created. And now, at times when her work or elements of her world surface, it’s now met with squirms by some, many tiptoeing around Rowling’s virulent transphobia and the discomfort in determining how to engage with a juggernaut franchise that is now known to be helmed by a bigot. Yet her place in the market continues to be fiercely protected by her brand partnerships, and her fandom ensures that the boy wizard never loses steam in part by harassing anyone else in its shadow.

I didn’t set out to write the next Harry Potter. No one can. The series exists because of its place in time and the history of imperial, colonial Britain. There’s no way to compete with the extraordinary circumstances that created this phenomenon and continue to feed its domination in the children’s book marketplace. Instead, I wanted to rectify a pattern: one where magic school invitations to BIPOC, BAME, LGBTQIA+, neurodivergent, disabled kids, etc., seemed to get lost in the mail; those children left perpetually waiting in the margins, ready for adventure, but sidelined. For a long time, no one cared. Authors writing manuscripts about them got buried in the slush and the rejection pile, but now the industry has an opportunity to highlight, center, and lift new heroes and new worlds. But do they have the courage to sunset Harry and introduce the next generation of readers into new magic schools?

Hogwarts will always be readily available to readers because of its enduring influence and dominance in popular culture, but I hope that we can endeavor to disrupt the shadow and help the next generation of readers also be on the lookout for an invite to the Peerless Academy or earn a nomination to the Bureau of Supernatural Affairs or spend Saturdays at Park Row Magical Academy or find themselves in Ravenskill during the Black Moon Ceremony or end up at the Academy of the Sun or on Conjure Island and learn to charm at Les Belles Demoiselles… and keep their eyes on the clouds for a hopeful sighting of the Arcanum Training Institute for Marvelous and Uncanny Endeavors and beyond.