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Harry Potter books cast healing magic

A boy wizard's stories helped two sisters briefly escape terminal cancer. Now, their story captivates judges.

Published July 2, 2005

[Family photo (2004)]
Olivia Ceraolo, left, died in October at age 16. Her sister, Julia, 12, wrote about reading with her.
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PALM HARBOR - As Olivia Ceraolo lay dying of bone cancer last year, her younger sister needed something to take her mind off the ravaging effects of chemotherapy.

J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter books provided that relief. Resting in their twin beds, Olivia and Julia would take turns reading Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix .

"When Olivia was upset or in pain, my mom would tell me, "Talk about something that will cheer her up,"' Julia, 12, recently wrote in an essay.

Olivia, a competitive sailor, violinist, surfer and aspiring poet, died at 16 last October. But in her illness, "Harry Potter would make her chuckle," Julia wrote. "Ms. Rowling brought joy to my sister and continues to help me get through my grief and escape my worries."

Now, Julia's essay is taking her to London for the release of the sixth book in Rowling's series, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince . Julia is one of 10 fans ages 9 to 17 nationwide chosen to make the trip after writing about why they loved reading about the boy wizard.

Julia's essay was chosen from more than 8,000 entries in the contest, sponsored by Scholastic books. A combination of the joy she took in reading and the sadness of her sister's death caught judges' attention.

"They built a wonderful bond over these books," Scholastic spokesman Kyle Good said. "Also the books have inspired her to be a writer. Her talents as a budding young writer really came through."

The Tarpon Springs Middle School seventh-grader learned she won Wednesday.

"I almost cried," she said Friday by telephone from New York, just hours after appearing on NBC's Today show. "I was jumping up and down, screaming my head off."

Julia and her mother, Carla, had one day to pack and fly to the Big Apple, where Katie Couric interviewed Julia and two other winners.

During the interview, Couric asked the trio, all wearing wizard hats, two Harry Potter trivia questions.

Julia nailed both.

"I was really nervous during the plane ride and in the hotel," she said. "I was worried I'd make a fool out of myself. But Katie is extremely nice and once I started talking, it was really fun."

Next Julia and her mother will fly - by plane, no broomsticks allowed - from New York to London on July 16. She will board her American Airlines flight at one minute past the stroke of midnight, known to fans as the witching hour. Then she will be handed a free copy the new Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince to read during the overnight flight.

Scholastic expects the books to soar off the shelves when they go on sale at 12:01 a.m. July 16. The publisher is printing an unprecedented 10.8-million copies initially.

In her essay, Julia wrote, "Without the "magic therapy' of Harry Potter, I wouldn't have been able to get though the unimaginable horror of Olivia's illness."

Two weeks before her death, Olivia received a letter from J.K. Rowling, who had heard of her illness through a friend. Rowling expressed concern, sent birthday wishes and complimented Olivia on her poetry.

Julia, who also has an older brother, senses that Olivia is probably very proud right now. When she was 13, Olivia herself learned how writing could pay off, winning a trip for four to Antigua in a contest.

"She's probably giggling and laughing," she said. "I know this would make her very happy."

* * *


By Julia Ceraolo

My big sister Olivia was a great writer all of her life, but she died last October of an aggressive cancer at just 16. About a month before her death, after receiving a letter from a friend explaining Olivia's illness, J.K. sent Olivia a letter. Her letter held sincere concern, happy birthday wishes and compliments for Olivia's poetry. All of this only raised the level of my respect toward Potter mania and its author.

Olivia and I used to read The Order of the Phoenix together while in our twin beds, and we'd take turns reading aloud as she suffered the effects of chemotherapy. This kept her mind off her illness and made us laugh together as we've always shared a love of literature. She adored the books, but sometimes she'd be too weak or tired to read aloud. Sometimes she just wanted to sleep, but other times ... Harry was on her mind. "Come on Julia. Tell me what happens next!" she'd say with a sneaky grin. When Olivia was upset or in pain, my mom would tell me, "Talk about something that will cheer her up." Harry Potter would make her chuckle.

Why did the series comfort us in times of distress? My answer is constant quality. Harry's human experiences are ones of which I can relate. When he's angry, I can almost smell the smoke coming from his ears. When he grieves, I definitely know how he feels.

Without the "magic therapy" of Harry Potter, I wouldn't have been able to get through the unimaginable horror of Olivia's illness. Ms. Rowling has inspired me to write from the heart and to love books. Her books brought joy to my sister and continue to help me get through my grief and escape my worries. Joanne Rowling, I thank you.

[Last modified July 2, 2005, 07:39:39]

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