Sometime between the end of the last Ice Age and the invention of Facebook, I remember sitting in an Oxford garden with a knot of friends – round about this time of year, it would have been. We had all graduated, none had yet married, none had children; but as it so often did, the conversation turned to children’s books, the brilliant Joan Aikens and L M Bostons and Susan Coopers and the like that we had grown up with. And then one friend (where are you, Lawrence Jackson?) began to tell us about his latest discovery, Philip Pullman’s extraordinary Northern Lights. I recall an Ancient Mariner zeal and a piercing gleam in his eye, but I may be exaggerating. Suddenly, after at least a decade in which mainstream children’s books seemed to have lost all ambition and inspiration (oh, the dreary reams of kids-like-us series fiction and lazy, schlocky horror – I had a holiday job in a chain bookshop, we stacked the stuff like so many cans of beans), here was a book that wasn’t in the least embarrassed to be big and clever and difficult and dazzling. A story-loving publisher championed it, at least two years before anyone even began entertaining tales of boy wizards, and a few pioneer reviewers became first a critical mass and then a stampede. Northern Lights became the His Dark Materials trilogy, a superb stage production and a troubled film (it happens). Never mind: ignore the film, hope against hope for the return of the play – and go read the books.
If Pullman had only written His Dark Materials (and sometimes his press coverage would suggest as much), he’d no more need recommending than Roald Dahl or J.K. Rowling. In fact, Northern Lights was by no means his first book, and he writes brilliantly through all sorts of fantastical and historical settings for a range of ages. What these books share is a crackling, white-hot imagination and a joy in the telling, a love of setting and description and a deft handling of the expectations and twists of a classic story. Shorter tales such as (Smarties prize winner) The Firework-Maker’s Daughter, Clockwork or I Was a Rat! are a delight to read, and a particular joy to read aloud. In an earlier post, on Times critic Amanda Craig’s recommendation, I suggested them as a step-up from Beast Quest. Now I’m not quite so sure – although they are relatively short, and sparklingly, engagingly written, they assume a reach of understanding and imagination that is quite all right when you are listening to a story, but more of a stretch when you are a fairly new reader and the process of reading is still something of an effort. When you are being read to, and the sound of the words and the rhythm of the phrases is so compelling, it matters less that you don’t know exactly what cogwheels and pendulums and vibrating crystals of quartz might be; when you are reading, and succeed in deciphering the words only to find that you don’t know them or understand them in their context, it’s all too easy to be disheartened. If you’re able to read the shorter books to your children (or find audio versions), you’re all in for a treat; otherwise my suggestion would be to try them at say 8+ rather than 6+.
Clockwork is one of the shortest of Pullman’s books for younger readers, a deceptively simple fairytale with a Middle European setting of a snowbound market town, a cheery inn, a clockmaker and his surly apprentice and a young writer telling his latest gothic tale to a rapt audience – only to find the tale apparently coming true, just at the point where his imagination had failed him. A sinister visitor comes to the inn, bringing an intricate but deadly clockwork figure. A mysterious boy saves Gretl, the landlord’s little daughter, and the clockmaker’s apprentice sees a way to salvage his reputation and make his fortune. Hearts are lost, and eerily mended, but in the end must be given freely for all to end well. For the older reader, the “footnotes”, presented as information panels and captions to Peter Bailey’s delicate illustrations, are a wry delight too.
The Firework-Maker’s Daughter alights further east (Burma? Thailand? Does it matter?) with Lila, daughter of Lalchand, determined not to marry but to become a master firework-maker like her father. Lalchand, however, won’t tell Lila the final secret of becoming a Firework-Maker, and so she sets off to find the Fire-Fiend of MountMerapi and the secret of Royal Sulphur without the vital protection of magic water. Lila is lucky to have good friends in Hamlet the famous White Elephant and his keeper Chulak; but it will take all their bravery and ingenuity to get past rapacious pirates, a ravening tiger, angry priests and the Fire-Fiend himself, not to mention returning to the capital in time to save Lalchand from the king’s rage and a death-sentence. Was Lila’s quest entirely in vain?
I Was a Rat! is one of those stories in which, gradually and delightfully, you discover the very familiar shape of another story. Kindly Bob the shoemaker and his wife Joan the washerwoman open the door one night to a boy in a bedraggled pageboy’s uniform. He can’t tell them his name, or where he comes from, or anything about himself except, “I was a rat!” He has some odd habits: he’s unused to eating with cutlery, and has a tendency to shred his bedding; but he does his best to learn good manners from his new foster parents. Unfortunately, not all adults are as understanding as Bob and Joan: teachers punish him, the Royal Philosopher misunderstands and neglects him, circus-master Mr. Tapscrew and gangleader Billy in their different ways exploit him. Worst of all is the sensational newspaper the Daily Scourge, whipping up its readers into a frenzied lynch mob in pursuit of higher circulation figures (no, me neither, I can’t imagine). Is Roger really a monster? A criminal? A freak? A danger to the nation’s children? And with the Government, the Law, the Press and the People against him, what kind of fairytale ending could possibly save him?
Written some years earlier, the Sally Lockhart quartet bypasses fairytales for an equally exotic, vivid and life-threatening Victorian London. Sally herself is a gem of a heroine: brought up by her father, an Indian Army captain turned shipping agent, Sally has none of the Victorian lady’s accomplishments: she speaks Hindustani rather than French, would rather draw a pistol than a pastoral idyll, and is more at home with financial arrangements than floral ones. Recently orphaned at the opening of The Ruby in the Smoke, Sally soon becomes the unwitting means of another death, and begins to realise that her father’s shipwreck and his partner’s business hide a number of deadly secrets – not least the whereabouts of the fabulous Ruby of Agrapur, an incomparable jewel that has the power to drive men and women mad. When her father’s enemies begin closing in, Sally starts finding friends in unlikely places: Jim, the irrepressible errand boy; brother and sister Frederick and Rosa Garland, financially hopeless photographer and aspiring actress; Nicholas Bedwell, the pugnacious curate, and his opium-addicted brother Matthew, a former shipmate of Captain Lockhart. Pullman’s London is compelling and convincing, from the pompous fust of its offices to the infested squalor of its cheap lodgings, and Sally is a bright and brave star in a plot that becomes more and more audacious over the course of four books. The Shadow in the North finds Sally, several years later, successfully established as a financial consultant when a client comes to her with news of a suspected fraud. The intrigue that Sally, Jim and Frederick uncover turns out to be more complex and more sinister, drawing in a terrified stage magician, an aristocratic family with a secret and a ruthless adversary with a terrifying project. The Tiger in the Well finds Sally in the greatest danger of all – not only physical danger, although that will come, but dragged from a stable, happy and comfortable life with her beloved daughter Harriet into a mirror-world of vicious lies, against which Sally as a single mother is powerless and helpless. Someone claims to be Sally’s estranged husband; someone sues her for divorce and for custody of her child, and Sally soon finds that even if the claim is laughably false, no-one in any authority will believe her and she is in real danger of losing her baby. Who could want to hurt her so, and why? Sally is under terrible pressure, both to hide and protect Harriet and to solve the mystery – meeting an old enemy, grown stronger and deadlier, and uncovering his web of human misery as well as the brave individuals determined to resist it. The Ruby in the Smoke is arguably towards the top of my target age range, and The Tiger in the Well beyond it (the villain deals not only in extortion and intimidation but also prostitution rackets, and the description of misery in the East End is raw where it needs to be); but for the older reader they are superb pieces of plotting and historical evocation… and if my daughters aspire to be Sally (if, perhaps, a little less handy with the firearms), I’ll be only too happy.
Hmm, yes, Philip Pullman and the capable, independent female heroine – from Lila in The Firework-Maker-s Daughter to Lyra in the His Dark Materials trilogy. Northern Lights and its sequels are now books of such fame and stature that it’s hard to know what I can possibly add to critical coverage: a précis of Northern Lights isn’t likely to convert many who haven’t already been persuaded. I do wonder whether His Dark Materials suffers a little from Michael Morpurgo syndrome: it’s so famously a brilliant set of books for children that it’s given to some without further thought of whether it’s actually right for their stage and taste. Instinctively, I hate to say “that’s too old for you” as much as “that’s too young for you” – can it be right to withhold books that a child has chosen, to act as gatekeeper and to make assumptions about something being too adult and sophisticated or not enough so? But giving a child a book at the wrong stage is slightly different: there’s an unspoken obligation to read it, and the puzzlement and disappointment of not really understanding or not really enjoying can then be much more offputting. Some libraries shelve His Dark Materials in the teens section, but I would suggest a bright 10+ with a taste for fantasy (and an acceptance of the unfamiliar, casually referenced without further explanation: anbaric light, travel by Zeppelin or chthonic railway) would start to enjoy them. (The Centre for Literacy in Primary Education, vastly knowledgeable and my favourite specialist library, suggest them for Y5 upwards). The Amber Spyglass might be a slightly older and more challenging read as Pullman draws together the threads of Lyra and Will’s stories: it’s less fast-paced and more contemplative; Will and Lyra’s relationship changes (yes, there’s that but it’s entirely subtle); and Pullman’s thesis becomes clear. I’m not equipped to discuss Pullman’s famous anti-clerical agenda: for me it’s not so strident in the books as to detract from them, and if Rowan Williams considers that they are worth reading and indeed incorporating into the teaching of religion in schools, I can’t see that they are too pernicious.
Pullman’s most recent book is one of my own best birthday presents this year: Grimm Tales for Young and Old, a handsome hardback edition of fifty tales, including all the classics but with some less familiar tales too. The retellings are exemplary, “clear as water” and without any authorial clutter or fuss, and of course they read aloud beautifully. For the adult reader and unashamed story nerd (my hand is up), there is a fine introduction and there are brief, illuminating notes after each tale. No illustrations, no decorations: the stories speak for themselves, as they did when the Brothers Grimm first collected them and for decades and centuries before that.