Of all the undying books of my childhood — and there were many — few so imprinted on me as His Dark Materials. Devouring the entire trilogy near the eOf all the undying books of my childhood — and there were many — few so imprinted on me as His Dark Materials. Devouring the entire trilogy near the end of middle school, the story has stayed with me ever since. An overflowing abundance of imagination, wonder, and mystery introduced me to worlds of fantasy that I had only begun to discover. I became overwhelmed with Lyra's universe, and, similar to other books I read around then, my naiveté prevented me from fully understanding the controversial and important themes the novel unveils. Who cares if they’re going off to battle God, my thought process went, when you have multiple universes to explore?
When I re-read the trilogy this year, I appreciated it for many reasons, but an almost entirely unique set from my 12-year-old self. This time, it was the tremendous prose and world building that made for such a compelling fantasy universe; the illuminating references and allegories, mostly surrounding the corruption and hypocrisy of organized religion; the strength and charisma of Lyra and the following she inspired. I’m sure I knew none of the authors with epigraphs in book three before; now, their perspectives were valued new pieces that deepened the underlying themes and message. Of course, I also saw places where the story suddenly fell flat — some supporting characters are surprisingly one-dimensional, a few plot holes and inconsistencies are surprisingly obvious to an adult, and deus ex machina is used liberally, to the point of cheapening some plot points. However, the strongest points were obvious on both readings: the imagination, the rich descriptions, the creativity, and the characterizations that brought me so quickly and warmly into these worlds.
I have to admit, there is one other item in the book that made it so remarkable to me at that young age: the depiction of love in the story. This, obviously, was the Lyra/Will situation. I realize now how arbitrary and uncomfortable it is to read, given their ages, not to mention abrupt; the entire romance thread seems an unnecessary tack-on to an otherwise complete epic. But, on my first read, it was shocking and beautiful. To my mid-pubescent self, eager to understand this strange new emotion, it was a perfect form of love. Upon this re-read, I took a minute to shake my head sadly at that earlier interpretation, and moved on. This time, the strongest aspect of love was the sense of love and loyalty and sacrifice that was shared between the main characters — that was a true joy.
Regardless of how I changed in the many years between my readings, it’s clear that this is a story I will always love. I can’t imagine growing up without it, and I would encourage others to include it as a must-read fantasy novel for their own children. Welcoming Lyra into your world is well worth the investment into reading the full trilogy.
(Bonus: This edition includes “lantern slides”, paragraph-long snapshots of omitted scenes in each book. It works wonderfully, exposing a tiny amount more story, just enough to satisfy.)...more
Of the stories I read as a child, there are a few that I have never forgotten. It's not always clear why this is, but I recently started finding and rOf the stories I read as a child, there are a few that I have never forgotten. It's not always clear why this is, but I recently started finding and re-reading those books, in an attempt to try to better remember them and understand why they stuck with me so long. Of the ones I have revisited so far (see shelf "book-rediscovery-project"), this is the first that fully lived up to its memory. It's clear I remembered this book for a reason -- it had a fundamental impact on the way I viewed the world.
I believe that most of the impact was because of my (lack of) worldly knowledge; as a relatively sheltered eleven or twelve-year-old, there were quite a few ideas in this story that I had not previously encountered. This was probably my first dystopian novel, and the ideas it played with -- most directly, terrorism -- were new to me. Sure, I had been alive for the Oklahoma City bombing, but I had been too young to really understand it. The kind of continuous fear and violence that the book described was unimaginable in my bubble of peace in the late 90s.
Then, 9/11 happened. Shortly after the terrorist attacks, I remembered the similar depictions of terrorism in this novel, and decided that it had foreshadowed the attacks. In my mind, Stephanie Tolan had accurately predicted a violent and grim future. As I got older and my exposure to the world grew, I often feared that we were descending deeper into the book's frightening reality. It could be hard to tell whether things were getting worse, or I was just more aware of terrible things. I didn't even remember much of the story, just the savage and brutal world it described; my memory of the book distorted it into an exact depiction of the horrors of the moment, so the book loomed, horribly foreboding, for a while.
From the perspective of many years later, the foreboding feeling is much diminished. Sadly, despite being nowhere near as violent as its fictional counterpart, I feel that our world has drifted a little closer to Tolan's ultra-violent society than when she wrote it in 1996. Not just terrorism, but mass shootings, civil wars, hate crimes and bigotry; increased security checkpoints, fear, and every-man-for-himself vigilantism. Maybe she was on to something, maybe it's just my increased awareness twisting things again.
When I finally found and re-read the book, there ended up being more to the story than just the terrorism that I had so vividly remembered. Issues are brought up that I couldn't have even imagined when I read it initially, such as the controversial use of drugs to deal with children with learning disorders or mental disabilities. The exploitation of children by parents for monetary reasons. Domestic abuse and its effect on children. The vast increase in the number of autism diagnoses. In fact, The book has so much weighty content in it, I'm amazed it could be considered suitable for the 10-12 age group. (Of course, I haven't read another book for that target audience in a long time, maybe it's not so unusual?) The book is incredibly dark and powerful, so I can't say I'm surprised that I never forgot its themes or environment.
Out of everything in the novel, the sci-fi elements are, honestly, its weakest points; in fact, I nearly had forgotten them completely! Their function is merely to serve as the vehicle that opens the novel to its more serious conversations. This is a book about violence: where does it come from, why does it happen, how can we stop it. It doesn't really answer those questions, but instead relates them all back to the central theme: Each of us can stop the violence in ourselves. It's a powerful message, one that develops and informs the main characters and leads to their destiny together. Yes, there's an agenda here as well, but it's certainly one I'm receptive to. I have a hard time accepting the arguments of those who think perpetuating violence is ever a good idea.
I was extremely impressed with this book. Not just because of how well it held up in my memory, but at its core competency and message, and how relevant they remain. The tone and style match the maturity of the content: it doesn't read like a children's book at all. In today's publishing culture, if it got published at all, I could see it on that "paranormal-YA" shelf that's really for adults anyway. That said, I can't recommend it to any adult on good faith, for I fear my opinion of the story is skewed based on its long life in my memory.
I'm not sure it makes sense on the merits of the book alone, yet... I can't help but give the book five stars. It was important enough to me that I remembered it, and I'm glad I did....more
This is one of my all-time favorite picture books. I spent a long time trying to figure out the connections between the four stories, and loving it whThis is one of my all-time favorite picture books. I spent a long time trying to figure out the connections between the four stories, and loving it when I was able to figure it out. Just a fantastic book....more