A New Golden Age
Children’s writer S.F. Said on how Philip Pullman has changed the literary landscape.
It’s hard to remember what children’s literature was like before His Dark Materials. It had been a long time since the golden age of the 1960s and 1970s, when authors such as Alan Garner, Susan Cooper, Peter Dickinson and Ursula Le Guin had expanded the boundaries of the field with works of huge ambition. The 1980s had been bad for children’s books; a time when many feared the form might die out altogether, eclipsed by television and computer games. I remember receiving a rejection letter in the early 1990s telling me there was ‘no longer any market for children’s fantasy’.
Philip Pullman changed all that. He had been writing highly-regarded children’s books for many years before coming to wider public consciousness. Among them were The Sally Lockhart Quartet, The Firework-Maker’s Daughter and Clockwork, or All Wound Up, which he calls ‘the book I’d most like to be remembered for’.
But it was His Dark Materials that made the breakthrough. Its first volume, Northern Lights, inaugurated a new golden age in which children’s literature would claim a central place in our culture, enabling the success of Harry Potter and all that followed.
I will never forget the speech he gave on winning the 1995 Carnegie Medal for Northern Lights. It made the news pages, a story in its own right. For in it, Pullman boldly dismissed the literary fiction of the day, saying that children’s books remained committed to storytelling rather than formal experimentation and irony. He said children’s literature was tackling the big questions adult literature had abandoned: questions about the meaning and purpose of life, about human origins and capability, about good and evil.
I was electrified. Here was someone saying the things I believed so passionately that I had dedicated my life to trying to write children’s fiction, though all I had to show for it so far was a formidable pile of rejections. Pullman made me believe I could do it. His books confirmed that there really were no limits to the form. My excitement grew as it became apparent in The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass that his project was political, philosophical and scientific as well as literary; that it embraced everything from climate change to dark matter to the nature of human consciousness.
I’ve been re-reading His Dark Materials this year in preparation for La Belle Sauvage, the first in the trilogy The Book of Dust, published this autumn. I feel an even deeper excitement now.
For on my first reading, I may have been so thrilled by the ideas that I took the storytelling a little for granted; the narrative control that makes it feel like the books are a great engine that hums and purrs all on its own. I may have been spellbound by the music of the prose, ringing with the rhythms of Pullman’s masters: Milton, Blake and the authors of the King James Bible and the Book of Common Prayer. I may have lost myself in scenes so vividly described that they seemed to be happening before me with a simple inevitability that I now know is achieved by means anything but simple or inevitable.
Re-reading these books, I feel as if Pullman, like his character Lord Asriel, blasted a way open to another world. He opened up new pathways for children’s literature, influencing so many of us, allowing us to do what we do. While writing this piece, I asked on Twitter for stories of his impact, and was overwhelmed with responses. They came from authors, but also from teachers, librarians, scholars; readers of all ages who described his influence on their intellectual, spiritual and emotional lives – a profoundly moving demonstration of the power of literature.
Pullman’s impact has perhaps been most visible in terms of validating children’s literature as literature. It is still often dismissed or ignored as a literary form. National newspapers give children’s books just 3 per cent of their book-review space, though they now account for over 30 per cent of the uk book market.
Pullman transcends all that. I’ve found that the single word ‘Pullman’ will end any debate about whether children’s literature can be literature, and has done so ever since The Amber Spyglass won the Whitbread (now Costa) Book of the Year in 2001 – the first children’s book to do so. It proved that children’s literature is literature for an audience that includes children and excludes no one; that great children’s books are really books for everyone, as Pullman himself has always maintained.
For those of us who love children’s literature, affirmation of that fact comes all too rarely. A children’s book has yet to make the Booker shortlist, let alone win. An author working principally in children’s literature has yet to win the Nobel Prize, but Pullman gives us hope. He – or someone who rises to the standards he has set – will do these things one day. He gives us something to aspire to; and though we know we may never reach his level, the attempt can only make us better writers.
At the same time, he has used his fame to become a public intellectual. He has lent his voice to so many good fights and causes, but has never stopped championing children’s literature and literature as a whole. His essays on storytelling are collected in Dæmon Voices, also published this year, and that book will be essential reading for anyone interested in writing.
But the publication of The Book of Dust is the story of the year. Can it possibly live up to His Dark Materials? I think it’s unfair to compare them. The Book of Dust will be its own creation, to be read in its own right, as something new from one of our greatest writers: someone who has opened up new possibilities for children’s literature, and through it has touched our entire culture, and so many of our lives. For if he has been Lord Asriel, perhaps we can be Lyra and her dæmon at the end of Northern Lights, as they ‘looked towards the sun, and walked into the sky’.
S.F. Said’s novel ‘Phoenix’ was shortlisted for the 2014 Guardian Children’s Fiction Prize.