Revisiting my childhood with The Book of Dust

What happens when your favourite childhood books carry on into adulthood?

I remember the first time I read The Northern Lights vividly. I was ten year's old, and I had chicken pox.

Nonsensical with fever, and exhausted by daytime TV (reruns of Sally Raphael), I barely registered my mum placing something into my hands. A copy of The Northern Lights. 'It sounds like something you'd like,' she said. 'It has a talking polar bear in it.'


I read the first few pages and saw myself in Lyra immediately. An impetuous little brat, who would rather be playing in a crypt with actual dead people than taking advantage of a free private education. Halfway through reading it, I begged my mum for the next one so I could continue the story straight away. She did one better and came back, not only with The Subtle Knife, but The Amber Spyglass too.

These books imprinted on me at such a young age, and form my DNA as a writer now. I remember them as fantastical and brave, with no intention of pandering to its young audience like most other YA fic did at the time. I couldn't tell you how many times I reread His Dark Materials throughout my school years, but it was enough to warrant me cellotaping the pages back together more than once.

Fastforward to my mid-twenties, and Philip Pullman announces he's going to carry on with Lyra's journey as an adult. Okay, I thought. This is the hugest thing to happen to anyone ever. And this time I didn't have to wait for my mum to buy them - I had my own money now!

And yet.

Despite pre-ordering a signed copy of La Belle Suavage, I didn't read it right away. I placed it on my bookshelf reverently, and stared at it. Dare I? His Dark Materials loomed so heavy in my heart, what if The Book of Dust couldn't compete? Worse - what if I hated it? So, there it sat, collecting non-magical dust, for about a year. When The Secret Commonwealth opened up for pre-orders, I knew I had to bite the bullet and find out.

And I liked La Belle Suavage. A lot. But there were no talking polar bears in it, no dashing aeronaughts, the alethiometer didn't really come into play. I worried what that meant. Did Philip Pullman think we'd become boring, that now we were older we didn't want to read about such fantastical things?

I decided to reread His Dark Materials, to see if I remembered it correctly. The answer was yes, and no. There was so much more to the books than I could have comprehended as an emotionally bereft ten year old. The books were haunting. Of course, reading about people being split from their daemons was upsetting as a child, but it hit so much harder as an adult. I've experienced more things since then, felt more emotions, that the idea of it all being taken away was devastating in a way it never could be before. All I could see as a child was the magic on the surface, not the invisible Dust of nuance and symbology lurking underneath. Pullman's rejection of corrupt authoritarianism, of minorities in society being discriminated against, his lesson in admitting you're wrong and that being okay - these were all things that blew me away reading His Dark Materials as an adult. Suddenly, La Belle Suavage seemed as magical to me as Iorek Byrnison and Serafina Pekkala.

I'm reading The Secret Commonwealth now. And, as Lyra struggles to reconcile her childhood imagination with adulthood, I see myself in her all over again. There are so many things in this world that try to stamp the magic out of you, that tell you to be a good adult you have to lock away all the things that make you you. But these are the things that make us successful, and unique, and helpful. As Philip Pullman says, 'Imagination is a form of seeing.'