Welcome to the first discussion for The Midnight Garden’s Classic YA/MG Challenge! We’ve pledged to read more childhood favorites this year, and we’re so happy that many of our readers will be joining us. To find out more about the challenge, visit the kick-off post.
This month we’re discussing Philip Pullman’s The Golden Compass, the first book in the His Dark Materials trilogy. It’s a special favorite of mine, Kate’s, and Kim’s, but K is our guinea pig this time around because she’s never read the book before. Was this your first time reading it, too? Even if you didn’t specifically do the readalong with us, everyone’s welcome to discuss in the comments below!
As always, beware spoilers…
Kim: Wow, what a story. The pure scope of it and the complexity of its themes stuns me. I love Lyra. I love that not only is she kickass, but also that she is a guile hero. I have a huge soft spot for heroes who achieve their triumphs through wit and cleverness. I am also appreciative that she is not a mini adult. She’s very clearly a child, endearingly so even. At one point she is wondering what the “experimental theology” that she hears adults speaking of could be and she thinks, “Probably the stars had daemons just like humans did, and experimental theology involved talking to them.” It is beautiful to me in its childishness. I find it so sweet in its innocence. And I just adore how fierce and stolid Lyra is.
Wendy: It’s always so interesting to me when I hear that people dislike Lyra. She is certainly prickly and stubborn and willful and a liar, but I love that her about her. She is written like a real child, not like a storybook character whom we’re all supposed to cosset and adore. And of course, she is also frightened and brave and full of deep feeling.
Kate: She is also absolutely, totally, completely a girl. She has feminine qualities, and she grows to be a young woman (in later books) while still being an interesting character we can empathize with. Pullman writes her so well. It’s the opposite of what Zusak did with Liesel (no offense, Kim, I know you LOVE that book) in The Book Thief.
K: One thing that really made me smile was how once Mrs. Coulter offers to take her away, Lyra momentarily forgets to rescue Roger. I know that’s a bad thing because its quite a serious thing being kidnapped and all but I just thought it was so being a child. Foolish and self-absorbed. But of course, she does end up journeying to save him.
Kim: I’m not going to love a book unless it tugs at my heart. TGC does that and more. I didn’t didn’t cry, though! I have no idea why I rarely cry at books. I cry very easily in any other situation! It’s weird. I was actually very, very touched by Serafina Pekkala’s heartbreaking recounting of her relationship with Farder Coram and the loss of their son. I think their story would make a great book itself. It would be heartbreaking and devastating and I would love it.
K: I’d love to see a separate retelling of Serafina and Farder Coram’s relationship. And I also loved the gyptians. The fierce protectiveness they had over each other and the solid feeling of community in them is just so lovely. I loved John Faa and Farder Coram and if there is ever a book depicting the love between Serafina and Farder Coram, I have no doubt that he’d be sexy…is that creepy because he’s like 70, right?
Wendy: I cry every time I read this book, Kim. That scene in the fish house, when Tony is clutching his dried up fish because his daemon, his very soul, is gone? That kills me. I’m tearing up typing this! And then afterwards, when she’s discovered that the old men have unknowingly taken away the one thing he had because they thought they were being kind–Lyra’s fierceness in trying to right what she could made me love her even more.
Kate: OMG Tony. I listened to this on audiobook while driving, and I sobbed openly while driving when it got to him. Like, Claire Danes-level ugly tears. The end of the book makes me cry, too.
K: I think it was a very effective use of imagery giving Tony a little fish to hug in replacement of his daemon. Whose heart wouldn’t break a little at that poor picture?
Kim: I take much delight in that Pullman intended His Dark Materials to be a counter to what he saw as the religious propaganda of The Chronicles of Narnia. I love how Lyra’s eventual fate is a subversion of Susan’s because, honestly, something had to be done about that. I also just love that the series was listed 8th on the most challenged list. Considering that one of the major themes of this work is “freedom through knowledge,” I am left shaking my head with extra scorn and derision toward the challengers.
Kate: Oh, Susan. So upsetting. Have you guys read “The Problem of Susan” by Neil Gaiman? I came across it in his short fiction anthology Fragile Things several years ago, and it broke my heart. It talks about how she’d have had to identify her siblings’ bodies and stuff after the train crash all because she wore lipstick and nylons. So obviously I loved Lyra’s reaction to going shopping with Mrs. Coulter. I spent most of my life wearing hand-me-downs and having to be creative to make horribly out-of-style clothes look good, so the first time I, as an adult, could afford to go to the store and just BUY stuff, was… Ugh, it was magical.
Wendy: I’ve read that Lyra hiding in the wardrobe with Pantalaimon was even included as a bit of a counterpoint to Narnia, both to remind readers of that story as well as to highlight the philosophical differences between them. I enjoy both series as works of literature, though certainly philosophically and emotionally I connect much more with His Dark Materials. Both series stand alone on literary merits alone for me, and though I understand why deeper analysis may challenge beliefs for some. I’m not well-read when it comes to religion, but I’m not sure the allegations of “propaganda” are quite fair.
K: I haven’t read past the first book in the Narnia series so I can’t argue its contents further than that. I do see, however, both books having extremely strong religious stances. The Golden Compass is definitely anti-religion. I’ve read articles in which they argue that HDM are more against any organized religion than being specifically anti-Christian. But the fact that in the book, Dust is likened to original sin…I think that kind of drives it home.
Wendy: It’s obvious what his beliefs are, yes. But I meant that I would only accuse a book of indoctrination if it were more direct in its criticism of Christianity; all books are informed by an author’s prejudices and life experiences, and while people can draw the parallels from his essays and interviews, I don’t think that attacking this series on its own as an evil is something that I can accept. No more than I would accept that Narnia deserves to be dismissed for Aslan’s death and resurrection or other Christian themes. Religious interpretation aside, both of them work on their own and can be appreciated on many levels. Children miss out on extraordinary stories in both cases if they are shielded from these books. But I suppose if Philip Pullman is accusing Narnia of propaganda, it’s not surprising he’s accused of the same thing! I guess the word has come to have such negative connotations that I don’t like the extremism and exclusion that’s implied.
K: I don’t think this would’ve been as controversial if it didn’t happen to be a children’s book. The Church has been made the antagonist in other literary works but, of course, I see how reading a story that plants the idea of the Church being wrong and controlling at such a young and impressionable stage scares adults.
Kim: My favorite moment is in Chapter 11, when Lyra and Pan go out on deck of the ship at night and see the northern lights. I’m an atheist. I think the only meaning in the world is the meaning that we create for ourselves every single day. I look at the sky at night and I feel so humbled and so grateful for my existence. Just looking at the stars can bring me to tears; I can’t imagine actually seeing the aurora. It is literally one of my life goals. This passage just perfectly described to me what I imagine it would feel like:
In the evanescent delicacy she felt something as profound as she’d felt close to the bear. She was moved by it; it was so beautiful it was almost holy; she felt tears prick her eyes, and the tears splintered the light even further into prismatic rainbows.
I felt so connected to Lyra then. The profound majesty of the moment is exactly how I imagine I would feel if I were gazing upon the aurora. My heart just swelled and then lazily settled down into the comfort of knowing that I was understood. I loved it.
Wendy: That is one of my favorite moments, too. That awe-inspiring feeling of experiencing something bigger than yourself, and knowing what a speck you are in this vast universe is described so well here.
Kate: Man, even the regular sky makes me feel that way. Just the stars can make me cry. Can you imagine what it must have been like for people before we had any clue what was going on up there?
Kim: Can we talk about daemons? You don’t get to choose what your daemon ends up, right? It just is a reflection of who you are? If I had the option to choose I would like a gray wolf daemon. Although, according to a very scientific internet quiz, my daemon would be a fox, the “solitary trickster.” Hmmmmmmm. I find the whole concept of them supremely fascinating. How wonderful and absolutely awful it would be to have an external representation of your soul. My complete lack of poker face betrays me enough already ha. I don’t need a physical representation of my feelings giving me away! Anyway, what would your daemon be?
Wendy: I WANT A DAEMON SO BADLY. The way they’re described in the book is just lovely–I’m especially enchanted by their physical closeness to their humans, and when Pan becomes a small, fierce animal to defend Lyra. It’s fascinating that they often express what their humans can’t or won’t express themselves.
I remember taking the “what’s your daemon?” quiz when the movie came out, but I don’t remember what I got. I’m convinced my daemon is a panther, though. I’m a fairly even-tempered and happy person for the most part, but lurking within is a beast that’s always silently watchful. And ready to pounce.
Kate: Those quizzes never have enough options. I have a really good poker face and am capable of deceiving people pretty easily, but I have very little patience for lying (which is a serious fucking waste of a natural poker face). I can’t imagine a world in which I (or Wendy, for that matter) had a daemon that took a form that wasn’t some sort of cat.
Wendy: Heh. So true.
K: Yea, not a fan of those quizzes. Mostly because I just did one and I got dog. I love dogs, don’t get me wrong but why not a dragon? Ugh. ;)
And I straight up, I laughed out loud when I read about the sailor whose daemon was a dolphin and could never leave the sea.
Kim: Perhaps uncommonly, I actually like the second and third installments more than The Golden Compass. One of my favorite aspects of this series is its philosophical bent, its humanism, and that features so much more later on in the series. I’ve never read anything in fiction that so perfectly and beautifully reflected my own humanist views. “Every atom of me and every atom of you…” and all that. Oh, just thinking of that scene right now makes my heart ache. I really hope that readers who have just read The Golden Compass for the first time will continue on with the series.
K: I’m a little confused. I’ve been warned against the other books in the series but from what you’ve all just mentioned, I’m very intrigued.
Wendy: You’ve been warned against them? They are definitely worth reading, even if they will incapacitate you emotionally. I’ve read The Golden Compass many times (and it’s my favorite), but I admit I’ve never been able to reread the sequels because they’re so heart-breaking. I agree with what Kim is saying re: the humanism in the later books, though, and some of my favorite quotes are from there as well.
Kate: I haven’t re-read the latter books, either. I think they focus a bit too literally on the humanist stuff (as the latter Narnia books focus too literally on Christianity). Especially the second one.
Kim: Here’s my favorite quote from this volume:
The enormousness of the task silenced them. Lyra looked up at the blazing sky. She was aware of how small they were, she and her daemon, in comparison with the majesty and vastness of the universe; and of how little they knew, in comparison with the profound mysteries above them.
Kate: YES. The wallpaper on my phone is the Pale Blue Dot, because looking at it puts things in perspective for me. These sections of The Golden Compass give me that same feeling. Like my heart has dropped out of my chest, somehow taking my capacity to breathe with it, and I can’t even care because none of it matters.
Kim:I love that the adults insist that Dust is too big and difficult for children to understand and Lyra absolutely does not stand for that.
Kate: I also love how this book sets expectations, right from the beginning. It tells you THIS person is a bad guy who is trying to kill THIS person who is related to our protagonist, and within a few chapters, it’s all turned on its head. So you know there’s complexity, and that you can’t trust anyone.
K: I loved that about her! How she kept asking questions and eventually retired from caring if the adults got mad at her for it just because she needed and wanted answers.
Kate: One of the big things I think great children’s literature does is recognize that adults in general are not trustworthy. This book does it better than most.
Wendy: YES. I still remember the first time I saw the un-sunshiney, all-knowing side of adulthood acknowledged as a kid. It was one of the Ramona books where the girls are watched by an elderly neighbor after school, and one day Ramona suddenly realizes that the old lady just doesn’t like her. It was a hugely defining moment for me to see that written on paper. As a child, you may have a vague sense of wrongness about a situation, but it’s quite another to see it articulated in a book. Lyra’s experiences help her to learn about human nature, and I think the way she is written is indicative of the author’s deep respect for children as intelligent, passionate human beings.
Kate: Lyra’s parents are The Worst. I’m glad Lyra was saved, but their hypocrisy in murdering ALL THE CHILDREN but saving the one who is related to them is so, so gross. And they both do it!
Kim: Oh, those two have something real weird going on. Their reunion at the end always makes me cringe. Ew, ew stop it! You are both terrible people and I don’t like whatever is going on here! Lyra takes finding out they are her parents rather in stride, though. Proud of her.
K: Haha, Kim. I thought that “romantic” reunion between them was gross as well. I don’t know how you pictured it but the kissing was full of slobber in my head.
Wendy: I’ve always thought that the very adult, extremely icky relationship between Lord Asriel and Mrs. Coulter is such an unusual element in a middle grade/YA book. You don’t often see infidelity and illegitimacy in these categories.
Kate: Yeah. During this re-read (or re-listen, as it were), I kept thinking “Those two people fucked. More than one time. They did.” OH! and the way their crazy daemons interacted! So bizarre and disturbing! They are different kinds of animals! So gross!
K: If humans were doing it, would their daemons be doing it, too?
Wendy: The mind boggles. I adore Iorek Byrinson. And I love how Lyra is so unafraid of him, even during moments of great stress, like when he’s just gotten his armor back and is about to pretty much eat a man. (I also enjoyed how she considers telling Iorek to kill the men who begrudged poor Tony his fish, but thought better of it.)
The ending scenes where Iorek and Lyra trick Iofur are just brilliant. And the battle between the two warrior polar bears makes me SO excited and makes me shiver every single time I read it. It’s frightening and gorgeous and humbling all at once.
K: I love it when Iorek calls her Lyra Silvertongue. It’s like being anointed and making it official that an armored bear is for realz Lyra’s homie.
Wendy: Have you ladies seen Philip Pullman’s Twitter? He tweets a lot of cryptic passages from things he’s writing (I believe), and although I don’t get the frame of reference for most of them, it always makes me jump a little to see his name pop up in my feed. I idolize his books so much, it’s like seeing Ray Bradbury or C.S. Lewis (sorry, Mr. Pullman) or Laura Ingalls Wilder tweeting. Surreal.
Kate: I haven’t. I’ll have to check it out. I recently bought his Fairy Tales from the Brothers Grimm “for David,” and I’m looking forward to reading it soon. Did you guys ever read the Sally Lockhart series? I loved the first book, but the second one was so bad I gave up on the rest of the series.
Wendy: I have the Grimm tales as well, though I haven’t had a chance to read it yet. I loved the first Sally Lockhart, but yes, the sequels weren’t quite as good. I’m hoping we’ll see something else from him soon.
So let’s wrap up. Obviously we three are crazy about this book, but I’d love to know how K would rate this first installment.
K: I always had a feeling I would love this book…and I did. I’m Catholic but I’m open. I’m not easily offended when people attack Christianity because for me, to each his own. I would never deny anyone anything in their search or conclusion of and for truth. And I think, in Lyra, that’s his ultimate goal.
Wendy: Well, I loved having a chance to read this again, and it was so nice to read it together! And now we get to discuss this with our lovely readers. But before we get to that, let’s tell everyone the classic YA/MG book we’ve chosen for our March discussion, and have everyone vote on the April book!
March Discussion Book: The Luckiest Girl by Beverly Cleary
I am really excited about the book we chose for March, because it seems as though Beverly Cleary’s YA books aren’t nearly as well known as her MG ones. These retro reads are so wonderfully full of quiet drama–each story is about a girl in high school who is learning to be comfortable with herself, and in a way I feel as though these “contemporary” romances were the Sarah Dessen books of their day. Nothing happens in them and yet everything happens at the same time.
I am very fond of Fifteen, which is probably the author’s most famous YA book, but I think The Luckiest Girl is the more emotional and mature one–and probably the one that contemporary readers will relate to most. It’s about a girl who moves from rainy Oregon to sunny California to to go to school for one school year, and how she meets a tall basketball player with a sunburn on his nose that she finds irresistible, and how she learns to love doughnut holes and a whole bunch of other things. I love this book, and I hope that you’ll join us in reading it!
Shelley Latham can’t wait to get to San Sebastian, where flowers bloom in November, oranges grow on the trees, and the sun shines almost every day.
And once she’s there, things get even better. In no time, she catches the attention of two boys: one, a good-looking basketball star, the other, an interesting, fun boy who likes journalism. Shelley feels like the luckiest girl in the world.
Now she’s about to discover the magic of falling in love — and a whole lot more.
Vote for the April Book!
We’re keeping an internal list of potential readalong books based on your suggestions as well as our own interests. Going forward, most of the time we’ll be asking you which book you’d like to read with us!
Click the yellow button in the sidebar at the top of the page to vote for the April book. (It’s the one with the girl at the desk!) You have 3 books to choose from, Harriet the Spy, Anne of Green Gables, or A Wrinkle in Time and the poll closes on Wednesday, March 26th. We’ll announce the results the day of our The Luckiest Girl readalong on Friday, March 28th.
Whew! So to sum up:
- we’re reading The Luckiest Girl in March
- we want you to vote for the April book and
we are dying to know what you thought of The Golden Compass! Was it your first time reading, or is it one of your favorites? What would your daemon be?