Reading level: 6.7
Series: His Dark Materials, book 1
Genre: Fantasy, adventure
Library recommendation: Middle or high school
Here lives an orphaned ward named Lyra Belacqua, whose carefree life among the scholars at Oxford’s Jordan College is shattered by the arrival of two powerful visitors. First, her fearsome uncle, Lord Asriel, appears with evidence of mystery and danger in the far North, including photographs of a mysterious celestial phenomenon called Dust and the dim outline of a city suspended in the Aurora Borealis that he suspects is part of an alternate universe. He leaves Lyra in the care of Mrs. Coulter, an enigmatic scholar and explorer who offers to give Lyra the attention her uncle has long refused her. In this multilayered narrative, however, nothing is as it seems. Lyra sets out for the top of the world in search of her kidnapped playmate, Roger, bearing a rare truth-telling instrument, the compass of the title. All around her children are disappearing—victims of so-called “Gobblers”—and being used as subjects in terrible experiments that separate humans from their daemons, creatures that reflect each person’s inner being. And somehow, both Lord Asriel and Mrs. Coulter are involved.
My mom tried reading this book aloud to me when I was younger, but we just couldn’t get through more than a few chapters. Then, in college, I read it for a young adult lit class, and I didn’t think it was anything particularly special. But I kept hearing great things about it from students and adults, so I thought I would give it another, honest try but with audiobooks this time. The superb narration of Philip Pullman himself, along with a slew of cast members’ voices, made me into a fan.
I think that part of the reason I didn’t get into The Golden Compass as a young child and maybe even again in college is because the story is complex and not always incredibly interesting, much like The Lord of the Rings series. The writing is beautiful, the characters are excellent, but there were times when explanations just took too long! Maybe that’s just me having a short attention span. Luckily, the audiobook is done so well that I was interested in these duller moments that I probably sped through without care upon my first read-through.
Now that you know the history of this book and me, I will say that I will happily place this book and its entire series (going through the second audiobook right now) in my classroom library at either the high school or middle school level. There are two issues that parents may have, however:
1. Tartars. These are the scapegoated, faceless bad guys. Tartars were actual people, however. We wouldn’t tolerate such insensitivity if “African Americans” or “Jews” were put in the place of Tartars, would we? So why is this okay? Well, it’s not okay and it’s not excusable. However, this race of people no longer exists (says Wikipedia). I suppose it’s sort of like scapegoating “vikings.” In any case, Tartars as bad guys might be insensitive, but the issue is minor in my eyes.
2. Promoting atheism – say some sources. I don’t think it’s promoting anything or has any agenda (Pullman’s personal beliefs aside), but there are some bits that made me cringe. There is one point where Lord Asriel reads aloud a part from Genesis (straight out of the the Old Testament I assume), but some parts are changed to add in daemons, which some could see as blasphemy. While doing so may also have been insensitive to who take the Old Testament as the word of God, Pullman is using and adapting a text under his creative license. I also don’t feel as though Pullman is saying that all religious people are bad – just that people can look at religious teachings and texts to interpret them in different ways, some of which are harmful to others. This has happened in history countless times.
Even if parents get hung up on these issues, I would argue that the good outweighs the bad. The Golden Compass is an astoundingly well-written, intriguing story with rich vocabulary. It stretches readers’ mind to consider other words, and the character of Lyra is unlike any other: stubborn, brilliant, driven, resilient, loving…
It’s not ELL friendly due to complex vocabulary, however. It’s got a pretty high lexile considering it’s leveled at under the 7th grade. The Golden Compass is one of those books that younger readers can enjoy (although I didn’t, myself…) for the story while older readers can appreciate in all its intricacies, characters, and world-building. Needless to say, I’m happy to have fallen in love with this story at last.