A few weeks back, I wrote what is essentially my love letter to all adults who indulge their desire for the fantastic with a willing dive into the world of children’s fiction. Where books have been the principal markers through which I remember significant moments in my life, there is an incredible amount of sentiment attached to the memories that I have of my favourite childhood reads. From the hefty book on Ancient Egypt that I still associate with the heady fragrance of my first, inexpert taste of pomegranate, to the excitement of discovery that accompanied my initial read-through of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden, these moments possess a clarity almost unrivalled by those other, more traditional milestones from early life. I’ve recently made a conscious return to some of my favourite fiction from my childhood – partly, as I mentioned in my previous post, as a response to the emotional demands of some challenges with my mental health. In the past couple of weeks, however, I’ve thrown myself back into Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy as part of a determined training regime in preparation for both his newest release – The Secret Commonwealth – and the new BBC adaptation of his groundbreaking works.
Returning to these books after so long has had me reflecting on the way that my reading is informed by the children’s fiction that I’ve known and loved over my lifetime. While it’s hard to distill the impact of my reading habits into any kind of concrete list, it has always been clear to me that so much of my life has been moulded by the books that inserted themselves into my identity. My decision to follow my passion for social justice and human rights as a career path owed everything to the compassion and tolerance that was so fundamental to the books that I loved. In the gentle coexistence of the characters in my favourite The Wind in the Willows and the expansive magic of Harry Potter, I read an understanding that the breadth of our world can only be appreciated in a willingness to embrace what is different. As I progressed on to literature that one might label as more ‘adult’, I have continued to seek out those books that speak to authentic experience – that create space for the exploration of a different kind of life. I love books that break the mould. And this owes everything to the books that I loved as a child.
One of my most transformative moments as a young adult was the moment I spent talking to the school librarian about my favourite book series. I had just been to a talk and signing event with the author Philip Pullman at my local theatre and my autographed copy of The Amber Spyglass remains one of my most treasured possessions. At this time, I was in the middle of my education at a Catholic secondary school, still incredibly naive, and was giving up multiple lunchtimes per week to work as a volunteer librarian in the school library. Books were quite seriously my everything. And in the innocent assumption that anyone who worked with books must feel the same sense of expansive freedom that literature offered me, I volunteered up information about the narrative and plot of the His Dark Materials trilogy. Were I less sheltered from the world – and had I seen these novels as more than an allegory – I would’ve likely expected what followed. Namely the swift removal of Philip Pullman’s novels from the school library. And, in that moment, almost everything I thought was safely knowable about my world was quickly shattered. In attempting to share the breathless wonder inspired in me by Pullman’s remarkable work, I had somehow ensured its censorship. It broke my heart, whilst simultaneously turning me onto a resolute refusal to bow to cultural censorship in any form.
Re-reading His Dark Materials has called this complex array of thoughts and experiences to mind with a rush that can only accompany the misty reprioritisation of adulthood. Where my childhood reading habits so clearly informed both my career trajectory and my love for books that explore the boundaries of the human experience, re-reading them repositions my own thoughts on my young life. What I felt as confusion at my experiences with my school library was actually a misplaced outrage at an establishment that refused to permit the exploration of new ideas. In retrospect, the fact that such a thing occurred in the 2000s is incredible. Were I then in possession of the voice of which I am now so proud, I would certainly have challenged the decision. What I did instead was throw myself with further vigour at the fictional worlds that I so adored and re-examine the accuracy of Pullman’s claims – seemingly so egregious that they could not be trusted to the minds of young, English Catholics.
Childhood and adolescence offer their fair share of challenges. Where we are typically permitted to admit our own lack of certainty and experience in these times, however, adulthood refuses to provide space for any confusion of fear, doubt, or divergence from the norm. Returning to children’s fiction at such a time can be of such unexpected value. It is a reminder of both the tribulations through which our young selves successfully navigated and the fact that we enter out adult life with an unrealistic self-assurance. In children’s fiction, exploration is both the means and the end. Not knowing something is the foundation for curiosity, which is a valuable trait in and of itself. From my children’s fiction, I developed a love for the unknowable breadths of a world that I had yet to truly enter. My time at school showed me that this world would force confrontation with injustice and a lack of empathy. Yet, the books that my school decided ban were also my most vital lesson in precisely how we must meet this resistance – with limitless compassion and a determination to fight for everything that is valuable in our differences.