As the TV adaptation of Philip Pullmans epic fantasy His Dark Materials reaches our screens, one writer tells how the trilogy changed her life

As a child, I cavorted in Oxford colleges, rode atop armoured bears and swanned off to Svalbard to witness the majesty of the northern lights all while remaining within the walls of an Edwardian terrace in Cardiff.

No, I wasnt a fantasist. Or, at least, the fantasy wasnt mine alone. The escapades were thanks to my compulsive reading of Philip Pullmans His Dark Materials. Northern Lights, the first book in the His Dark Materials trilogy, was published in 1995, when I was four, so it was a few years after it came out that I fell for Pullmans writing. But when I finally did boy, did I fall hard. I zoned out of sleepovers with friends, family dinners, and on one occasion my brothers wedding as I joined Pullmans heroine, Lyra, on thrilling Arctic voyages and skirmishes in parallel universes.

If I detailed all the reasons I loved the trilogy, Id take up the whole newspaper. But it comes down to three things. First, I loved Lyra who, thanks to her daring and mischief, allowed me to glimpse what life would be like were I not such a timid teachers pet. Second, there were Pullmans irresistible daemons a kind of animal self. A companion who could shape-shift from seal to snow leopard seemed an improvement on my drab imaginary friend, Cheryl. And third, it felt rebellious. I had a cosy Church of Wales upbringing where the history of Christianity was presented as an uninterrupted stretch of benevolence. Pullmans scrutiny of the authoritarian side of religion was as invigorating as a blast of the Arctic air Id read about in his books.

Childrens author Philip Pullman. Photograph: Jeff Gilbert/Rex/Shutterstock

I grew up, and finally consented to read a few other books but my devotion to Pullman never diminished. Which is why Im positively writhing with excitement about the all-star TV adaptation which kicks off on Sunday night on BBC One.

The palpable hype among my generation is proof of something Ive always suspected: that the books we encounter as children are the ones to which were most attached. After all, while its not inconceivable that one would throw a viewing party for a TV adaptation of the work of a writer discovered in adulthood, it seems more likely to happen with a childrens author. (My flat. 8pm. Armoured bear makes a good cold weather costume.)

So whats behind our heightened connection with childrens books? The journalist Lucy Mangan offers some clues in her memoir of childhood reading, Bookworm. She suggests that childrens tendency towards re-reading is not only healthy but necessary, given the wealth of new information books convey. You are learning about people, about relationships, about the variety of responses available to them [the characters] and in many more situations and circumstances than one single real life permits, she writes. Each book is a world entire.

Id argue, then, that our fondness for childrens books not only comes from the familiarity forged through re-reading but from the reason we re-read, too. As Mangan says, childrens books are where we first encounter myriad aspects of life. Such intense periods of discovery tend to lodge in the memory.

Theres also another factor: time. In youth, entire days are spent in uninterrupted stretches of reading. Its harder when you have a job and WhatsApp. Mangan also notes that higher expectations mean these days of effortless immersion are harder to come by in adulthood. As an adult, your tastes (and/or prejudices) are more developed, your time is more precious and your critical faculties are harder to switch off. Children, on the other hand, are joyously uninhibited when they read in other words, theyre not fretting about whether the book will fit with their #personalbrand on Instagram.

Dafne Keen plays Philip Pullmans heroine, Lyra, in His Dark Materials. Photograph: BBC/Bad Wolf/HBO

In addition, author Katherine Rundell has suggested that childrens books work on two levels, simultaneously satisfying kids thirst for adventure and incorporating the adult authors awareness of the knottier aspects of life. Indeed, theyre required to operate on two planes if theyre to avoid boring parents who are reading to their offspring. So, in a way, childrens books work harder than books for adults, conveying many-layered meaning with the sort of lightness required to hold short attention spans. Such finesse doesnt go unnoticed by readers.

All of this is why, when someone inquires about your favourite book and you insist its a toss-up between Bernardine Evaristos Booker prize-winning Girl, Woman, Other and Virginia Woolfs To The Lighthouse, theyll know youre lying. Neither of these can be your favourite book or, at least, the book that has had the greatest influence on you. The books that mark us most profoundly that burrow into our psyches and shape how we see the world are the ones we read as children.

Of course, some sneer that childrens books are rife with nostalgia. But the nostalgia in question isnt a take back control yearning for a simpler time but for a simpler way of seeing. Childhood reading overlaps with a period where the future seems wide open. What were looking to resurrect through kids books isnt the past, but this beguilingly cheery perspective.

Besides, the great gift of Pullmans stories set in Lyras universe is that theyre part of the present as much as the past. Along with the TV series, anyone whos been in a bookshop recently will know Pullman is still adding to the series The Secret Commonwealth, the second book in The Book of Dust trilogy (which is interlinked with His Dark Materials) was published last month. It revisits Lyra in her 20s. Ive already read it twice. Perhaps its not only childhood that gets lost to literary escapism, after all.

Lifelong literary loves

Little Women

Louisa May Alcott

I was addicted to Little Women and the three books that followed it. I adored reading about sensible Meg, Tomboy Jo, ailing Beth and spoilt Amy with her blond ringlets (I envied her those). I am not sure that I identified with any of theLittle Women but the narrative escape was as complete as vanishing into another country (Massachusetts, America, to be precise). Nowadays, I think the main reason these books enslaved their readers was to do with Alcotts virtuoso sentimentality. We are so used to disdaining sentimentality,we forget what a force it can be. Kate Kellaway, Observer writer

The Secret Garden

Frances Hodgson Burnett

My mother gave me Frances Hodgson Burnetts A Little Princess when I was princess-age, and its story of the suffering of Sara Crewe was once my favourite. But that was because I hadnt read The Secret Garden yet. Reading it this September, through a depression that was starting to lift, Mary Lennox taming her tantrums in the Yorkshire air and lifting her sadness as the daffodils bloomed felt like the metaphor I needed. Sara Crewe is always good, just tested by circumstances; Mary Lennox is spoiled but learns to be good to herself, and to others. It is a very Victorian rewilding the stiff father repents and returns, and love for nature is elided into love for God but it gives a girl hope, because it shows that her happiness is in her own hands. Joanna Biggs, writer and assistant editor of the London Review of Books

The James Bond novels

Ian Fleming

Im envious of children who grew up with The Gruffalo or The Amber Spyglass. My juvenile reading lacked such contemporary wonders. We read what our parents had read. The landscape of the postwar childs imagination was dominated by Victorian classics (Alice), or Edwardian stalwarts (Swallows & Amazons). For me, reading was about transgression not fantasy. My favourite was the adventures of 007. Casino Royale was published the year I was born, 1953. James Bond is my Harry Potter. Addicted to reading the flashlight beneath the bedclothes it was Flemings thrillers (Dr No, Goldfinger, From Russia with Love) that became the literary drug I look back on with longing, shame and regret. Robert McCrum, writer and associate editor of the Observer

The Borrowers

Mary Norton

I dont remember when I first read Mary Nortons The Borrowers. It seems it was always part of my childhood. As with the very best childrens books, it filled my world with magic. In each place we lived I looked for nooks and crannies where our family of Borrowers might live. When small things went missing, I would be convinced it had been borrowed, and puzzle at how tiny people might use one plastic Barbie shoe (perhaps a soup bowl?). The Borrowers kept my imagination alight and, in a childhood where I moved frequently and often felt lonely, those tiny creatures became secret friends and I, their beloved, watched over, human bean.

Kerry Hudson, author



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