Thursday, September 9, 2010

His Dark Materials Series: Is It Actually Young Adult Literature?

My son read Philip Pullman's "The Golden Compass" this summer for a book club, and after he finished it, I picked it up and read it.  I thought it was a fascinating book--so much so, in fact, that I read the entire series.  I was left with all sorts of questions about the nature of human souls, of good and evil, of what happens in death, and of all sorts of religious and moral issues.  But one question I had that might be more central to the theme of this blog is, "Is this really supposed to be Young Adult literature?"

My son is a strong reader for his age, and he read the book without complaining and could encapsulate the plot fairly well.  But when I read it, imagining it to be along the lines of the Chronicles of Narnia, which I read at his age, found it to be so much darker and more complex that that series.  Rather than being like Narnia, I thought it was more like a combination of Narnia, A Winkle of Time, and Lord of the Rings, with a lot of Voldemort thrown in.  Of course, maybe I would have been better prepared for the series if I had read some of Pullman's interviews first, in which he said the series had been inspired by such works as Genesis, Dante's Inferno, Milton's Paradise Lost, and similar masterpieces.

Certainly, adolescence is a huge theme in the books.  In one interview I read, Pullman claims that the central question is not the role of religion or the church or the age-old issue of right versus wrong, but rather the issue of innocence as opposed to experience, which he thinks is the big transition that takes place in adolescence.  The two most important protagonists are 12, and are undergoing the blossoming of awareness of such adult issues as betrayal, responsibility, love, and sexual attraction.  So I guess they do epitomize the adolescence angst of middle school-aged children.

But I don't think most adolescents are mature enough to really explore the complicated and provocative deeper themes raised by this series.  At least I know my son wasn't.

I ended up feeling the same way about the His Dark Materials series that I did about Toy Story 3.  Toy Story 3 is supposed to be a children's film about the difficulties of growing up and letting go.  But when we watched it at the theater, it wasn't the children who were crying, it was the adults--my husband and I included.  It seemed more to me like an adult version of looking back and seeing how significant that time was, rather than the perspective of what it is like to those living through those experiences at the time.  And I feel the same way about the Golden Compass books.

I guess Thornton Wilder depicted it best in "Our Town," when Emily (also, coincidentally?, 12 years old) asks, "Does anyone ever realize life while they live it...every, every minute?"  To which the Stage Manager answers, "No.  The saints and poets, maybe--they do some."

So if you have a saint or a poet, maybe they will get these books at the deepest level.  But for most of our children, I don't think so.....

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