Once Upon A Time In The North is the latest book by Philip Pulmanand is a prequel to the hugely successful His Dark Materials trilogy, telling the story of the first encounter between the aeronaut Lee Scoresby and the armoured bear Iorek Byrnison. It is only a short book and I read it out loud in one sitting to my daughter Hannah. We had previously read (and enjoyed) His Dark Materials together. It is a very handsomely produced bookand comes complete with a board game folded into the back cover, although we haven’t had a chance to play this yet. No doubt the popularity of His Dark Materials and the ensuing film(s) will ensure the success of this new book, one of a growing number of cross-over titles attracting an adult readership alongside the children at whom it is primarily aimed. And rightly so.
I’m a big fan of Pullman’s writing and admire the way that he writes for children in a challenging and entertaining way, not patronising them by drawing back from complex philosophical and political issues. His Dark Materials has often been compared favourably to the Harry Potter novels as serious novels for children. The comparison no doubt arises from both sets of books being broadly classified as ‘fantasy’ and yet in other ways they are miles apart. The criticism often targetted at J K Rowling is that, although there is a certain degree of playful inventiveness in the fantasy world of Hogwarts that she has created, the Harry Potter books are largely nothing more than revamped public school adventure yarns which place the young male as the saviour-figure (the implied reference to Christianity here is intentional), whilst the female characters are relegated to largely subserviant and passive roles. As somebody who did enjoy the Potter novels (although the later books started to get tiresomely predictable) this is a view with which I would have some sympathy. His Dark Materials, however, is more complex and radical, dealing with issues such as religion, the church, politics, personal freedom, etc. Pullman’s writing challenges children to think about issues, rather than cushioning them from reality. Once Upon A Time in the North is no different. Behind the fast-paced story is an intelligent critique of globalisation, environmental destruction, corporate greed and political corruption.
If you knowa child you can read this too, all the better, but read it anyway. At the very least you will learn what good writing for children is all about!