What Brought Me to His Dark Materials

I am well-positioned to agree with Pullman that school librarians should be professionally trained. When my children were young they went to a small, progressive private school, and in exchange for their tuition, I was the sole librarian. I was enthusiastic, loved the job, and unqualified. I read to my kids a lot, but that isn’t enough.

The picturebook crowd was easy enough; I’d simply choose books with large, vivid pictures that those in the back could see. But what about those who were older? Library time was an hour a week, with 20 kids in a roughly 18 ft by 30 ft space. So I read to all groups.

The ages extended to about 14 years; grade divisions included several years in a single class. But even the oldest kids loved to be read to. Sometimes I read Peter Sis picture books with them, Tibet through the Red Box, for example. Some of the best art, I’d argue, is to be found in children’s books. David Almond’s Skellig worked well, and I recall one mother telling me the only reason her daughter came to school was to hear the next chapters of Kit’s Wilderness.

But where to go next? Harry Potter they would read on their own. The Series of Unfortunate Events proved unpopular because some did not see the humor in the events endured by the orphaned children. So I got on a children’s lit list-serve, and the answer was unanimous: Philip Pullman. I ordered a selection and started reading.

The school was small enough that there was no cafeteria and the kids ate their lunches outside or in a commons area shared by all the classes. 

A November day came with a soaking rain. The kids dashed over to the trailer (or caravan) housing the library, and I began reading Philip Pullman’s Clockwork, or All Wound Up. It’s suspenseful, with a sinister villain, a mechanical heart, and a storyteller. Library time ended, the rains did not, and the kids asked if I would keep reading through lunch. I said sure, but no one was obliged to return (I think they all did anyway). They ran and collected their lunches, and I resumed. I was about 15 pages from the end when lunch was supposed to be over. They asked if they could send an emissary to the classroom teacher for an extension of lunchtime, and she of course agreed.

That was a very satisfying day.

I had begun The Golden Compass with them, but we didn’t get too far. I had been watching the antics of the soccer coach. This was a school that previously had no bullies. Parents would complain; I suggested we approach the Head. No one went with me, but I took the matter up, notwithstanding that the coach’s mom was the Head. She ranted and raved at me. In the end, my children were allowed to finish the year but I was banned from campus. The Philip Pullman books I’d ordered remained, of course.

My instincts, my gut-feelings, that this man did not belong around children are now indisputable. Ten years after my departure he was convicted of felonious child endangerment.

After I was fired, I began writing The Elements of His Dark Materials.

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