Regular readers of this blog will know of my appreciation for the work of Philip Pullman. Most recently I raved about his latest, the first volume of The Book of Dust, La Belle Sauvage. After reading and listening to this I went back to the full-cast audio production of His Dark Materials and was happy to find that it was as good as ever. But there are others he is written outside Lyra’s world, among them the charming middle grade fairy tale, I Was a Rat!. Here’s the publisher’s description:
“I Was a Rat!” So insists a scruffy boy named Roger. Maybe it’s true. But what is he now? A terrifying monster running wild in the sewers? The Daily Scourge is sure of it. A victim of “Rodent Delusion”? The hospital nurse says yes. A lucrative fairground freak? He is to Mr. Tapscrew. A champion wriggler and a budding thief? That’s what Billy thinks. Or just an ordinary small boy, though a little ratty in his habits? Only three people believe this version of the story. And it may take a royal intervention—and a bit of magic—to convince the rest of the world.
Set against the backdrop of a Royal Wedding—and a playful parody of the press, I Was a Rat! is a magical weaving of humor, fairy tale, and adventure.
Over the years, as part of my 4th graders’ study of Cinderella, I’ve read the book aloud and, most recently, showed the movie. This year, after another teacher told me that her students had been captivated by the book I decided to read it aloud after not having done so in years. I quickly discovered that our current obsession with “fake news” made the book’s thread about sensationalism in the media highly relevant. My students took quickly to sweet little Roger, his love for patients (need to read the book to understand this), and the fairy tale connections as well. The story is lively, adventurous, suspenseful, and great fun to read. I highly recommend checking it out.
“Pan, where are they all going?” The canyon-like streets of Nieuwe York were filled with determined and dashing people, their daemons flitting and scampering along with them. Now a hawk, Pantalaimon swooped above Lyra as she attempted to evade the flood of adults swarming by. Agile as the girl was, the density of the crowd was such that she was unable to avoid collisions earning her glares, snaps of irritation, and even in one case a frustrated slap. Finally, the exhausted and bewildered child, Pan now a mouse on her shoulder, leaned against a wall and looked up at the massive building in front of her — all glittering gold glass — puzzling at the huge TRIUMPH sign at the top.
Apologies to Philip Pullman for the above teeny bit of fan fiction, but I couldn’t resist. It is just that I’ve been mulling over the response on this side of the pond to his fabulous return to Lyra’s universe in La Belle Sauvage. (Here’s my ecstatic review.) I wasn’t surprised to read Bookseller Kenny Brechner’s observations in “Dust in My Eyes” as, while there are Pullman fans galore here, he has never had the same exalted stature in America as in the UK and elsewhere.
One reason, I’m starting to consider, is due to religion. For recently, I was startled when a librarian, to whom I was waxing excitedly about the new book, spoke of her discomfort with the earlier series due to religious reasons. Way back when those conservative Catholics fussed about the movie, I had scoffed, but I have to now wonder if they left a more damaging impression than was evident then in our still religiously conservative land.
Another is that fantasy does not get the attention it deserves here. Those obsessed viewers of HBO’s Game of Thrones series are less and less likely to have read any of the books. Looking at the responses to the Nerdy Book Club’s request for people’s favorites of 2017 and I see almost no fantasy titles. No mentions of La Belle Sauvage (other than mine:), Laini Taylor’s superb Strange the Dreamer, or the clever and witty works of Rick Riordan, two of which are out this year.
Finally, I think that time is a factor. Those American children who adored His Dark Materials as it came out are adults now, say Rebecca Munro who describes her experiences with this series in her review:
I want to start this review by saying that this is easily one of the most emotional pieces I have ever written. I first discovered Philip Pullman’s work when I was only 10-years-old and I raced through the entire His Dark Materials series in a single summer. The books were with me in the pool, in the car and in bed, and I have reread them every winter since. In other words, I have literally been waiting 17 years for THE BOOK OF DUST and now that it is here, I am practically speechless.
For young people today, in America, the books seem not particularly to be on their radar. Partly, no doubt, because the gatekeepers —as seems indicated by the Nerdy Book Club omission — don’t recommend it. While many, many British kids probably still read it with pleasure, I don’t think that as many American children do. It isn’t as much a part of their bookish world as is that other British series of the same time period, Harry Potter.
I should say this is all quite speculative — I haven’t firm data at all and I’d love to be proved wrong. What do you all think?
There will be many paths into this book. Some will come to it cold having not read His Dark Materials, curious about what the fuss is all about. Others will come to it having read His Dark Materials long ago and so with a vague sense of the world they are re-entering. Some may read it because of an encounter with The Golden Compass movie. Others may have had the early books read to them when young. And some will come to it with a deep love and appreciation of the previous books, having read and reread them many times.
I’m definitely one of the latter. I came across The Golden Compass shortly after publication and fell madly in love with it, a feeling that only solidified when I read The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass. Since then I’ve read the books and listened to the full-cast audio recordings many, many times. It is a comfort experience, one of solace, one that has me admiring the trilogy more and more with each encounter. When the play was put on at London’s National Theater I went. With heart in my throat I followed the controversies around the movie and finally went to see it — yes, reader, I was disappointed. And now I wait eagerly for the forthcoming BBC series.
All this is to say that I entered La Belle Sauvage with high hopes, with high fears, and with a deep knowledge and appreciation of the previous books and their world, characters, and themes. And so my response to the book is predicated on all of this. Someone on a different path will likely have a different response.
I began with some anxiety — it had been seventeen years after all–but it was like dropping into a scented warm bath surrounded by flickering candles — in other words, a delight. The world was that of His Dark Materials, the characters multi-faceted whether major or secondary. the pacing tense and urgent, the ideas demanding and true. Best of all is the writing — Pullman is a wordsmith like few others. Again and again I just stopped to reread a gorgeous sentence, to admire a word or phrase, a clever construction, or the elegant weaving of information. Just look at this very first sentence:
Three miles up the river Thames from the center of Oxford, some distance from where the great colleges of Jordan, Gabriel, Balliol, and two dozen others contended for mastery in the boat races, out where the city was only a collection of towers and spires in the distance over the misty levels of Port Meadow, there stood the Priory of Godstow, where the gentle nuns went about their holy business; and on the opposite bank from the priory there was an inn called the Trout.
Taking us from the great colleges to mastery of boat races to misty levels to gentle nuns he lands us at the unadorned (no adjectives for it) Trout. Brilliant, brilliant, brilliant. As a writer I aspire to create anything even remotely close to that opening.
Moving into the story proper we meet eleven-year-old Malcolm (and his daemon Asta) whose parents run the inn and so he works there too. As good in his own way as Lyra and Will, but a person distinctly all his own, this is a boy who is inquisitive, loves to make things, supremely sensible while also able to dream, honest (but able, in dire circumstances to lie effectively), solid (with adults and peers), and with a heart that is as big as the flood that comes midway in the story.
In the first half, Pullman chillingly evokes a time when the country is still nominally free, but the various ecclesiastical dark forces that figure so prominently in His Dark Materials (set around a decade later) are rearing their ugly heads. Familiar characters appear or are referred to, notably Mrs. Colter and Lord Asriel. But most of all there is Lyra, a beautifully realized baby of six months old. Pullman’s development of her character at this age is masterful — I mean, it isn’t easy to show personality with a child who doesn’t have words yet. I suspect it is his remarkable invention of daemons that makes this possible as he describes wondrous moments throughout the book of baby Lyra and baby Pantalaimon. At one point there is a description of the tiny daemon trying to change into another creature, but unable to because he doesn’t know it yet. At another point an adult points out that their babbling to each other (made me think of the private language that sometimes exists between twins) is a way of learning how to speak.
The plot involves saving the baby Lyra from the various nefarious people and organizations who are after her. Among them is an absolutely chilling villain (or malefactor as Malcolm might well call him), George Bonneville, who proves in horrific ways to be completely mad. Pullman sets things up in the first half of the book —- showing Malcolm’s cosy home life with his sensible parents, his enjoyment in helping out the nuns at the priory across the street (where he meets baby Lyra), his stolid firmness with friends and at school (where a creepy Hitler-Youth-like organization takes hold), and his handiness, especially with his beloved canoe, the eponymous La Belle Sauvage. And then things take off literally — there is flood of Biblical proportions and Malcolm along with Alice, a somewhat older and sulky worker in his parents’ inn, are off in the canoe to save Lyra. They are chased, they have narrow escapes, harrowing experiences, and otherworldly encounters.
I enjoyed every moment of the book which I both listened to and read on my Kindle (so as to avail myself of the highlighting option). I attempted to savor it, but it was impossible to slow down during the second half any more than could the children in the canoe as it was born away in the raging flood. Now I’m planning to go back and listen to it again. (I am such a speedy readers that I love listening, especially when the writing is gorgeous, as it is much slower.) And again — in preparation for the next in The Book of Dust, set evidently some twenty years later. I waited seventeen years for this one so I think I can wait a bit longer for the next one.
Thank you, Philip Pullman, for giving all of us, so completely and wonderfully, this chance to be lost again in your remarkable literary world.
The gentleman waiting gave him a start, though all he was doing was sitting still by the cold fireplace. Perhaps it was his dæmon, a beautiful silvery spotted leopard, or perhaps it was his dark, saturnine expression; in any event, Malcolm felt daunted, and very young and small. His dæmon, Asta, became a moth.
“Good evening, sir,” he said. “Your Tokay what you ordered. Would you like me to make up the fire? It’s ever so cold in here.”
“Is your name Malcolm?” The man’s voice was harsh and deep.
“Yes, sir. Malcolm Polstead.”
“I’m a friend of Dr. Relf,” said the man. “My name is Asriel.”
A few weeks back I was in touch with Philip Pullman about something (possibly taking a sabbatical in Oxford if you must know:) and he ended by saying there would soon be some “interesting” news. Well that news is out and it is more than interesting, it is thrilling. The BBC has green-lighted a new mini-series of Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy, starting with the first one; in the US it is known as The Golden Compass. I’ve long felt that a mini-series was ideal for a screen adaptation, especially after the disappointing movie. I loved the National Theater’s version, the full-cast audio production (my go-to comfort listening), and the first graphic novel version that recently came out. What with all the other wonderful recent fantasy mini-series, it seemed overdue for the right people to do this one. And now they will! From the Variety piece:
“His Dark Materials” is the first commission from Bad Wolf, a U.K./U.S. production company founded by former BBC executives Jane Tranter and Julie Gardner, and co-sited in South Wales and Los Angeles. The show is New Line’s first move into British television. The series will be executive produced by Pullman, Tranter and Gardner for Bad Wolf, Toby Emmerich and Carolyn Blackwood for New Line Cinema, and Deborah Forte for Scholastic.
Pullman said: “It’s been a constant source of pleasure to me to see this story adapted to different forms and presented in different media. It’s been a radio play, a stage play, a film, an audiobook, a graphic novel — and now comes this version for television.”
He added: “In recent years we’ve seen how long stories on television, whether adaptations (‘Game of Thrones’) or original (‘The Sopranos,’ ‘The Wire’), can reach depths of characterization and heights of suspense by taking the time for events to make their proper impact and for consequences to unravel. And the sheer talent now working in the world of long-form television is formidable.
“For all those reasons I’m delighted at the prospect of a television version of ‘His Dark Materials.’ I’m especially pleased at the involvement of Jane Tranter, whose experience, imagination, and drive are second to none. As for the BBC, it has no stronger supporter than me. I couldn’t be more pleased with this news.”
I first heard about The Golden Compass being turned into a graphic novel months back when Philip Pullman tweeted that the first volume had won a French prize. Finding more information, I wrote the post, “Philip Pullman Said Yes”; soon thereafter got an ARC and was blown away by it. Now the book is out and everyone should get a chance to be equally blown away. It is the work of Clément Oubrerie, a French graphic novelist and a fabulous comic adaptation of a remarkable story. Looking at his blog, I see the second volume is due out this June — in France and in French — not sure when the English version will be out. You can see some of his sketches for this second volume here, here, and here, They are spectacular (especially Lyra and Iorek Byrnison) and I can’t wait to see the finished work.
I was very excited to read about a new short story by Philip Pullman, featuring the nefarious and fabulous Mrs. Colter, that is being released today in the UK as an Audible.uk exclusive. Audible US has informed me that “The Collectors”will be available for those of us on the other side of the pond on January 12th. Until then we will have to make do with the below tantalizing excerpt read by Bill Nighy.
He said today: “It’s three pages longer this morning than it was this time yesterday, and … I’ll do another three pages today. It’s going steadily. But it’s a big book and it’s spreading out in the way I discussed, and I keep having to discover which ways are fruitful for the story to go in, and which are not. It’s a long process.”
Pullman promised: “I’m aiming to finish this next year. Then it’s a fairly lengthy process of editing. But I’m well on my way and proceeding steadily.”
Philip Pullman is one of the most thoughtful and creative writers of our day. Best know for the brilliant trilogy His Dark Materials, the former middle school teacher is also a longtime reteller and creator of fairy tales. While I’m partial to his lively online version of “Mossycoat” (first published as a picture book) and the original story I Was a Rat! because of my work with Cinderella, I’ve found all his fairy tales whether retellings or original to be utterly delightful. And so when he told me a few years ago that he was working on a new collection of Grimm fairy tales I was not surprised. Over several magical meals (I’m honored to call him a friend) we talked intensively about his research for this project and I couldn’t wait to read the final version. Fairy Tales from the Brothers Grimm is now out and it is as excellent as I had hoped. Happily others feel as I do and it is being enthusiastically received by adult and children’s book reviewers alike.
There are a number of terrific interviews with Philip about this project, but I thought that one focusing more on young readers and those who work with them might be of interest. Philip was game so here are my questions and his answers.
To start, I’m intrigued that the UK title is Grimm Tales for Young and Old while the US is Fairy Tales from the Brothers Grimm. Why the change?
Publishers like to put their stamp on titles. I have never fathomed why. Arthur Levine (I assume it was him) even changed the title of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, which made sense, into HP and the Sorcerer’s Stone, which made no sense at all. I can’t actually remember being consulted about Grimm. I have to say I prefer the UK title, but I tend to shrug about these things.
You have always been such an advocate of storytelling. I can remember you urging teachers like myself to learn stories to tell to our students, something I know you did a lot of. And I also recall feeling guilty as I never did this, preferring to read aloud. I could absolutely sense your pleasure in selecting, retelling, and tweaking these stories. How do you think your background as a teacher and teacher of teachers came into this work? If you were teaching today would you read or tell some of these tales? Or how about to your grandchildren? Any in particular? Do you see any limitations due to age or anything else?
All kinds of things come into play when we think about reading versus telling. Maybe reading has a greater sense of ‘authority’ – it comes out of a book! It’s been published! But maybe telling has a greater sense of intimacy and immediacy. If I were still a teacher I’d make a point of learning a dozen of these stories well enough to be able to tell them without the book – probably not the most gruesome ones: for that you probably need a mixed audience so the younger children can hide their faces in a parent’s shoulder. But facing a class I would, as I say, make a point of knowing them well enough after many private rehearsals to do without the book and then begin to make little inventions here and there to bring it even more vividly to life.
What really struck me reading these is how playful you are in your alterations and embellishments. Say the hilarious commentary of the three little men of “The Three Little Men in the Woods” or having the wife in “The Fisherman and his Wife” call her husband a defeatist. I especially enjoyed how you upped the ante in “Hans-My-Hedgehog.”
The Grimms: The king had ordered that if anyone should approach who was carrying bagpipes and riding on a rooster, that he should be shot at, struck down, and stabbed, to prevent him from entering the castle.
Yours: The king had given strict orders that if anyone approached the palace playing the bagpipes and riding on a cockerel, they should be shot, stabbed, bombed, knocked down, blown up, strangled, anything to prevent them from entering.
Any thing you’d like to say about these delightful touches? Where you place them and why, perhaps? Or anything else you’d like to tell us?
I’m glad you like them! Another one I enjoyed was having the giant say “Respect!” to the little tailor, and the frightened soldiers protest that they couldn’t fight him because having killed seven at a blow he was a weapon of mass destruction. And so on. I thought that if a story was light-hearted enough to start with, it could bear a bit more fooling around. The story I call “Farmerkin’, which is normally rendered as ‘Farmer Little’, is another example. But I wouldn’t have thought it right to play about with ‘The Juniper Tree’, for example, or ‘Hansel and Gretel’. Wrong tone altogether.
I don’t think I did any of that stuff with deliberate forethought, though. It just leapt into my fingers as I wrote. If the story-sprite laughs, then I laugh too.
How did you select the tales? I can certainly see that some are personal favorites, but some are quite odd, not always likable, and you even say that in your notes. Yet you included them. Why?
The only one I actively dislike is “The Girl Without Hands’, but I put it in because there were some things I wanted to say about it. I had a completely free hand when it came to choosing the stories, and I was very glad of it. I felt I had to put in all the famous ones – though actually there are fewer than we think of those – because people would expect them to be there, and it would be silly to leave them out. I would have put them in anyway, in fact, because they are so good – they’re famous for good reasons. As for the others, they were there because I found them interesting to talk about, such as ‘The Goose Girl at the Spring’, or because I found them powerful and strange, like ‘Hans-my-Hedgehog’, or because I was just fond of them, like ‘Lazy Heinz’ or ‘The Moon’.
Your notes are simply wonderful. As I told you before, I think nothing beats your suggestion of what to do with Thousand Furs’ father, but you’ve got others too. Say your consideration of Disney’s Snow White film, how it is such a pull on any new telling of the original tale, and most delightfully that his dwarfs are “toddlers with beards.” Or how you resolved the dilemma of how many pieces to cut the snake in “The Three Snake Leaves.” Given the clear depth of your background reading, how did you decide what to put into these notes? Is there anything you reluctantly left out that you might want to tell us now?
Thank you. I’m always glad when people praise my notes, because I think they do say things that I think are worth saying. I was certain from the beginning that I wanted to follow each story with a few paragraphs (or less, or more) of commentary, and I wanted it to come immediately after the story and not tucked away at the back. The editors were happy to let me do it – in fact they were remarkably non-interfering throughout the whole process. I didn’t want to overburden the notes with scholarly stuff, because others – Jack Zipes, Maria Tatar – have done it already better than I ever could, and because my emphasis was always on how the story worked. I don’t think there’s anything important that I left out, but as I continue to think and talk about the stories I might think of a few more things to put in.
For those in particular who work with children and/or their books is there anything in particular you would want to say to them about these tales, about the Grimms, or about storytelling in general?
The one thing I’d emphasise to the most important people in this situation, namely students who are going to be teachers (most important because it’s in the early stages that we form all our habits), is this: whenever you can, don’t read stories like this to children: get them firmly into your head and tell them, face to face, without a book in your hands. These tales are not literature, which is written, they’re something else. I know it’s nerve-racking to put the book down and just tell, because the book is a protection in many ways (not least: if the session fails, you can blame the book instead of yourself). But it doesn’t really take much memory-effort to learn a story like The Little Tailor or The Three Little Men in the Woods. I don’t mean learn all the words by heart – far from it. I mean get the events in your head so you can relate them easily and confidently. If every young teacher could take the trouble to get two or three dozen stories in their head so they could tell them at a moment’s notice – and they’re not very big, they pack down very flat, there’s plenty of room for them in your brain – then they would never be at a loss how to fill that odd ten minutes at the end of a day, or how to calm down a class if they’re fractious and over-excited during a day when it’s raining and they can’t get out to run around, or if they want to start off a new project. And what’s more they last like nothing else. When thirty or forty years later you meet by chance one of the kids you used to teach, the one thing they’ll remember is that story you told that Friday afternoon about Orpheus and Eurydice, or The Goose-Girl, or Hades and Persephone, or Hansel and Gretel. They’ll forget Pythoagoras’s theorem or the names of the first five American Presidents or the principal exports of Brazil, but the story will still be there, and they’ll be grateful for it. Nothing is so valuable, so lasting, so deeply loved as stories. Why would anyone not seize at once, with both hands, the immense privilege of telling stories, when it’s so easy to achieve?
Oh, Philip, clearly you won’t let me off the hook and so I will now try to get past my self-consciousness and attempt to learn some tales to tell to my own students. Certainly yours are the perfect source material for that. My great thanks for taking the time to answer these questions.
To end, this lovely book trailer with a taste of Philip’s storytelling prowess:
I’ve long admired Harvard’s Maria Tatar for her varied work on children’s literature and folk lore. She’s done a number of fine annotated editions of classical books and tales including her latest, The Annotated Peter Pan. Today she has a very thoughtful article in the New York Times, “No More Adventures in Wonderland” in which she contrasts the older children’s books of J.M. Barrie and Lewis Carroll with more recent ones such as those of Neil Gaiman, Suzanne Collins, and Philip Pullman, noting that while the older and newer writers are both bridging the line between adult and child, they are doing so very differently.
While Carroll and Barrie were known for spending massive amounts of time with children (something quite acceptable then, but discomforting to us today), Tatar points out that “…Carroll and Barrie knew what children wanted in their stories precisely because they were so deeply invested in finding ways to win their attention and affection in real life.”
She contrasts this to current writers like Suzanne Collins who provide for their child readers,”… an unprecedented dose of adult reality in their books, sometimes without the redemptive beauty, cathartic humor and healing magic of an earlier time.”
For me all these brilliant writers who create imaginary worlds are cross-over writers. It is just that those from an earlier time have a very different orientation than those today. Carroll and Barrie were trying to create worlds of imaginative delight, safe places for readers of all ages to enter. In today’s stories,” writes Tatar, “those safety zones are rapidly vanishing as adult anxieties edge out childhood fantasy.”
Earlier this week I told my class about the Top 100 Children’s Book Poll and how my votes counted. I then wrote a post (over at my class blog) with my top ten list (and how I fared in the final voting) and an invitation for them to create their own lists. It is a fun assignments for avid readers. Here are some of their results:
RG’s top choice is The Hobbit “….because it’s amazing, has a story behind it and great characters.” Go here to see the rest of his list.
SB chose Hugo Cabret for number one. The rest of his list is here.
GN thinks her #1 Charlotte’s Web is, “…a classic. It’s touching, funny, and AMAZING!!!” See her list here.
FB’s top choice is His Dark Materials (hmmm…that is three books, but I can’t blame her). Her list is here.