I first encountered The Golden Compass at summer camp.
I didn’t realize the significance of the book my mother handed to me. This was TDI, and I was in fifth, maybe sixth grade. That year, they ran a strand for grown-ups, teachers I guess. It was my first ever time at sleepaway camp, and my mother and I shared a dorm. I went to an outdoorsy day camp for a few years, but I never adored it, not the way I loved TDI.
I don’t remember why I climbed into the dorm-room wardrobe to read. Perhaps I wanted to be like Lyra, who we meet just before she climbs into a wardrobe herself to hide.
I do remember that I didn’t “get” it, not at first. It was a struggle. I didn’t understand what was going on. What were dæmons? What was Dust? It was tough, but I was determined not to give up. Maybe it’s just because I was at a summer camp for “gifted” students and I wanted to prove that I belonged there, too. I don’t remember; at the time, it didn’t seem like a life-changing thing, so I didn’t give it any more or less thought than any of the numerous books I read.
I wish I remembered better, because it did change my life. More than Redwall, more than The Lord of the Rings. Maybe even more than Harry Potter, His Dark Materials changed my entire reading life. I’m glad I pushed through my initial confusion, because by the time Lyra stood on the bridge to the stars, I was hooked. I had to know what happened next, although (you may remember) I waited all summer for The Subtle Knife to come in at my local public library. (I begged my mother to use her Johnson State College library card to get it for me, but that was far from where we lived.)
I never wrote fanfiction about it. I was never part of the “fandom,” exactly, but I debated my friends fiercely on the finer points of dæmonology and Dust, online and off. I couldn’t stop thinking about it, and I never really did. When I went through a bad friend break-up, these were the first books I returned to during what turned into months and months of rereading, and it was like coming home.
We have to build the Republic of Heaven where we are, because for us there is no elsewhere.
Every time I reread, I find something new, another piece of wisdom I’d missed, another understanding I uncover as I grow older; this is the power of children’s literature, and rereading – two of my favorite things as a reader.
Still, these are hard to introduce to my students. They are difficult books. I suggested it to one student, one of my highest readers, and when I asked if she liked it, she said it was “too weird.”
I tried not to take it personally. I fretted to my mother, who first put this book in my hands maybe fifteen years ago, that I had ruined the experience of this book for my student by suggesting it too early. Maybe all this student will remember is the struggle to get into a book that was “too weird” for her.
I tend to be a book evangelist in my daily life – aren’t most librarians? – but there’s something extra special about this one. I don’t suggest it willy-nilly to just anyone. It’s not that kind of book. I worried that it was ruined forever in this student’s mind.
But my favorite books don’t have to be my students’ favorite books – or vise-versa. It’s not that I hope to get this book into their hands. It’s that I want them to find their golden compass, the book that points the way, that tells them the truth.
Tell them stories.