Aside from my students, I currently have no children of my own. But I do have a friend with two middle schoolers, for whom I occasionally get to play the role of the cool aunt. So I get to introduce them to things like tabletop games and books. And because they are both readers, and one of them loves, loves, loves fantasy the way I do, I felt a need to search for books she would like that featured the “strong female protagonist.” Because representation is important. And you know what I discovered? The list is surprisingly long. So today I’m going to talk about one of my favorite book series and the fabulous female at its center: Lyra Belaqua from Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy.
If you’re thinking that you’ve never heard of this trilogy, chances are you’ve at least heard of one of the books. The three books in the series are The Golden Compass, The Subtle Knife, and the Amber Spyglass, and Compass got its own movie adaptation in 2007. It also got a lot of hype for being controversial. The controversy is fairly legitimate, so I’m going to talk about that first.
Compass, and the whole series, is controversial due to its portrayal of religion, specifically the Catholic church–which is shown as controlling and evil (and, on that note, so is God). In that sense, you could say that the book is not for the faint of heart. Pullman does not pull his punches when showing his dislike for religious institutions, and if you are religious, this element of the story may put a bad taste in your mouth. I have several friends who have read it, and in regards to those who are religious, some were bothered more than others. But those who were definitely had reason to be.
So why, if it’s so controversial, would it be my first recommendation. Let me paraphrase from an article I read when the film was first released: the main character is a young girl who is, to put it simply, awesome. And young girls should read about her. Because she’s a hero.
And an unconventional hero at that, and not in the least because she is a girl. The thing that Lyra is most notable for (and most talented at) is lying. Ironically, she is a natural at using the golden compass–an item that reveals the truth. Despite being a liar, she has child-like honor–viewing good and evil as black and white and embarking on a quest to save her friend who has disappeared. Along the way, she finds an adventure bigger than she could have imagined and learns about the many shades of gray that paint the morality of our world.
Though Pullman picks on religion, he also uses it to make his point–that good and evil are not black and white. The knowledge of this destroys innocence, but what is lost is a fair trade for free will. And the only way to properly build Heaven (whether you’re talking the literal afterlife or just making our world a better place) is through co-operation. If it is done through coercion and control, it is not true. While this may be harder to achieve, it is the better outcome.
If you’re not into the philosophical discussion, read the book the worldbuilding. In Lyra’s world, everyone has a deamon–an animal companion who embodies their soul. There are armored bears with a unique culture of their own, and if you get deep enough into the series, elephant-like creatures that use large nuts as wheels. Or read it because Pullman’s writing is simply beautiful. For example, while reading a scene in which Lyra must separate herself from her daemon, I truly felt like my soul was being ripped out. I had such a reaction that I felt a literal pain in my chest, which did not go away until I finished the scene (which, due to having to go to class, was several hours later.) Through Lyra, Pullman creates a story that is both epic fantasy and coming-of-age adventure. It is masterfully written, and girls who read it will relate to Lyra’s hopes and fears, as well as be inspired by her bravery. Because nothing should stop you from sailing around the world and befriending an armored bear (least of all your gender).
A note on the film adaptation: It has been some time since I compared the book and film versions of The Golden Compass. As I recall, the film, for the most part, tends to follow all the major parts of the book correctly, though it treads lightly over the religious aspects and it ends a few chapters too early. But seeing as neither The Subtle Knife nor the Amber Spyglass were ever adapted, perhaps that is for the best.