I remember the first time I received a phone call. I was 13 and it was a weekday. My mum answered. I was up in my room and thought nothing of it, as no one ever called the house for me. When my mum called me downstairs, I got very scared, very quickly. My brain made the calculation that the only people that would call me would be teachers from my school. I had tried to explain to them that my mum wasn’t like the other mums; calling my house to speak to her about my bad behaviour would genuinely put my life in danger. My mum has always been inscrutable and so when she handed me the phone, I didn’t know if it was to be my last night. To my surprise (and relief) It was my friend who had called, demanding that I read Northern Lights. He was insistent; I think he might have made it a condition of our continued friendship. After promising that I would get it the next day, and promising my mum that I wouldn’t hand out the number to any more of my “little friends”, I went back to my room to continue doing my homework (?…-Ed)… reading a book (??…-Ed)… ok fine, to continue playing on my computer games.
I had enjoyed reading as a child. At primary school, I was a voracious reader and devoured the classics. To this day, there is a well-worn set of Roald Dahl books on my bookshelf at my mum’s house that I flick through whenever I visit. I could relate to his protagonists, because they were children, often poor and often came from broken families. Any money I had was spent at Volume One and the small independent bookshops where I lived. These shops were my Narnia: I would visit with 50 pence or a pound if I had saved up and buy whatever I could afford. My mum indulged me in my reading habit and would complain good-naturedly about how quickly I read. My 9th birthday was special; my mum had got me copies of The Jungle Book and Peter Pan by Kipling and Barrie. Her words as I dashed upstairs, books in hand were, “Ha! You won’t be asking for new books for a while…”
I stayed up all night and finished both of them, a fact I proudly conveyed in the morning through bleary eyes, explaining how they were different from the Disney versions.
Secondary school changed all of that. Between going to an all boys school, the first rush of hormones and a growing awareness of my own identity, reading went from being a joy to a necessary evil. Looking back, it was also because a lot of the things I read had protagonists that I didn’t recognise. The heroes that looked like me were long dead American political figures like Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, playing sports or making music, so I started to gravitate towards those. If there were stories where the working class were the heroes, they weren’t being sold in the bookshops of Canterbury. As much as I loved Edmund and Lucy, Frank and Joe and Peter and Wendy, I could relate to their lives about as well as they could have related to jerk chicken, Shabba Ranks and Marcus Garvey, winter stews (where the big pot would be on all winter and whatever vegetables and cuts of meat that were cheap would go in. It was delicious, because my mum was the Albus Dumbledore of cooking), the anguish of asking for the money for a school trip, even though you knew money was tight and the constant dull pain of having an absent father.
Which brings me back to Northern Lights. I was slightly sceptical when I started reading it. A story set in the halls of an Oxford college, even an Oxford college that was in another world, was not immediately appealing. But as I read on, Lyra’s sense of not belonging closely matched the imposter syndrome I felt at my grammar school and the heroes of the story, at least for me, Ma Costa and John Faa, were clearly working class, not presented as comic relief, but important and central to the story. Northern Lights did much to reignite my love of reading, a love that I haven’t neglected since.
I start university next week and I’m already thinking about doing a PhD. I want to look at the absence of the “urban space” in classic children’s literature of the 20th century and whether more inclusion this century will lead to improvements in those same spaces. I read (and loved) Narnia, Harry Potter and Northern Lights, but they are essentially middle class stories about independent school kids, which isn’t wrong, but also isn’t representative of the experience of the majority. This century has seen much more representation and I want to look at if it has led to improvements for the children and families that have new found representation. I look forward to researching and feeding back in the future.