Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Banned Book Week: The Golden Compass (And Why Kids Should Read It)

It's Banned Book Week over here on YA Stands! I don't usually write bookish posts here, but I was given a pass this week to talk about one of my favorite banned books ever.


A friend of my mother's gave me The Golden Compass when I was eleven, saying, "I think you'd like this."

I still don't know why I never read it back then. It sat on the little shelf built into my bed for eight years, just waiting for me to open its cover. I even took it to college with me, still intent on picking it up and reading it someday.

As a senior, I found the sequel, The Subtle Knife, and its compatriot, The Amber Spyglass, in a $1 Powell's book sale. The covers given to His Dark Materials back then--before that fairly unsuccessful movie came out--were less than sexy. I could see why eleven-year-old me wasn't particularly lured into reading it, what with Animorphs and The Dragonriders of Pern lying around.

I powered through the whole series in a weekend. It stuck with me for weeks afterward. No, months; maybe years. I suppose years is the right answer because here I am, still mulling it over, still thinking about Will and Lyra and how no book will ever quite do what His Dark Materials did.

The Golden Compass shows up twice on the ALA's Top 10 Frequently Challenged Books list: in 2007, when the movie was released, and again in 2008. Cited reasons? "Religious viewpoint" in 2007, and "political viewpoint," in 2008.

Having read the series, I laughed it off when I was first told The Golden Compass was a frequently banned book. It's a spectacular fantasy (brilliant, imaginative, all those other fabulous words) inside a fairly close facsimile of our own world, with a truly delightful twist.

Until a friend of our family back home told me he would never let his children read it, for "atheist undertones." I was aghast. An intelligent person--someone I respected--was going to keep this book away from his children because he was afraid they would be exposed to viewpoints other than his own; that it might influence them in some damaging way.

I won't deny the close parallel between the Church in His Dark Materials and the Catholic one in terms of structure, clergy, and scripture; I can see why some religious groups might fidget. In Pullman's novels, the Church uses their power and intense dogmatism to oppress.

Pullman defends his "agenda" in a great video on Beliefnet. He has true words of wisdom that can apply to all challenged books:

"I trust the reader; I trust the audience; I trust them to have the sense to see what qualities the book is championing."

Even better--and points with which I completely agree in regard to The Golden Compass: "The qualities the book celebrates are... kindness, love, courage, and courtesy."

Knowing what a fabulous, quality book series it is, it bums me out to think of how many kids won't read it. How does one raise thinking, feeling adults if they're never exposed to other "religious and political" viewpoints?

The Golden Compass hasn't risen to the top of the banned book list again since 2008, though I don't doubt it's still routinely challenged. As long as books have power, that power will be feared. But I would hardly be the person I am today if I hadn't encountered a few new and challenging ideas in my life.

Viva the banned books!

Read more of Kiersi's book reviews and writing advice on her blog, The Prolific Novelista, or follow her on Twitter at @kiersi.


  1. I think it's good for kids to be exposed to other viewpoints. Why not?

  2. I could not agree more. Not only does the author have to trust the reader, but we parents have to trust our kids (and our own parenting). Exposing children to all different viewpoints, while making it clear what you believe and why, will only make them more sure and confident of their own viewpoints because they're given the power of choice.

    1. You are so right on about the power of choice. Exploring all the options and making an educated decision makes your belief and integrity in that decision so much stronger!

  3. Great post. I just ordered this book for my eleven year old.
    Just a thought: Do atheists ever ban books?
    ~Just Jill

    1. Ha! Thanks, Jill :) That's a good question! There are tons of religious books out there for teens, and those aren't banned...

  4. Great post. Personally, I loved the character-and-world-building of TGC but found the anti-Catholic harangue off-putting (and I'm not even Catholic). But that's no reason to ban the book.

    1. Thanks! It does make you wonder what his beef was with the Catholic church. I'd be curious about his upbringing.

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  6. I agree with Kelly, Kiersi. Although I am a practicing Catholic, we can't rip away or try to hide other viewpoints from our youth. This enables them to be more well-rounded by opening their minds to all of the fact and fiction that exits within this world. More importantly, when you enforce such rules and restrictions on children and what they are and are not aloud to read, it only ignites questions regardless. Humans are capable of making up their own minds and kids shouldn't be any different. When children are raised Catholic, a book might bring questions to the table, but as far as it have the capability to trash one's beliefs, that all depends on the believer him/herself; not the book. Great post!

  7. The best books are the ones that are powerful and can challenge our thoughts. These are the books that should be celebrated, not banned. And I believe kids should have the right to access all of these books. These books can teach them far more about themselves than they had known before reading them. And if a book can change a life, impact it, like The Golden Compass impacted you, well that's simply amazing! :)