3 thought-provoking novels not just for kids
One of the biggest trends in publishing in recent years has been the emergence of ‘cross-over fiction” – novels written for teen readers which can also be enjoyed by adults. J.K Rowling set the trend with her Harry Potter series and it’s continued with the Stephanie Myers’ Twilight series, Hunger Games, Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night; The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas; The Book Thief etc etc Here are three ‘cross-over” novels I’ve read in the last year which all can be enjoyed by young readers but which contain plenty of material to get adults thinking…
Northern Lights by Philip Pullman
First of all a confession. I hated this book the first time I read it. If it hadn’t been required reading for my children’s literature course I would never have even considered reading this. It’s in the fantasy genre which is never my cup of tea. We not only get anthropomorphic animals – in the shape of armoured bears with human-level intelligence – but Pullman introduces some weird fictional beings called “dæmons” that are the companions of humans and accompany them everywhere. Both these elements were guaranteed to get me squirming with discomfort. I struggled through the book and was relieved to get to the end.
But such is the nature of reading for academic purposes that reading a set text once is not enough. So I gritted my teeth and entered once more the parallel universe in which Northern Lights is set. And you know what; after a while I actually began to appreciate that what Pullman has created a book that can be enjoyed in two vastly different ways.
One one level this is a pure adventure story of good versus evil. Lyra Belacqua, an orphaned girl, sets off on a quest in search of her friend Roger who’s gone missing. There are plenty of narrow escapes and thrilling moments to keep younger readers entertained – this is a world that crawls with danger in the form of gobblers who snatch children and academics who use poison. Lyra makes her way through this world with the aid of a golden compass which acts like a lie detector and one of those armoured polar bears.
For readers who want more thought-provoking content, Pullman introduces a mysterious celestial phenomena called ‘Dust.” This, Lyra discovers, has spawned parallel universes, is connected to death and misery, and is believed to be the physical basis of original sin. Dust accumulates only around adults, not around children who are more ‘innocent’ and unconscious beings. Her adopted uncle Lord Asriel believes ‘Dust” is a force for evil and wants Lyra’s help to destroy it. This is a novel that explores big themes: the conflict between the powers of science and religion; innocence versus knowledge; the soul versus the human body. Apparently Pullman’s intention was for Northern Lights to be “A rewriting of Milton’s Paradise Lost,” for young adults, hence the ideas of Dust and daemons are meant to be read allegorically. I have a feeling this is a book that could easily be re-read several times for that reason. I’m glad I gave it a second chance.
Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry by Mildred Taylor
This is another powerful novel which asks big questions, this time about racism and poverty. It’s set in southern Mississippi during the years of the Great Depression and has a wonderful narrator in the form of nine-year-old Cassie Logan. She’s a strong-willed girl with a fiery temper, whose family fights to hold onto the land that rightfully belongs to them. It’s through her that we experience attitudes towards the black population of the state and see the catastrophic effects when some local people take the law into their own hands. For young readers the content around school and friendship would likely be of interest but for older readers there is a lot of darker material with lynch mobs and arson. I thought the first few chapters were bogged down by too much exposition and the narrative voice didn’t always feel like that of a young girl. But the remainder of the novel was a compelling story about dignity in the face of injustice.
Mortal Engines by Phillip Reeve
I had no idea when I started reading this book that it fell into the category of ‘steampunk’. Frankly I had no idea what that term even meant. Good old Wikipedia came to my rescue by explaining that steampunk is a “subgenre of science fiction or science fantasy that incorporates technology and aesthetic designs inspired by 19th-century industrial steam-powered machinery. ” Glad we got that cleared up. It does describe Mortal Engines pretty well since this is an alternative history kind of novel which imagines a post-apocalyptic world of Traction Cities – giant mobile machines that roam a land torn apart by earthquakes and volcanoes. London, the primary traction city, has to hunt down and dismantle other cities and towns to ‘feed’ itself. This is a fast-paced action novel with two teenagers as the heroes who uncover a sinister plot by the city’s Lord Mayor and get into plenty of scrapes and near misses as they try to block his plans. My problem with science fiction/fantasy novels is usually that the imaginary world doesn’t feel realistic enough or that the narrative is stuffed full of technical info that I don’t find interesting let alone understandable. But Reeve’s imaginary world is so superbly conceived I had a whale of a time reading this book. Like Northern Lights, it can be read as an adventure story but it also has some powerful ideas about nuclear warfare, the value of learning from history. In our current volatile world, it’s not a huge stretch of the imagination to envisage these traction cities like countries always on the prowl for other nations to swallow.
15 thoughts on “3 thought-provoking novels not just for kids”
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Really interesting post. This has made me think about books of this kind and I’ve read more than i realise. Going to have a look at these now x
I read Roll of thunder when I was a kid, loved it. Read Golden Compass when it was all the rage and liked that too but never managed to get around to reading the rest of the the series. Haven’t heard of the last one but I do enjoy a good steampunk book now and then so I will have to add it to my list. Are you enjoying your class?
I’ve had to pull out of the course unfortunately because of medical issues. It was interesting in part though the module on Peter Pan was tedious since it’s a dreadfully written play and the multiple film versions were horrid.
What a shame you had to pull out of the course. What a surprise about Peter Pan though, it is so lodged in popular imagination I would have thought it better than that!
There is a set of books revolving around the Logan family, but I’ve only read Roll of Thunder (twice) and a skinny one out of sequence, which reminded me that I needed to start over and do it properly! Love Pullman’s trilogy and I haven’t heard of Mortal Engines, but it sounds like a blast, so I will have a closer look!
Mortal Engines is also a trilogy so if you like the first run you’ll have more pleasure to come
I don’t read much YA (although have read Twilight and Hunger Games to see what all the fuss was about!). I think the best ‘crossover’ I’ve read lately is Counting by 7s by Holly Sloan – a really lovely story.
I have not read the last two books in the list. I have read Northern Lights and yes, there are so many elements that need to be analyzed allegorically.
I loved Northern Lights. The second book, The Subtle Knife, was not liked by some, but it is action-packed and concise, plus I tend to be forgiving of a second novels shortcomings, since its main purpose is to set up the third. Unfortunately, I found the third to be the weakest of the three. I still enjoyed it but it is far slower and does drag on a little. I’ve heard that Pullman is returning to that universe and a new series of novels is expected. It is a shame that the film series did not eventuate. The film of the Northern Lights was pretty decent and well-cast, but they did not continue, apparently objections from religious Americans put the studio off.
May have said this before, but I utterly loved Mortal Engines, and all its sequels. It’s dark, very dark, but brilliant, one of the best series of kids books out there – and I hear it is being turned into a film, which could be awesome.
I’d like to read Roll of Thunder. I thought the book I just finished had a bit of a cross-over feel to it: A Tale for the Time Being … part of it narrated by a teenager seemed totally YA to me, while the other part narrated by adult was not. Half & half.
I agree with you on Northern Lights, which I read as an adult and will no doubt read again. I don’t know the other books, but I would like to add one to your list: Coram Boy by Jamila Gavin. A really gripping historical novel with an exciting plot and believable characters.
I’ll have to check these out. Harriet the Spy is one of my favorite ‘not only for children’ books. Best, DG.
Roll of Thunder was required reading for me in school. I haven’t thought about that book in many years.
I read Northern Lights about five years ago and didn’t really see what the fuss was all about; I’ve not read the sequels. But I do wonder if I should give Pullman another try.
The one steampunk novel I’ve read (Angelmaker by Nick Harkaway) was such fun!