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English

‘Northern Lights’ by Philip Pullman

Grace Woollard By Grace Woollard

‘Lyra and her daemon moved through the darkening Hall, taking care to keep to one side, out of sight of the kitchen.’

And so, with his opening sentence, Pullman sets the scene of this exciting fantasy story which introduces Lyra’s world: a parallel world where humans have daemons (physical manifestations of their souls) and the wayward Lyra is about to overhear a conversation which will change her life and the future of her world.

Northern Lights, the first in the trilogy of books which make up His Dark Materials, was published in 1995 to great acclaim. Much loved by both children and adults, it is set to gain a new generation of fans as the much-anticipated BBC adaptation comes to our screens. You may wish to capitalise on this enthusiasm by introducing the original text to your class.

There are many features of this book which make it fantastic for inspiring a Year 6 class:

  • a gripping plot which propels the reader easily through 400-odd pages
  • engaging and dynamic characters (including some enigmatic villains)
  • immersive and wide-ranging settings
  • rich writing which challenges and stimulates
  • great potential for triggering discussion, empathy, prediction and writing

If you were to pick one reason to share Northern Lights it could be for the strong characterisation. Lyra, the main character, is a fantastic mix of contradictions: she is a barbarian, a liar (known later as Lyra Silver Tongue), boastful, brave, big-hearted and irrepressible. Lord Asriel and Mrs Coulter challenge children to balance the ideas of charismatic exteriors and hidden motives. Pullman’s ear for dialogue means that characters can often be recognised by the register of their speech.

The plot of Northern Lights is ambitious and exhilarating. Lyra, in a bid to save her friend Rodger from the ‘Gobblers’, escapes kidnappers and travels from Oxford to Svalbard (by barge, ship, hot air balloon and polar bear). She encounters armoured bears, witches and uncovers terrible plot which has personal repercussions.

By plunging readers into an alternative world, Northern Lights is great for triggering discussion, speculation, description and explanation. Children can speculate what animal their daemon would be (Pullman has claimed raven); explain how an Alethiometer works; describe the view from a hot air balloon and discuss just what they think the mysterious Dust may be.

The novel can be enjoyed at many levels. While older readers may be interested in the allegorical depths, children can enjoy it as an exciting page-turner with a great set of characters, intriguing technology and powerfully atmospheric settings. Although it is a long novel, it is clearly separated into three parts. A teacher might share it as an engrossing class novel and select one part to focus in on for teaching. And when you have finished the book, there is a natural (and expanding) progression for your confident readers to follow.

  • Category: A classic text (with good reason)
  • Age: Years 5 and 6 (Upper Key Stage Two)
  • Topics: fantasy; science-fiction; characterisation; strong female characters; ambiguous characters; parallel worlds; quests; friendship; morality
  • Teaching areas: fiction writing; descriptive writing; characterisation; reports; recounts; explanations; discussion; persuasive writing; dialogue; register

English plans that use 'Northern Lights'

For teaching plans and resources using this book, see Hamilton's Year 6 English block, ‘Significant Authors: Northern Lights’. Children listen to, read and write about the novel, explore characters, make comparisons between different versions, revise clauses and subjunctive form and then pick up on one of the plot strands to write an ‘untold tale’.

Discover another of our favourite books: Dear Teacher by Amy Husband.