Philip Pullman's The Golden Compass, His Dark Materials
book I, was the 1996 winner of the prestigious Carnegie
Medal, England's highest honor for children's literature.
This text is from his acceptance speech for that prize.
“There are some themes, some subjects, too large
for adult fiction; they can only be dealt with adequately
in a children's book.
The reason for that is that in adult literary fiction,
stories are there on sufferance. Other things are
felt to be more important: technique, style, literary
knowingness. Adult writers who deal in straightforward
stories find themselves sidelined into a genre such
as crime or science fiction, where no one expects
But stories are vital. Stories never fail us because,
as Isaac Bashevis Singer says, "events never
grow stale." There's more wisdom in a story than
in volumes of philosophy. And by a story I mean not
only Little Red Riding Hood and Cinderella and Jack
and the Beanstalk but also the great novels of the
nineteenth century, Jane Eyre, Middlemarch, Bleak
House and many others: novels where the story is at
the center of the writer's attention, where the plot
actually matters. The present-day would-be George
Eliots take up their stories as if with a pair of
tongs. They're embarrassed by them. If they could
write novels without stories in them, they would.
Sometimes they do.
But what characterizes the best of children's authors
is that they're not embarrassed to tell stories. They
know how important stories are, and they know, too,
that if you start telling a story you've got to carry
on till you get to the end. And you can't provide
two ends, either, and invite the reader to choose
between them. Or as in a highly praised recent adult
novel I'm about to stop reading, three different beginnings.
In a book for children you can't put the plot on hold
while you cut artistic capers for the amusement of
your sophisticated readers, because, thank God, your
readers are not sophisticated. They've got more important
things in mind than your dazzling skill with wordplay.
They want to know what happens next.
Now I don't mean children are supernaturally wise
little angels gifted with the power of seeing the
truth that the dull eyes of adults miss. They're not.
They're ignorant little savages, most of them. But
they know what they need, and they go for it with
the intensity of passion, and what they need is stories.
Why do they spend so much time watching TV? They're
not watching documentaries about Eastern Europe or
programs about politics. They're watching drama, film,
story. They can't get enough of it. There's a hunger
for stories in all of us, adults too. We need stories
so much that we're even willing to read bad books
to get them, if the good books won't supply them.
We all need stories, but children are more frank about
it; cultured adults, on the other hand, those limp
and jaded creatures who think it more important to
seem sophisticated than to admit to simplicity, find
it harder both to write and to read novels that don't
come with a prophylactic garnish of irony.
But those adults who truly enjoy story, and plot,
and character, and who would like to find books in
which the events matter and which at the same time
are works of literary art where the writers have used
all the resources of their craft, could hardly do
better than to look among the children's books.
And there's a spin-off too, a social benefit. All
stories teach, whether the storyteller intends them
to or not. They teach the world we create. They teach
the morality we live by. They teach it much more effectively
than moral precepts and instructions. The current
campaign for moral education being waged by the Archbishop
of Canterbury and the Secretary of State for Education
and Training could achieve all it wants in the field
of moral education (and we all want a more moral society)
by simply making sure that the schools' library service
didn't die out. Give the books to the teachers, and
then leave them alone; give them time to read and
think and talk about the books with one another and
with their students, so that they can put the right
book into the hands of the right child at the right
We don't need lists of rights and wrongs, tables
of do's and don'ts: we need books, time, and silence.
Thou shalt not is soon forgotten, but Once upon a
time lasts forever.”