The Book That Made Me: Anna James

Published on: 06 September 2020

What's a book you read as a child and stayed with you through to adulthood? For Pages & Co author Anna James, it was Philip Pullman's Northern Lights. She explains how the world of armoured bears, aeronautical balloons and cherished dæmons made her the person she is today.

Author Anna James and the cover of Philip Pullman's Northern LightsThe cover of Northern Lights by Philip Pullman and author Anna James

There is, of course, no other way for me to start this than joining the chorus of authors who have gone before me protesting the impossibility of the task. No reader, and no writer, is made of just one book. My longlist includes Anne of Green Gables by LM Montgomery, Momo by Michael Ende and Charmed Life by Diana Wynne Jones but if asked to just choose one I will almost always plump for Northern Lights by Philip Pullman, or if you’ll allow me to, I’d stretch it to the whole His Dark Materials trilogy.

A slightly unusual choice

I was bought Northern Lights by my Grandad when I was eleven. The same Christmas he bought my little sister Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, both having been recommended to him by his local bookseller. Books were always a huge part of my relationship with my Grandad – who himself collected Rupert the Bear annuals - and we often arrived at their home in the Scottish Borders to find a new book waiting for us. My Grandad took incredible care choosing books for us, with the help of the aforementioned bookseller, whom he would report back to on what we had enjoyed.

Which is why Northern Lights was a slightly unusual choice in some respects. I grew up in a (very happy) but very religious family and community. This is both a big spoiler and a hugely reductive summary, but Philip Pullman’s series is in many ways about literally killing God. Which is why it was perhaps a surprising choice – although of course there were only allusions to this in book one, and a more fantastical lens on the church. But it kicks up a gear in the second book, The Subtle Knife, and goes all out in its finale, The Amber Spyglass.

 Anna James as a child and with her grandad.Photos courtesy of Anna James.

Questioning the ways of the world

In the spirit of honesty, I started reading the book immediately but I was too young for it and didn’t get very far. But I picked it back up a year or two later, and it was transformative – in several ways. Primarily, of course, it is just brilliant, life-affirming storytelling that made me a better reader and a better writer. The trilogy also gave me my first experience of the idea of books being published – I’d never had to wait for a book I wanted to read before and I hounded my local Waterstones asking if they knew when the third book was coming out.

But more profoundly they started to put the first cracks in my acceptance of what I had been told about how the world worked. The books, especially Lyra, taught me – without me really realising at the time - important lessons about challenging authority, standing up for what you believe to be right even when it is hard and complicated, and about following your own path – things I hope I have passed on to my characters in my own books. They showed me that people you love, who love you, might not always do, say, or believe in things that you agree with, but that there is always a road through.

And they were given to me by my Grandad – who believed in god and in the church but also, I think or at least hope, about what I took from the books. My Grandad died while I was at university, and I will never really know about his own individual relationship with his faith, why he chose that book for me, whether he even had any idea what was in it. I miss him very sharply, and I wish very much that he could have seen me be published. He would have been so proud and I wish I could have gone with him to the bookshop he bought me so many books from to see my own story.

Illustration from the cover of Northern Lights by Philip PullmanIllustration from the cover of Northern Lights by Philip Pullman

The magic of children's books

One of the greatest privileges of being a writer is creating things that exist beyond you and endure after you. My heroine, Tilly, lives with her grandparents in their bookshop and it won’t come as much of a surprise having read this that much of Tilly’s Grandad – especially in the first book – came from my own relationship with my Grandad. At the start of the series Tilly doesn’t quite know who she is yet, or what she stands for, but her Grandad gives her books that help her along the way. My Grandad is not here to see my books be published, but he is in them – his kindness and love and support, but also his tendency towards giggling fits and his sweet tooth.

Pages & Co is about literal and metaphorical book magic, and there is little more magical than the way that books open our minds to the biggest and most complicated of ideas. And children’s fiction is the most potent of this magic because these ideas come carried on the backs of armoured bears, in the balloons of aeronauts or on the cloud pine branches of witches against the backdrop of the northern lights. 

Anna James is the author of the Pages & Co series. Her latest novel in the series, Tilly and the Map of Stories, is published on 17 September. The first book in the series, Tilly and the Bookwanderers, is reviewed here.


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