judging a book by its cover

Judging a Book by Its Cover: The Golden Compass

(This post was originally published at my old blog.)

I never used to buy a book until I had read it. This was in school, when I had access to a well stocked public library and parents who were happy to take me to the library at least once a week. When I got older, I would walk there after school every day with my BFF.

Only once I had decided I loved a book would I go buy it. (Exceptions were made for Redwall and Harry Potter new releases, because I knew for sure I would like it.)

Somewhere along the line, I think I owned a set of His Dark Materials books. I was so strict about my book buying (or perhaps, my parents were so strict about it) that I even waited the two months it took for someone with The Subtle Knife out overdue to return it so I could find out what happens next – but I got it eventually, and I loaned it out, and it was never seen again.

The Golden CompassThis is the version my mom checked out from the Johnson State College library children’s section for me one summer during TDI. I read it sitting in the dorm closet/wardrobe in the dorm room I shared with my mother. (They ran a “TDI for Grown-ups” back then, too, and it was my first time at sleepaway camp.)

This is also the edition we have in the secondary library at my school. It’s in rough shape by now, but it’s not so ugly that my students tell me, “I don’t want to touch it.” (That’s an actual student quote about an older edition of A Wrinkle in Time.)

When I eventually admitted that I was probably never going to see my copies again, if I ever even had a copy, I decided to go find a new edition. I was so frustrated, because it was right around the time the movie came out and they all had the printed-on “sticker” announcing “NOW A MAJOR MOTION PICTURE.” As a book collector, this was an unacceptable blemish.

The Golden CompassI eventually found a special edition hardcover, with bonus additional materials. It does still have a “sticker” on the front cover, but at least it’s advertising the new material instead of that awful movie.

From a book collector’s perspective, it’s a nice cover. As a librarian, I don’t think this is the version I would want. It doesn’t tell me anything about the story. It’s a collector’s edition, for people who already know the story, but it wouldn’t tell my students anything about what’s inside. The version I first read told me there was a girl, at least – an important factor for me, then and now – and a bear and a mouse, and it took place somewhere cold. (The British title gives a better idea of the setting with Northern Lights, but I like the continuity of titles in the American editions.)

Another consideration is the age range implied by the cover art. The version I own is the “adult” cover, but His Dark Materials has been published as everything from children’s/Middle Grade, to YA, to adult. Our school only has a copy in the secondary library, but elementary students may visit to check it out. (We don’t often double up on copies for budgetary reasons.)

The Golden CompassThis Spanish edition looks like a kids’ book. It would fit in comfortably with my collection in the elementary school, and I think the high schoolers would pass it over as too “childish.”

I like that this tells me a lot about the story, more than most editions. We have a girl, a bear, a man, a cliffghast and and a woman. You can’t, however, see anyone’s dæmons. I remember flipping back to the front cover of the version I read and realizing the little mouse was Pantalaimon. I guess this cover has the same pleasures of realization: oh, so that‘s Lyra, and Iorek, and Lee Scorseby, and Serefina!

The Golden CompassI like this Dutch edition a lot. If I had free choice for a new copy, and this cover was available in English, I would want this one for the secondary library. It looks like a YA book, but it still says a lot about the story: the bridge to the stars, the alethiometer, and Lyra herself. The cover is a lot darker over all, which I think fits the story better, and it adds to the “older” feeling of the book. The detailed illustrations make it feel less childlike, but students might find the style dated, and kids are harsh art critics when it comes to book covers.

(Why isn’t she wearing gloves? Are her fingers freezing to that gold?)

This is the only cover so far that doesn’t feature Iorek. I guess huge armored talking polar bears are just that awesome.

The Golden CompassMost of the covers depict one of a few scenes. This German edition shows the same point as the American edition that I read in school, or the scene just before the Dutch cover. The Spanish edition above is the only one to show a completely different part of the book, although Iorek still features.

I wonder why this scene, and not something in Oxford or London? Is it the “Rule of Cool”? Some other reason?

Only one version goes a different way, and that’s this American version from Scholastic, which features a Balthus painting that we’re probably supposed to think is Lyra, possibly in the dining hall at Oxford?

The Golden CompassThis must be one of those editions for “grown-ups,” because it would be a hard sell to most kids. It lacks the action and adventure in the other covers – hot air balloons! polar bears! witches! cities in the sky! Lyra is dynamic and active in those covers, in hot air balloons, riding bears, reading her “golden compass” by the light of the aurora where she can see a city in the sky! This Lyra is still, stiff, and the painting is dark.

As a “grown-up,” I think I prefer the hardback special edition I bought. It harkens back to the fact that this is a children’s book, even if you’re reading it as an adult.

2016 update: The thing about dropping everything and moving abroad is this: You can’t bring all of your treasured hardbacks with you. In fact, when I arrived in Japan, I had two books: The Vampire Lestat, and The Girl With No Shadow. (That’s another story for another time.)

Well, it’s been five years now and I’m getting settled in, and getting settled in means getting books. I run the Scholastic Book Club for my school, and so one time, I finally bought myself the special 20th anniversary edition with the shiny cover – and it’s beautiful.



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