The news that Philip Pullman's novel The Amber Spyglass has been included in the longlist for the Booker Prize this year has caused a frown of dismay to cross the faces of some commentators. That's because The Amber Spyglass, and the trilogy to which it belongs, has been marketed as children's literature from its first appearance. Where next, ask some. Will Harry Potter's next outing be included? Would The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, if published now, be eligible to join those Booker stalwarts, Beryl Bainbridge and Ian McEwan?
And why not, ask others. Those fuzzy demarcations – literary fiction, popular fiction, adult's literature, children's literature, teen fiction, faction, memoir-as-fiction – are only lines drawn in the sand to try to reassure those who would like to keep literature in little boxes. As the recent surge in the popularity of so-called children's books such as Harry Potter or The Amber Spyglass suggests, people who like reading will read everything, and when they find something that shows imagination and energy they will fall on it greedily, even if they are, theoretically, 20 years too old for it.
I wasn't a fan of Philip Pullman's bizarre trilogy at first. I found it too fey and too self-indulgent in its whimsical stitching together of myth and realism. But by the time I reached the end of The Amber Spyglass, I was won over. I saw that, weird and woolly as his imagination might seem at first, Pullman had managed to create a precisely realised universe that also had an unusual moral force.
Much of the literature produced in Britain at the moment suffers from a fatal lack of ambition. And the great round of prizes, reviews, advances and gossip is constantly puffing up books that are, in the main, pretty ordinary.
What is so refreshing about Philip Pullman – and also about his colleague in the renaissance of children's literature, J K Rowling – is that he is crazily ambitious. Both of these writers want to create universes that are imagined down to the smallest detail and up to the grandest metaphor, and to take their protagonists on quests that go all the way from innocence to experience.
It reflects well on this Booker Prize jury that they have allowed themselves to be seduced by this grandiose ambition. Year after year, there is a weary predictability about the prize-giving circuit. There is a certain book that typifies the Booker prizewinner – something reasonably well-written and reasonably intelligent and reasonably serious, that could have been written at any time in the last 50 years and will never turn into anyone's favourite book.
But with a book like The Amber Spyglass you are aware that something quite different is going on. You can fault it – on all sorts of grounds – but there is no doubt that it stands well apart from the typical Booker prizewinner and that prizewinner's small, polite, hushed presence on our bookshelves.
The question of it being marketed to children would be a moot point if that had led Pullman to scale down his vision. But unlike so many writers for children and teenagers, Pullman hasn't tried to reduce his work's complexity in order to appeal to his audience. Above all, he doesn't – as so many of the great writers for children did in the past – try to keep children in a box of innocence. This was the imaginative failing of writers such as C S Lewis, J R R Tolkien, E Nesbit or Arthur Ransome. For them, childhood was a land of perfect innocence. Their characters lived in an eternal state of pre-adolescence. For Lucy and Edmund, for Frodo and Bilbo, there can be no worldly experience, no sexual knowledge. Such writers had no desire to reflect children's complexity. That's one reason why it would have felt out of place for such children's books to be judged alongside writers for adults.
But writers such as Pullman or Rowling do allow their child protagonists to grow up. In the last Harry Potter book, Harry and Hermione begin to fancy other kids at school and to get caught up in the self-consciousness of adolescence. At the end of The Amber Spyglass, Pullman wholeheartedly celebrates sexual experience. In such books, childhood is not a separate, becalmed state, but is criss-crossed by knowledge and experience.
Of course, these works lack much that the best books written for adults take for granted – above all, any sense of irony and any accommodation to the disappointments of the real world. But for so many contemporary writers too much reliance on irony and disappointment has simply narrowed their horizons. Perhaps we need this new flaring of energy in children's literature to lead us out of the well-trodden paths of so much of what we read.
At least when you get to the end of The Amber Spyglass, and Pullman's rousing exhortation to build the republic of heaven in one's own lifetime, you know that you are in the presence of a writer with a spark of real ambition – and that's too rare to be kept just for the children.